Smart Cities will use technology. And the technology will use hardware which will eventually become e-waste.
You probably know what e-waste means. It is technically all waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) discarded without the intent of reuse. It’s all around you—in the form of discarded microwaves, toaster, television sets, mobile phones, air-conditioners, computers, printers, etc. It is one of the fastest growing waste streams in both developed and developing countries. The United Nations University (UNU) has calculated that about 42 million tons of e-waste was generated globally in 2014. And between 2014 and 2017, we will have a 36% rise in e-waste globally.
Here’s a case where India cannot claim to have too little: we are estimated to be the fifth largest producer of e-waste in the world. Within India, Mumbai is the highest generator of e-waste with 96,000 tonnes per annum, followed closely by Delhi at 67,000 tonnes and Bengaluru at 57,000 tonnes per year. A study has forecast that in 2020, the total e-waste generated in India could probably be 366,705 tonnes, including 109,024 tonnes of plastics, 14,569.5 tonnes of copper, 20,133.5 tonnes of lead, 140.5 tonnes of mercury, 146 tonnes of cadmium and 491 tonnes of zinc. That is a lot of stuff, and we don’t even think of it.
Who handles all this waste?
Estimates are that only about 15% of all e-waste globally is recycled. This probably means that only 15% is recycled by formal actors. A significant chunk is collected, dismantled and recycled by the informal sector. These are the people—over 25,000 of them in Delhi alone— whose trading and work stands condemned as polluted. They typically extract metals by dipping motherboards in acid vats, then burning them. They extract gold by a process that involves cyanide in a home-made furnace. These crude processes result in intense pollution.
So yes, the informal e-waste sector is polluting, but is that the best lens to make sense of it?
The words of an e-waste gold smelter on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border come back to me: “I know for sure my work is killing me. My cough tells me that. But I don’t know how else to feed my daughter— there’s no other steady work I’ve found."
The smelter used cyanide. As he spoke, his pet goat, being fattened for Id, tried to butt into our conversation. At the end, his 5-year-old daughter walked in, put her arms around her father and asked him to stop talking and start playing with her.
This doesn’t justify pollution. Yet, what it tells us is that these are desperate livelihoods, and part of the 92% of livelihoods in India that lie in the realm of informality. There is no reason not to try to upgrade them, to make them non-toxic, yet at a scale manageable by such people. In a country littered with IITs and other technical institutions, it can only be the low priority the informal sector receives which explains why no safe technology has been yet devised for non-polluting extraction of metals. Even here, rare earth metals will still require much more sophisticated equipment, but that’s not germane to this argument.
Technology alone isn’t the answer. The sector needs many other forms of support, from land to capacity building to IT. But who is to hear them, except for NGOs who amplify their voices at the policy high table? If over 80% of our e-waste is being recycled by the informal sector, then why don’t we help them get better at their work and more directly included in conversations that will irreversibly impact them?
Now that the revised e-waste rules of 2016 are out, we know we do have to start finding ways to be inclusive of both voice and work. A first step—and a long one—is to get to the ground and speak to these workers. What do they see as their challenges?
How do they see the pollution attributed to them? What solutions do they think they could take forward? What do they want help with?
Some solutions are already on the way. While many waste pickers and small waste dealers come across e-waste, most of them sell it ahead to the informal sector. Until it is able to upgrade its working, it is important to combat extreme pollution by diverting them to safe recyclers. At Chintan, an authorized waste collector, we’ve not only reached out to hundreds of thousands of citizens who generate e-waste, but also to a few thousand waste pickers, whom we’ve trained to collect e-waste which they sell to an authorized recycler, via us. At our collection centre, the pride of place is a large shelf, allotted exclusively to one woman, off Delhi’s Bhalsawa landfill, who has now built up an enterprise aggregating e-waste. A few others are on the verge of getting their own shelves, too, based on how much they collect from other waste pickers. We use the little funds we generate to run education centres for children picking trash at these sites, so they, at least, enjoy opportunities beyond landfills. Aren’t jobs and education part of what every city must prioritize? And a smart city deliver innovatively?
A smart city—most are existing cities that will be upgraded—already has a unique template it can work on. It likely already has some kind of e-waste flow. It should plan to formalize the space, and train the workers there—most of whom will be traders and dismantlers—to work safely. It can license them to work in a cluster, if they adhere to safety standards and keep paper work to show they are sending the e-waste they are buying to authorized recyclers. In this way, not only will the authorities know more about the e-waste flows in their city, but they can also monitor these. This will need small loans, space and capacity building for municipal authorities themselves. Only a few cities will actually have metal extraction in the formal sector. Where they do, their work will have to be piloted with technical institutes and carefully monitored, before it is scaled up. Since data is key here, good dashboards—used and shared with the workers—will be absolutely key to an e-waste solution.
If any of the smart cities had to be given an award, it should be for how they’ve used tech and IT to solve the challenges that all other cities struggle with—pollution, waste, jobs, youth and above all, shifting from a linear to a circular economy that makes for sustainability.
The author is a writer and environmentalist. She is the founder of an India-based non-profit, Chintan.