Managing India’s electronic waste

One of the important aspects of successful e-waste management in India is the ability of regulations to integrate the informal sector into the formal waste processing industry


Millions of waste collectors carry out door-to-door collection of waste and their livelihoods depend on their ability to collect and sell the waste to informal recyclers. Photo: Bloomberg
Millions of waste collectors carry out door-to-door collection of waste and their livelihoods depend on their ability to collect and sell the waste to informal recyclers. Photo: Bloomberg

We are living in a world where the electronic gadget you buy today is deemed obsolete in less than a year and replaced by another with more “advanced” capabilities. Smartphone makers, for example, release a new model every year with new features and for many, not replacing one’s perfectly functional smartphone with the latest model is being “out of fashion”.

India is the fastest-growing market in the world for smartphones with 27 million units shipped in the second quarter of 2016 alone, and though the lifespan of a mobile phone is higher in India than in the West, one can imagine the number of “obsolete” phones contributing to electronic waste (e-waste). Such phones and other electronics contributed to 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste produced in India in 2015, 90% of which was managed by the informal sector using unscientific methods that cause harm to human health and the environment.

To streamline e-waste management, the government notified Electronic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 that became effective in May 2012. These rules are based on extended producer responsibility (EPR), a popular framework across the world for e-waste management. EPR makes manufacturers of electronic products responsible for the end-of-life management of their products. They have to set up collection centres and ensure that waste is recycled and disposed of in an environment-friendly manner. All collection centres, dismantling units and recyclers must register with state pollution control boards and comply with their norms.

By shifting the burden of waste management onto manufacturers, the EPR framework, in theory, creates incentives for more environment-friendly product designs. Since manufacturers are incurring the cost of disposal, their designs will incorporate less toxic and easily recyclable materials, thereby reducing input material requirement because more inputs get reused.

More than four years have passed since the introduction of e-waste rules. Has anything changed in India’s e-waste situation? We report our findings in a forthcoming research article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. First, the number of registered (regulated) waste processing units has gone up from 23 to about 150, according to data available with the Central Pollution Control Board. Despite this increase, our estimates suggest that only about 5-15% of e-waste is channelled through the formal sector.

Second, the situation with respect to manufacturers of electronic products, the party primarily responsible for waste management under the EPR framework, is disappointing. Although most manufacturers that we sampled provided information on how to deposit used equipment, when we actually contacted them, posing as customers, we realized that not much was happening on the ground. Except for a couple of manufacturers out of the 20-odd that we studied, no one could give us a clear idea on how to actually deposit e-waste. On the consumer side, most institutional waste generators such as educational institutions and industries, which generate close to 70% of the e-waste, are not aware of the rules and continue to sell their e-waste to the informal sector. Overall, the impact of the e-waste rules is disappointingly limited.

How do we explain the failure of these rules to make much impact? Unlike EPR regulations in other countries, no collection or recycling targets are imposed on producers. In the absence of targets, and in a relatively lax regulatory environment, producers have little incentive to ensure collection of their used products. They simply claim they have set up collection centres for those who care to deposit their products. Only highly environmentally- conscious consumers will search for the nearest collection centre. In contrast, a rag-picker will come to the consumer’s house to pick up the waste and, to top it off, will pay the consumer.

The e-waste rules were amended recently (effective October 2016) and now include collection targets as well as a requirement that producers implement a deposit-refund system (DRS). In a DRS, an upfront deposit is charged to the consumer at the time of purchase of the product and the deposit is refunded when the product is safely returned to the producer. While this kind of instrument has been successful elsewhere (in the context of bottles), its success here will depend on the political will to implement the amended rules.

One of the important aspects of successful e-waste management in a country such as India is the ability of regulations to integrate the large informal sector into the formal waste processing industry. Unfortunately, even the amended e-waste rules completely ignore the informal sector. Millions of waste collectors carry out door-to-door collection of waste and their livelihoods depend on their ability to collect and sell the waste to informal recyclers.

The government and the manufacturers have to recognize the informal sector and find mechanisms to bring it into the fold of formal waste management. The results of a few efforts currently underway will help us better understand how successful waste management can include all stakeholders.

Rama Mohana R Turaga teaches environmental sustainability and public policy at the Indian Institute of Management- Ahmedabad. Kalyan Bhaskar will soon join the faculty in the strategy group of XLRI-Xavier School of Management.

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