[Explainer] The why and how of disposing electronic waste

  • Consumers discarded 53.6 million tonnes worth of electronics in 2019, globally up 20 percent in 5 years. But only 17.4 percent was recycled sustainably.
  • India generates about 3 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste annually and ranks third among e-waste producing countries, after China and the United States. Reports state that it might rise to 5 million tonnes by 2021.
  • With COVID-19 keeping people indoors and on devices, the usage of electronics is only getting higher.
  • The way forward for consumers could be the 4 R method of reuse, repair, recycle, and research.

What do you do with your e-waste? The answers would possibly range across a wide spectrum – from ‘what is e-waste’, ‘office IT vendor’ and ‘collection boxes’ to ‘we just dump it in the dustbin’ or ‘hoard it in a cupboard.’ It would appear that disposing of e-waste effectively (or at all) is not a priority because, unlike our natural waste, it doesn’t really get in the way.

How much e-waste are we generating and why should we worry about it?

Simple answer: because we’re quickly reaching up to the brim with it.

According to a 2019 United Nations report, titled ‘A New Circular Vision For Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot’ consumers discard 44 million tonnes worth of electronics each year; only 20 percent is recycled sustainably.

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 shows that consumers discarded 53.6 million tonnes worth of electronics in 2019 globally, up 20 percent in 5 years.

India generated 3.2 million tonnes of e-waste last year, ranking third after China (10.1 million tonnes) and the United States (6.9 million tonnes). Following the current growth rate of e-waste, an ASSOCHAM-EY joint report, titled ‘Electronic Waste Management in India’ estimated India to generate 5 million tonnes by 2021. The study also identified computer equipment and mobile phones as the principal waste generators in India.

With COVID-19 keeping people indoors, the usage is only getting higher; and without proper intervention, it is likely to be over 100 million tonnes by 2050.

What happens if we don’t recycle?

Two things – from dumpsters, it either goes to landfills or travels down in unregulated markets.

Ashley Delaney is Founder at Group TenPlus, a Goa company that manages the collection of electronic waste. “An ordinary circuit board from a mobile or laptop contains roughly 16 different metals,” says Delaney. “Most informal sectors will probably be able to retrieve a couple of metals and landfill the rest. Hazardous chemicals like mercury, which are used to extract these metals, leach into the soil, which will be damaged forever. If you find discarded batteries, tube lights, CFL bulbs, chances are the soil around them will be barren. Simply put – composting sites have fungus growing around it, despite being a ‘waste space’. But look around a dumpster, e-waste will ensure that nothing natural will grow around it, not even grass.”

Once the quantities increase, the leaching of metal finds its way to everything around that space, even food. When e-waste travels to our oceans in large quantities, it contaminates water with gaseous or liquid toxins, which we can’t even see. A study led by SRM University, Tamil Nadu, found that soil from informal electronic recycling sites that recover metals showed high levels of contamination across Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

Why should we recycle e-waste?

The point of extracting metals and plastic from e-waste is to use them towards making more electronics. This is not as easy as it seems. These metals are difficult to extract – the UN report puts the total recovery rates for cobalt at 30 percent (despite technology existing that could recycle 95 percent). It’s used for laptops, smartphones, and electric car batteries, and recycled metals are two to 10 times more energy-efficient than metals smelted from virgin ore. The way forward to ensuring a sustainable chain in manufacturing and recycling is to build effective reuse methods.

This is also vital because the key elements in most electronics – rare earth metals – aren’t exactly rare as their name suggests, but are definitely hard to obtain, at least locally. The latest forecasts show that e-waste’s global worth is around $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the GDP of most countries. It’s also worth three times the output of all the world’s silver mines.

Is my local kabadiwala (scrap dealer) a good option?

Short answer: no.

When you give your e-waste to an unauthorised waste-collector, you’re contributing to the chain of unregulated markets, which accounts for handling over 95 percent of e-waste generated in India. These markets attempt to extract metals from devices to sell them onward, but possibly with fewer skills per metal and the necessary safety standards.

“There are thousands of informal dismantling and recycling units – Dharavi in Mumbai, Meerut, Moradabad, Seelampur in Delhi, and many more,” says Pranshu Singhal, Founder, Karo Sambhav. “These spaces engage in open-air burning of wires to extract copper, use cyanide-based acid to extract metals – at great harm to themselves and the environment around them.”

Once they extract copper from a product –it finds its way back into the secondary market, whatever part of the world it might end up. The challenge primarily is the practices that are deployed.

A 2018 documentary ‘Welcome to Sodom’ explores the almost dystopian, shocking world of the Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana, where life revolves around toxic waste, versus a hope of a healthier life. The site says, “Every year about 2,50,000 tons of sorted out computers, smartphones, air conditions tanks and other devices from a far away electrified and digitalised world end up here, shipped to Ghana illegally.”

Reports show that e-waste workers suffer from stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness and even DNA damage. There is a body of research, the report cites, that shows “a significant risk of harm, especially to children who are still growing and developing. Individual chemicals in e-waste such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, PCBs, PBDEs, and PAHs are known to have serious impacts on nearly every organ system.”

Dharavi is one of the top hubs in India for the informal recycling of e-waste. Studies have shown that even the water there is acidic and the fumes are causing health problems. As Delaney says, “Don’t go to a kabadiwala – you’re handing him a knife to either kill himself or someone else with it.”

