Bangalore: Standing by heaps of desktop computers, many of which display their electronic innards -- printed circuit boards, hard disk drives, chipsets -- better than their international brand names, Syed Hussain proudly narrates his journey from a scrap dealer to an electronic waste recycler.
Since 1981, when he began recycling some of India’s earliest television sets and computers, selling an EDO RAM (extended data output, random access memory) for Rs32,000, Hussain has gathered experience but his small company, Ash Recyclers, hasn’t moved beyond handling 2-3 tonnes of e-waste every month.
Of late, though, he’s been flooded with calls from apartment complexes to collect e-waste, which he, regrettably, can’t accommodate in his three-storeyed recycling facility in central Bangalore. As he gives a tour of his garage-looking unit, he shows off a few business proposals, including those from E-Mine of Japan and Umicore Precious Metal Refining of Belgium, to start recycling plants in India. But his hopes hinge on a government approval of a 10-acre plot in Mulbagal taluk, which is stuck in red tape.
Ash reuses and recycles 99% of the e-waste it collects. “It’s like a vegetable market: haggling for hard drives, laptop batteries, RAMs…happen in the same manner that you bargain for potatoes and cauliflower,” says Hussain, unmindful of his crude analogy. Earlier he shipped the toxic waste to Belgium for smelting but obtaining an export license for this has become impossible lately so he has to store it, and the space crunch isn’t helping.
A lack of government policy on e-waste, with no definition of roles and responsibilities for stakeholders, will not only harm the Hussains of the recycling business but will pose a serious threat to public health and environment in this decade, according to a new UN report released in Bali, Indonesia, on Monday.
By 2020, India’s e-waste from old computers will jump 500% from 2007 levels, whereas South Africa and China will witness a 200-400% rise in computer-related waste, says the report. The rapidly growing mobile telephony in India will take its toll by 2020 when e-waste from discarded phones will grow 18 times from 2007 levels, a period during which China is estimated to see a seven-fold rise in the electronic waste from mobile phones.
The report, Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources, used data from 11 representative developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation. Commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), the report is prepared by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Testing and Research, Umicore and United Nations University (UNU).
While a linear growth is predicted in the sales of television and refrigerators, growing by a factor of 2 and 3 respectively, UN experts say weight and material composition will change in the coming years as the world moves from desktops to laptops, CRTs (cathode ray tubes) to LCDs (liquid crystal displays) and these changes will have a bearing on recycling technology and the secondary market.
However, “lack of a dedicated e-waste legislation and high level of corruption in law enforcement” are effective barriers to the transfer of e-waste technology in India, says the report.
The objective of the report, said Unep programme officer Guido Sonneman on the phone, is to show that primitive practices are prevalent in many countries, which are not resource efficient. Adopting innovative end-processing technologies will significantly increase metals and material recovery.
“We have data to show that 99% of electronic waste is effectively recyclable in India, with less than 1% of toxic waste emanating, which are sent to landfills,” said P. Parthasarthy, founder of E-Parisara, India’s first eco-friendly recycler. But five years after setting up, says Parthasarthy, his 10-ton-a-day plant in Dobaspet near Bangalore operates at merely 30% capacity. In the absence of an e-waste policy, he says, neither the producers nor the users are bound by any regulation or responsibility.
A draft e-waste policy is in the making, says Parthasarthy, but it will take at least a year to come into effect.
For KG Nandini Enterprises, a one-year-old recycler in Bangalore, the informal sector’s purchase of the material at higher prices is forcing his 12 ton-a-day plant to operate at one-tenth of its capacity. “We invested Rs 8 crore, got state and central government licenses but we can’t source material for recycling, the bulk of which goes to the informal sector,” says general manager M.G. Sreenivas.
Indeed, the report notes that the formal e-waste sector in India operates as a downstream partner and “is not able to establish itself as a competitor”. If there’s a large informal sector, there are ways to increase its efficiency and ensure that the final steps of recycling are not done in the backyard, says Ruediger Kuehr of the UNU.
To that effect, and as a model, the recycling company e-WaRDD has written to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board for Consent of Establishment and Consent of of Operation and is undergoing transformation from the informal to the formal sector – the first such event in the country.
“E-Parisara is tying up with a European company, which as part of its corporate social responsibility, will help upgrade the informal sector with new processing technologies,” said Parthasarthy.