Electronic waste rules: In letter, but without spirit
Ever wondered what happens to your old mobile phones, computers, television sets and refrigerators the moment you discard them? They are most likely to land in an unauthorised scrap yard waiting to be recycled in a hazardous and unscientific manner — causing great damage to the environment. The rapid growth of the information technology sector in India has only contributed to this problem of accumulating e-waste or electronic waste.
The government finally woke up to this growing problem a couple of years ago when studies by its information technology department estimated the e-waste burden on the country to touch 800,000 metric tonnes by December. It responded by framing the e-waste (management and handling) rules – 2011 which came into effect this month. While the rules seem impressive on paper, environmental groups have expressed concerns about its ability to bring about change due to the sheer oversight of the ground situation.
To begin with, the rules put India along with a select club of nations like the United States and many in Europe to have legislation to regulate and manage electronic waste. Not just that, the rules also propose several ambitious measures to regulate waste.
For instance, according to government data, close to 95 percent of all the electronic waste is currently recycled by the unauthorised sector — scrap dealers. They usually resort to recycling methods that cause great damage to environment and human health, according to various studies conducted by environmental agencies including the Central Pollution Control Board. Printed circuit boards and electronic parts are usually immersed in chemical solutions or burnt to extract small amounts of metals.
The newly framed rules aim to change this situation by entrusting the responsibility of collection and safe disposal of waste with the manufacturers of electronic goods. It mandates manufacturers to collect electronic scrap directly from consumers and route them to authorised recycling centres across the country. The rules also try to address other issues such as restricting the usage of hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, PCB, PVR and BFR in electronics.
But all these promising measures in the paper seem far from changing the ground scenario. Here is why.
The environment ministry proposed the electronic waste rules about a year ago, providing companies and other groups affected by the rules enough time to put systems in place for effective compliance before they come into effect this month.
If observations made by environmental NGOs are anything to go by, efforts over the past year to improve disposal mechanisms have been negligible. For instance, information on electronic scrap collection centres for consumers has not been made available in many major cities.
The rules also do not mention the number of collection points, number of authorised recyclers required in cities or the amount of waste to be collected and disposed. Environmentalists believe that this might result in manufacturers setting up a few symbolic collection centres across the country which might not be able to deal with the quantity of waste produced.
For instance, the second largest electronic waste-producing state in the country — Tamil Nadu (responsible for 13 percent of the total waste produced in India) — has only one recycler for the entire state. Other states face similar problems.
Even if the manufacturers and policymakers decide to open more collection centres, bigger problems remain, including persuading people to deliver their old computers and other products to collection centres instead of going to scrap dealers.
But when the local dealer pays handsomely for the scrap, it is doubtful that many would choose to return the waste to the manufacturer for free. Ever since the rules were being made, environmentalists have been negotiating with the government to provide some incentive to people who use electronics so they volunteer to turn in their devices to the companies to get them recycled. But this has not featured in the rules.
Furthermore, according to the study by the Department of Information Technology, there are more than 3,000 scrap dealers across the country. Unless these scrap dealers are given a chance to participate in an authorised recycling system, they will only fight harder to stay in business.
The rules are also completely oblivious to the electronic waste that is imported into the country. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment estimates that close to 50,000 metric tonnes of electronic scrap is imported into the country every year. But the rules have no provisions to control imports.
Though the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste is banned under an international treaty called the Basel Convention, dealers sneak in consignments of electronic scrap as they are not properly classified. According to environmental activists, most electronic scrap that comes into the country is classified as plastic scrap or mixed waste.
The biggest impediment of all for safely disposing electronics products is India’s record of municipal waste management. Twelve years after the municipal solid waste rules were framed, major metro cities like Chennai have not even got the basics right in terms of segregating waste at source and preventing the environmentally harmful burning of waste. With a track record like that, and the number of Indians using computers and mobile devices only rising, there seems to be little hope that rules will succeed in the marketplace.