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Digital disconnect

Digital disconnect
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First Published: Thu, May 01 2008. 11 39 PM IST

Updated: Thu, May 01 2008. 11 39 PM IST
These are garbage dumps of a different kind. Located at IT companies, schools, colleges, shopping malls and movie halls in Bangalore, these special bins are filled with the detritus left behind by a digital society. Used CDs, floppy discs, dry-cell batteries, cellphones, printers and computers rendered obsolete by changing technology are dumped at more than 100 collection centres across the city. It’s a part An initiative launched by a city-based IT peripherals company, WeP Peripherals Ltd, and Saahas, a non-governmental organization that works in the area of solid waste management—almost 2kg of electronic waste is now collected at each centre.
The e-waste is recycled at E-Parisaraa, about 40km to the north of Bangalore—it is approved by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board.
Heavy Metals: Omnipresent and Deadly (Graphic)
“We can recycle up to three tonnes of e-waste every day, but currently utilize only half the installed capacity,” says P. Parthasarathy, who set up E-Parisaraa after a stint as a technical consultant with an e-waste management unit in Singapore.
“We plan to gradually increase our capacity to five tonnes a day as consumers become more aware of the need for proper e-waste management,” he says.
Across urban India, the problem of e-waste is a mounting one. According to a study by the Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (Mait), more than 332,000 tonnes of electronic waste was generated in India in 2007, a figure that threatens to touch a whopping 467,000 tonnes by 2011.
In 2006-07, 6.34 million computers units were sold in India, while mobile handset sales increased by 26% to 93 million units. Currently, more than 400,000 mobile handsets are discarded and find their way into the recycling market every year in cities such as Bangalore.
There’s more bad news. Based on data from secondary sources, Mait estimates that around 50,000 tonnes of e-waste is being imported to India every year from developed countries. By 2020, consumption of electronic items in the country is set to increase, with 30% of the population estimated to be in the 25-44 agebracket.
There is another worrying figure: according to a Mait study, 94% of India’s business establishments do not have a policy on correct disposal of used IT products.
“Typically, business houses tend to warehouse used items and then auction them off to the highest bidders from the informal sector,” says Maclean S. Raphael, vice-president, HR and management support, WeP.
Safe disposal of hazardous household waste is still an alien concept in India. This waste, which includes products such as used batteries, mobile phones, fluorescent lamps and printer cartridges, is disposed of with other household waste and ends up in dumps where these items are burnt in the open.
Little thought is given to the fact that this waste, which contains heavy metals and mercury, is toxic and can be a grave threat to the human health and the environment.
“E-waste is bad for all organs in the human body, but it can severely affect the brain, kidney and reproductive system,” says Arun Naik, consultant neurosurgeon at BGS Global Hospitals in Bangalore. Lead, mercury and cadmium, says Dr Naik, are the most harmful to humans. “These metals tend to accumulate in the brain and kidneys as these have the highest blood supply. The earliest symptoms of heavy metal poisoning include headaches, deafness, light-headedness, memory loss and psychiatric disturbances.
The manifestation is subtle in the initial stages, but in the advanced stage, with increased exposure, it could be life threatening.”
Studies indicate that Bangaloreans alone dump about 400,000 dry cell batteries into waste bins. More than half of these batteries are made of zinc-carbon and zinc-chloride compounds, with heavy metals and mercury included. A quarter of these are button-cell batteries, which again have mercury. The relatively safe alkaline batteries that do not contain mercury currently make up just a tenth of the market.
Toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium affect the human reproductive and endocrine systems, disrupting normal metabolism.
After a study on the health hazards of heavy metals by U.N. Rai, a scientist at the National Botanical Research Institute, aluminium was identified as one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The biggest threat of heavy metal contamination is that it leads to silent epidemics,” says Wilma Rodrigues, who heads the e-waste initiative for Saahas and has worked with WeP on awareness campaigns for safe collection and disposal of e-waste at schools in Bangalore.
Typically, the heavy metals found in items of common use, such as mobile phones, printers and batteries—if not disposed properly—can lead to radioactive pollution, respiratory problems, kidney failure, brain haemorrhages, nervous system disorders and cancer.
The list of what constitutes e-waste is growing by the day. It includes all obsolete electronic devices such as computers, servers, mainframes, monitors, televisions, cellphones, pagers, calculators, audio and video devices.
“A quarter of India’s e-waste comes from used telecom devices, followed closely by obsolete medical electronic devices,” says Parthasarathy. Military electronic waste, automobile catalytic converters and other industrial electronic items, such as sensors, alarms, sirens and security devices, also are on the list.
Trouble arises from the fact that e-waste is recycled largely by the informal sector, with government-approved units handling only 5% of the total waste generated.
Approved units have closed chambers and the collected waste is recycled completely to ensure that no hazardous elements are released into the environment. “The primary issue in e-waste management in India is to ensure that all obsolete items are recycled by the formal sector, as improper handling leads to air and water pollution from the heavy metals found in electronic items,” says Rodrigues.
Typically, collection centres—such as the ones in Bangalore—take in most commonly used items such as dry cell batteries, storage media such as compact and floppy disks and mobile phones that are easy to handle.
“With items such as lithium batteries, we have to be careful that there is no damage to the outer covering of the item as they contain hazardous substances,” says Rodrigues. So, at primary collection centres, it is safe to drop commonly-used items while big-ticket items such as computers, printers and monitors are typically warehoused and recycled in bulk shipments.
“Urban consumers must understand their responsibility in ensuring that their used electronic items are recycled in a safe manner,” says Rodrigues, who feels that policy initiatives that encourage a greater share of e-waste disposal by the formal sector are vital to ensure that urban India is not clogged by an increasing morass of electronic waste.
PLAY SAFE
• Separate e-waste from organic waste in your home
• Don’t give used dry cell batteries, mobile phones, printer cords, fluorescent lamps and other such household objects to unorganized scrap dealers
• Buy rechargeable batteries for power tools, home appliances and digital cameras
• Minimize use of use-and- throw primary batteries that dominate the market
• Choose alkaline batteries that contain no mercury
(Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com)
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First Published: Thu, May 01 2008. 11 39 PM IST