The electronics industry is the world’s largest and fastest growing manufacturing industry. Recent policy changes in India have led to an influx of leading multinational companies to set up electronics manufacturing facilities and R&D centres for hardware and software. This has no doubt helped the Indian economy to grow faster and fueled increase in the consumption rate of electronics products. Along with the economic growth and availability of electronics goods in the market has increased temptation of consumers to replace their household electronics items with newer models for various reasons. The net effect is a higher rate of obsolescence, which is leading to growing piles of e-waste.
The aim of this article is to spread awareness among our readers about the various issues involved in generation and management of e-waste, particularly from Indian perspective.
What is e-waste?
Electronic waste (e-waste) comprises waste electronics/electrical goods that are not fit for their originally intended use or have reached their end of life. This may include items such as computers, servers, mainframes, monitors, CDs, printers, scanners, copiers, calculators, fax machines, battery cells, cellular phones, transceivers, TVs, medical apparatus and electronic components besides white goods such as refrigerators and air-conditioners.
E-waste contains valuable materials such as copper, silver, gold and platinum which could be processed for their recovery.
Is e-waste hazardous?
E-waste is not hazardous per se. However, the hazardous constituents present in the e-waste render it hazardous when such wastes are dismantled and processed, since it is only at this stage that they pose hazard to health and environment.
Electronics and electrical equipment seem efficient and environmentally-friendly, but there are hidden dangers associated with them once these become e-waste. The harmful materials contained in electronics products, coupled with the fast rate at which we’re replacing outdated units, pose a real danger to human health if electronics products are not properly processed prior to disposal.
Electronics products like computers and cellphones contain a lot of different toxins. For example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) of computer monitors contain heavy metals such as lead, barium and cadmium, which can be very harmful to health if they enter the water system. These materials can cause damage to the human nervous and respiratory systems. Flame-retardant plastics, used in electronics casings, release particles that can damage human endocrine functions. These are the types of things that can happen when unprocessed e-waste is put directly in landfill.
The Basel Action Network (BAN) which works for prevention of globalisation of toxic chemicals has stated in a report that 50 to 80 per cent of e-waste collected by the US is exported to India, China, Pakistan, Taiwan and a number of African countries. This is done be-cause cheaper labour is available for recycling in these countries. And in the US, export of e-waste is legal.
e-waste recycling and disposal in China, India and Pakistan are highly polluting. Of late, China has banned import of e-waste. Export of e-waste by the US is seen as lack of responsibility on the part of Federal Government, electronics industry, consumers, recyclers and local governments towards viable and sustainable options for disposal of e-waste.
In India, recycling of e-waste is almost entirely left to the informal sector, which does not have adequate means to handle either the increasing quantities or certain processes, leading to intolerable risk for human health and the environment.
Dynamics of e-waste generation
Telecommunications and information technology are the fastest growing industries today not only in India but world over. Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology (MAIT) has collected the following statistics on the growth of electronics and IT equipment in India:
- PC sales were over 7.3 million units during 2007-08, growing by 16 per cent. There is an installed base of over 25 million units.
- The consumer electronics market is growing at the rate of 13-15 per cent annually. It has an installed base of 120 million TVs.
- The cellular subscriber base was up by 96.86 per cent during 2007-08. Its installed base is estimated to cross 300 million mark by 2010.