India generates about 3 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste annually and ranks third among e-waste producing countries, after China and the United States. Photo by ITU/R.Zaveri/Flickr.
India generates about 3 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste annually and ranks third among e-waste producing countries, after China and the United States. Photo by ITU/R.Zaveri/Flickr.

What are India’s laws to manage e-waste?

India is the only country in Southern Asia with e-waste legislation, with laws to manage e-waste in place since 2011, mandating that only authorised dismantlers and recyclers collect e-waste. There are now 312 authorised recyclers in the country.

The E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 (effective from October 2016) mandated collection targets and transferred responsibilities to the producers – Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This put the onus on the brands to ensure that waste was brought back in. These targets were relaxed in 2018.

Karo Sambhav’s Singhal understood the importance of early-stage success after the regulations were passed. The e-waste movement had begun finally in India and without quick effects, it would lose momentum. Having worked in the sustainability space before – at Nokia and with Thomas Lindquist (who coined the EPR concept), Singhal launched Karo Sambhav.

“We work with waste collectors and aggregators and help them get formalised – ensure everyone has pan cards, bank accounts and give invoices, and ensure that waste is traceable,” he said. This was also the time of demonetisation, GST – policies that pushed unregulated extractors to align themselves to a collection centre. As far as businesses were concerned, data sets, transaction records allowed transparency and a trail for the trajectory of e-waste.

Why don’t we see more outreach about recycling our waste?

While our conversations around sewage and garbage segregation are targeted and goal-oriented, the quiet crisis literally taking up 70 percent of our landfills gets very little talk time, especially from the brands themselves.

‘The idea behind the waste management rules was not just to ensure waste is collected and recycled responsibly but also that manufacturers start to include sustainable methods,” says Priti Mahesh, Chief Programme Officer at Toxics Link.

“Right now, the manufacturing chain is scattered – parts for an item come from one country, the battery from another, the assembly happens in a third. So even collection and extraction are a bit ambiguous and so is the financial cost. This system is flawed. The deposit refund scheme (where there is some refund on the return of a product) is available, but not mandated. In a price-sensitive market, with no penalties attached, a brand is unlikely to make a product more expensive to factor this cost in when a competitor won’t,” she added.

In the current setting, she says, it requires extra effort, costs and infrastructure for not much in return, so most brands are not ready to take financial responsibility. That leads to a dangerous loop. Consumers are met with enough advertising the world over that urges them to buy more, but how many brands are using ad space to remind you to be mindful of this global crisis?

According to Delaney, some brands avail of the deposit refund scheme, but don’t advertise it. “Say you return your car battery to the company and are delighted when they offer you Rs. 400 discount in exchange for a new one. What they’re not telling you is they’re refunding what is due to you; it is not a discount – but Indian jugaad.”

The solution lies in creating a circular economy of electronics, says a report from the World Economic Forum. The products need to be designed so that they can be reused, durable, and safe for recycling. The producers should also have buy-back or return offers for old equipment and plans to incentivise the consumer financially. The report also advocates a system of ‘urban mining’ by strengthening the extended producer responsibility provision.

What can a consumer do? The 4 R’s

Reuse: Use your gadgets for longer. The upgrade to a new electronic item should ideally happen for necessity, not style. If you’re okay to use second-hand electronics, do so.

Repair: Ensure repair policies exist. Ask for them.


Talk to the brand: The best and most effective longer-term situation, which might require some persistence on your part, is talking to the brand. The requests to some established brands for comments on this story were met with either silence or a refusal to comment. But if enough consumers ask for what practices are in place, it will become integrated in the way a brand communicates with us – through retail and advertising. Even if you buy at a mall, a chain, or a small retail store, ask what is the return/ recycle policy. If you don’t understand the answers, call the brand.

Most brands have collection details on their websites. Use them. Think beyond phones and laptops, be mindful of all electronics – batteries (car, gadget both), speakers, tubelights, it’s easy to throw these in the trash. Don’t.

Collection boxes: Even if you’re using collection boxes that brands have set up in the vicinity, call and ask what is happening to the waste in the bins.

Research: “I’d add one more R here – research,” says Suchismita Pai, Head of Outreach at Swach, Pune. “Almost everything is biodegradable in its own time. What you need to look for is something that is bio-compostable within a reasonable span of time. Check on the box of a new product for e-waste instructions. It’s always there, read it. Every manufacturer has a toll free number. Use it.”

Registered collection organisations: If you’re using registered organisations in your city, ask them about their methods, recyclers, and where the is waste going. A simple google search will yield results in your city, you can start with the ones in this story (Group TenPlus, Karo Sambhav, Swach, Toxic Links — and ask them for alternatives in your cities. Because, not every ISI marked product is authentic. A good brand will always have transparency.

But ultimately, brands will have to accept the onus of supporting customers through this. “Organisations like ours do collection drives, outreach campaigns, but ultimately our reach is limited,” says Singhal. “India is a country of billions. The brands that sell you the product have the largest presence. E-waste will need to be integrated into how brands communicate constantly with us in the future. India generated 3 million tonnes already and it will only rise exponentially.”

Singhal accepts that while we have already come a long way, these are early stages. India is far from establishing strong structures and maturity of processes in the business structure and that the need for high investment in recycling infrastructure is paramount. In the meantime, consumers can give e-waste as much attention as they would to their daily garbage. A mind-set shift might be the start of a circular vision.


Banner image: Mobile phones and other electronic devices being disassembled. Photo by ITU/R.Zaveri/Flickr.

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