New Delhi: Have you ever wondered what happens to all the old mobile phones, laptops, television sets or monitors after you switch to new ones?

They usually keep lying in our homes for years, until we decide to do away with them. In most cases in India, the waste collector, the kabadiwala, is the easiest way to get rid of such items and it may even fetch a nominal price. But, what happens to those electronic equipment after they leave your house?

Health hazard: Plastic waste for recycling at Mundka village on the outskirts of Delhi. Photo Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Consider an example of a desktop that is pushed down the informal chain. After passing through many hands, it reaches the dealer who specializes in electronic waste, where it is broken down into several parts.

First, the plastic and metal are dismantled from the exterior of the monitor and the central processing unit (CPU) along with the the knobs and controls of the keyboard. The material recovered is sold on to metal and plastic scrap dealers, respectively. Then it becomes more complicated and, therefore, sophisticated.

The printed circuit board, or the motherboard as it is commonly referred to in the case of computers, has several components connected to it. Each of them is taken out separately, dipped in hot acid solutions, and various elements (mostly copper) are extracted. Some of the pins used in motherboards are also gold plated, from which gold is extracted. Sometimes, even metals such as platinum are found in very small quantities inside these components.

After various levels of refinement to remove the impurities, the useful metals are taken out and the rest is junked. Other components, such as the glass from monitors, are removed separately and the wires are either burnt or dipped in acid to take out copper and aluminium.

According to experts, these substances find their way through an organized channel in places such as Moradabad (famous for brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc), Meerut and Firozabad (known for its glass industry) among others. The Seelampur area in Delhi is in fact a hub for e-waste where these equipment are first dismantled.

“Electronic equipment is in itself not hazardous but when they are broken down, that’s when the hazard aspect becomes a problem as toxins are leaked into the environment," said K. Srinivasan, secretary, of lobby group Elcina Electronic Industries Association of India. “There are two aspects to this problem—the economic and the social aspect."

He added that this informal chain of e-waste recycling is not very efficient in culling out the essential materials and their practices are not safe. “The solutions in which components are dipped are thrown into the open drain and wires are burnt causing air pollution. They create health hazards for themselves and do environmental damage."

According to a report by Toxics Link, a not-for profit organization working in the field of e-waste management, the global e-waste market is forecast to reach 53 million tonnes (mt) by 2012 from 42 mt in 2008 growing at 6% annually.

“This rapid growth and increased globalized trade of this complex and toxic waste poses a serious challenge for its management and causes serious environmental concerns both in developed and developing countries," the report says. E-waste is highly complex to handle and often contains highly toxic chemicals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, brominated flame retardants, PVC and phosphorus compounds, which have serious human health and environmental concerns.

Electronic firms such as Nokia Oyj., Dell Inc., Canon Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd have been running take-back programmes, offering consumers to replace their old products and get discounts on new ones or ask them to dispose equipment which have reached end-of-life at their shops or other collection centres.

Despite this, almost 90% of e-waste is pushed down the informal sector, out of which household electronics form a major chunk, says Rohan Gupta, chief operating officer of Attero Recycling, which collects electronic waste from companies and individuals and recycles it through its own chain till the last level of metal extraction.

Though some corporations are serious about recycling their e-waste through the proper channel most of them just dump it down the informal chain, says Gupta. “There are 10-20% corporations which have done something but most of them have dual policies. While in developed countries they are serious about these issues, in developing countries such as ours, it’s easy to get past it."

Taking cognizance of the seriousness of the issue, the ministry of environment and forest has notified e-waste management rules, for the first time. The rules affix the responsibility of collecting e-waste from consumers and recycling it through the authorized channels. They also impose liabilities on producers such as personal computer, handset and white good manufacturers and mandating companies to send regular updates to the State Pollution Control Boards or the Pollution Control Committees about the e-wastes generated by them.

Though the rules were notified in May this year, they will become effective only from May 2012. This was done to give companies time to set up collection centres. Srinivasan of Elcina said that the rules are modelled slightly on the European legislation and set threshold limits on the chemicals that go into manufacturing of components.

Though Gupta of Attero says e-waste rules have “teeth", they have to figure out a financial model for recycling. “Globally producers invest in the collection centres and pay for recyclers, a cost which is ultimately recovered from the consumers, so in that sense the rules are not clear on who pays for it."

Even though the rules are considered a good starting point, the magnitude of the problem can be ascertained from the fact that only about one-third of all discarded equipment is recorded to be separately collected, treated and recycled in the European Union, which implemented its e-waste policy 10 years ago . The ecosystem has to concentrate on educating the customer now, says Nakul Kumar, director of ReGlobe, a waste management consultancy firm.

My Reads Logout