New Delhi: Forthcoming legislation to manage electronic waste could increase the cost of electronic goods as well as place the onus on consumers to ensure that their discarded computers and defunct television sets are given away or sold only to authorized scrap dealers.
While this could greatly boost the nascent organized e-waste recycling sector, it could also mean higher levels of scrutiny by pollution control agencies.
The draft rules, viewed by Mint, mandate producers of electronic equipment to ensure that e-waste is collected, transported to specific recycling units, and safely disposed of. Failure to do so would invite fines as prescribed under the existing Environment Protection Act, or potential closure of the industrial unit. Producers of such equipment will also have to annually apprise the environment ministry of the e-waste collected, the rules propose.
Though the draft has no explicit reference to increased costs to end consumers, a clause says manufacturers have the freedom to levy charges or discounts towards recycling. “The dealers (producer or manufacturer) may give appropriate discount or levy appropriate cost for every used electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste) returned by the consumer,” the draft says.
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Currently, 85-90% of India’s e-waste generated largely from outdated cellphones to computer hardware is handled by the informal sector. This waste is broken down and recycled, generally under hazardous as well as environmentally damaging conditions. Precious metals such as gold, copper and platinum are extracted from this and ploughed back into the industry. However, plastics and other non-biodegradable materials tend to accumulate. Few organizations in India have equipment such as specialized incinerators to dispose of such waste.
Environmental hazard: Workers segregate e-waste at a yard in Mundka. Over 90% of India’s e-waste is handled by the informal sector. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
“There is no explicit legislation that says consumers will have to pay for recycling, but directly or indirectly consumers may have to bear some costs,” said Vinnie Mehta, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology, an industry lobby that counts several computer hardware producers among its members. “However, this legislation doesn’t dictate what kind of business model should be in place to collect e-waste. So the market will decide whether consumers should be paying or not,” added Mehta, who was involved in the consultation process.
Bulk consumers of electrical and electronic equipment, including corporate houses as well as government offices, are likely to be most impacted, because they would have to proactively ensure that their heavy electrical equipment as well as lighter electronic goods are no longer auctioned off to the grey market, but given to companies registered and accredited by the state pollution control boards.
Currently, 10 companies have registered with state- and Central-level pollution control boards across the country.
“As of now, we collect e-waste and pass them on to recyclers free of cost. It’s part of our global branding efforts,” said a senior official with a large computer hardware manufacturing firm, who didn’t want his or his company’s name to be identified. “But with these laws, costs of collecting and recycling in large quantities significantly increase. So consumers have to pay.”
The so-called E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules legislation is still being discussed within the ministry of environment and forests, and is expected to be available for public consultations next month, according to a statement by environment minister Jairam Ramesh in Rajya Sabha on Tuesday. It will then progress to becoming law by the year-end. Ramesh also added that the Centre would bear half the cost of setting up waste recycling units.
The organized e-waste recycling sector is currently operating far below installed capacity.
Rohan Gupta, who runs Attero Recycling, an e-waste processing unit in Roorkee, Uttarakhand, said he was operating at only 1% of the factory’s 3,600-tonne capacity. That’s because nearly 95% of retired or dead computers, cellphones, printers, etc., are bought by unorganized recyclers, who mostly burn or use acids in an unsafe environment to extract metals from various electronic parts, unmindful of the carcinogenic materials their workers are breathing in or releasing into the environment, he said.
“In India, about eight million computers and 130 million cellphones have been sold and this doesn’t include the grey market. If you take the average life of a computer at 3.5 years and that of a cellphone at 1.5 years, you get a sense of the problem that is ahead of us in terms of e-waste,” said Gupta. “But the rules in India have not been that solid and there are also loopholes, which is why a lot of the waste goes to the informal sector.”
Other recycling units such as E-Parisaraa Pvt. Ltd are hoping that the coming legislation will reduce the cost of obtaining e-waste. “Currently, we are buying such waste at nearly Rs15,000 a tonne. There are also further costs because some part of the recycling is done at Belgium. This legislation is positive, but there’s still uncertainty on who will bear the ultimate cost,” said P. Parthasarthy, founding director of E-Parisaraa, a Bangalore based recycler.
Ravi Agarwal, director of environmental advocacy group Toxics Link, who is also involved with the formulation of the legislation, said consumers wouldn’t pay extra. “There are 10-15 companies in India today that are actually paying companies for collecting their e-waste. So e-waste has some intrinsic value. This legislation strengthens the organized sector and, scrap being a price-sensitive market, should mean low costs for consumers.”
According to a United Nations report, India’s e-waste from old computers will jump 500% from 2007 levels by 2020, whereas South Africa and China will witness a 200-400% rise in computer-related waste. Waste from rapidly growing mobile telephony in India will grow 18 times from the 2007 levels, a period during which China is estimated to see a sevenfold rise.
The report, Recycling—from E-Waste to Resources, used data from 11 representative developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation and was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme. While linear growth is predicted in the sales of television sets and refrigerators, growing by a factor of 2 and 3, respectively, UN experts say weight and material composition will change as the world moves from desktops to laptops and from cathode ray tubes to liquid crystal displays, with an attendant bearing on recycling technology and the secondary market.
Seema Singh in Bangalore and Anupama Chandrasekaran in Chennai contributed to this story.