Smartphone ownership is ubiquitous today; most people own one. In addition, there are also devices commonly used such as televisions, laptops, printers, chargers, digital cameras, and the like. Each of these devices have a life between two and five years, following which they become obsolete. A new one is then promptly purchased and the old one is discarded.
But where do these discarded electronic devices go? Unlike paper or plastics that can be recycled, or kitchen waste than be composted, electronic or e-waste is often lying in users’ drawers or cabinets or are left for unorganised scrap dealers to take care of.
Crude recycling practices pose serious threats
E-waste disposal guidelines are yet to be firmly implemented even in developed economies. A large share of e-waste from such countries are purchased by recyclers from emerging economies. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, highlighted that “An undetermined amount of used electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately”.
At first glance, this may seem an acceptable practice. However, e-waste is hazardous since it contains several lethal elements such such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. During the recycling process, trace amounts of these elements invariably find their way to ground water systems, endangering human, animal and plant lives. In fact, only a minuscule 20 percent or so of the world’s e-waste is recycled following safe practices. To place into perspective, the total annual e-waste output globally is a staggering 50 million tons.
The bulk of recycling in emerging economies is undertaken by the informal sector using crude practices. Acid baths and open air burning are commonly used and these expose workers to grave injuries. However, e-waste importers and recyclers, in emerging economies, are drawn to the prospects of extracting precious metals from used devices. Electronics use several precious metals such as gold, silver, palladium and platinum.
What is also disheartening is the prevalence of child labour in informal recycling units. In fact, children are preferred not only because of lower wage payouts but also because their smaller hands are more dexterous. According to a 2021 World Health Organisation report, there are as many as 18 million children and adolescents engaged in e-waste recycling worlwide.
E-waste recycling in India
India’s Central Pollution Board (CPB) outlined the E-waste Rules of 2011. The government identified problem areas and laid out a road map of how to go about implementing it. One key proposal was for manufacturers to ‘take back’ devices after they had been used.
Termed the extended producer’s responsibility or EPR, “the producer of electrical and electronic equipment has the responsibility of managing such equipment after its ‘end of life;’ thus the producer is responsible for their products once the consumer discards them,” the CPB report stated. It also added that, “Under this EPR, producer is also entrusted with the responsibility to finance and organise a system to meet the costs involved in complying with EPR.”
Unfortunately, these well-meaning guidelines have not been fully implemented by device manufacturers. Collection centres are few and far between. But in a positive development, there is a startup called Karo Sambhav that is making a difference. It has a countrywide presence, even in smaller northeastern Indian cities such as Gangtok, Imphal and Dimapur. Karo Sambhav has collaborated with producers such as Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo and HMD to help these organisations fulfil their EPR. But these organisations represent only a minor fraction of all electronics manufacturers.
Switzerland is the global leader
Switzerland is an example to emulate. It has emerged as a global leader in e-waste recycling. It recycled as much as 75 percent of all its discarded consumer electronics, in 2019. In case of smartphone recycling, 95 percent of devices were recycled. Switzerland has also extended the African country of Ghana in following sustainable e-waste recycling practices. This was because the country’s Agbogbloshie landfill had come to be know as the world’s most polluted area. In fact, the landfill’s pollution levels surpassed even that of Chernobyl in Ukraine — the site that had suffered a nuclear disaster in 1986.
Private sector organisations in Europe that are catering to the e-waste sphere include Aurubis (Germany), Umicore (Belgium) and Boliden (Sweden).
Device usage will only increase going forward. With the advent of 5G networks, Internet of Things and the metaverse, device consumption will trend north continually. And considering the massive environmental impact that unorganised recycling accounts for, there is need to implement the frameworks that governments have outlined. On the same right, manufacturers too must explore viable means to encourage consumers to discard their used devices responsibly. It is hypocritical otherwise to advocate paperless process and then treating e-waste with scant regard.