India Attempts to Curb Deluge of E-Waste

India Attempts to Curb Deluge of E-Waste

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NEW DELHI - The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests is expected to approve by the end of this month unprecedented regulations placing responsibility on manufacturers in India to properly dispose of their used electronic products.

The proposed regulations, drafted a year ago by a coalition of environmental organizations and the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology, are currently awaiting approval by an MEF committee. If approved, the new law will be enacted in early 2011.

Under the proposed law, manufacturers would bear physical and financial responsibilities for creating end-of-life processes for their electronic products, including computers, monitors, printers, cell phones and televisions.

Concurrently, the U.S. is also considering legislation to ban the export of electronic waste to the developing world.

“From an Indian perspective, this is a huge breakthrough,” Vinnie Mehta, executive director of MAIT, which represents more than 100 Indian manufacturers, told India-West.

“Many Indian manufacturers, especially those with European operations, are aware that this is the right thing to do,” Mehta said, adding, “No one wants to be a bad citizen.”

The presence of Greenpeace at the negotiating table made it much easier to convince companies to embrace the new proposal, he noted.

India currently produces more than 300,000 tons of e-waste each year, and that figure is expected to jump to 1.2 million tons by 2020, according to a report released in February by the United Nations Environment Program.

India currently has no legislation dealing specifically with e-waste, noted the UNEP report, adding that low technologies are applied by low-skilled workers resulting

in high health and environment risks. The report also noted India’s high level of corruption in law enforcement as a barrier to establishing an enforceable e-waste policy.

The majority of e-waste in India is currently collected, dismantled and processed by 80,000 workers, almost all of them poor, in the informal sector. The work is done largely by hand, with low rates of pay, and no protective gear to guard against known toxins in used electronic products.

E-waste workers are exposed to a host of noxious and carcinogenic substances, including lead, mercury, cadmium and dioxin. Lead — found in the glass of cathode ray tubes from old monitors and televisions — has been linked to brain damage in children, while mercury and cadmium can cause kidney damage, even in very low doses. Used circuit boards, melted in India over open fires, release brominated flame retardants — linked to abnormal hormonal function — into the atmosphere.

In the developing world, old electronics are mined for precious metals such as gold, palladium and copper, but recovery rates are low because of crude refining facilities.

Questions remain as to where informal sector recyclers would fit into the proposed plan and whether they would still be able to retain their livelihoods.

The proposed law would restrict the informal sector to the collection and dismantling of e-waste, both of which can be done without major health impacts, said Abhishek Pratap, toxics campaigner at Greenpeace India.

“The informal sector is well-organized, and can hugely improve the collection of e-waste, and earn more than what they’re earning now,” Pratap told India-West, noting that currently only 15 to 20 percent of e-waste in India is collected, mainly in the large municipalities known as Tier One cities. Waste in Tier Two and Three cities remains largely uncollected, he said.

“Involving the informal sector in the recovery process must be stopped,” Pratap asserted, adding that the poor who now collect and dismantle e-waste will have to mainstream into the formal recycling process set up by manufacturers in India.

The draft regulations define hazardous processes in e-waste disposal, which would be limited to licensed recyclers who would be bound to work within existing rules, explained Pratap.

Organizations representing the informal sector were actively involved throughout the year in drafting the proposed law, he said.

Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and executive director of the New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, said the poor must actively continue to be involved in the dismantling of e-waste.

“Why should the poor lose their livelihoods?” she queried, noting that Chintan is working to create a safe livelihood for informal e-waste workers.

Chintan has acquired land outside Delhi and aims to set up an e-waste dismantling factory that would initially employ 15 workers and disassemble 300 computers a month, under good working conditions maintained by the factory’s employees. Chaturvedi is currently working with local companies to get donations of e-waste and dismantling equipment.

Twelve e-waste recycling factories registered with the Central Pollution Control Board have sprung up across India, to tackle the country’s great deluge of e-waste. Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, has three such facilities — including Ash Recyclers, profiled in the earlier story (I-W, Mar. 19) — which have a combined capacity to recycle 9,120 metric tons of waste. TESS-AMM, in the emerging technology hub of Chennai, is the country’s largest e-waste facility, with a permit to recycle 30,000 tons of electronics per year.

U.S. venture-funded Attero Recycling, based in Roorkee, Uttrakhand, generated furor among Indian environmental organizations when it received a license from the MEF to import 8,000 tons of U.S. waste into India.

Founded in 2007 by Nitin and Rohan Gupta, Attero Recycling received $6.3 million in venture funding last year from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and NEA-IndoUS Ventures. The company is licensed to process 12,000 tons of e-waste per year.

Attero’s license is in violation of the Basel Convention treaty, stated Satish Sinha, associate director of New Delhi-based Toxics Link. The 1989 treaty bans the export of hazardous waste from rich nations to poorer countries. While India is a signatory to the international agreement, the U.S. is the only developed country which has not ratified it.

“The license to Attero is completely against the terms of the convention,” Sinha told India-West. “The state is acting in a completely irresponsible manner,” he asserted, noting that the MEF had opened a “Pandora’s box” by issuing the license, a move that has triggered several other facilities to ask for import licenses.

“Environmental concerns have been traded off to support business practices,” said Sinha, adding that it is not the job of the MEF to support commercial interests.

“Greenpeace has always called for a blanket ban on both import and export of e-waste,” said Pratap, noting that companies like Attero are doing little to create a processing infrastructure within India.

But a source involved in the Attero licensing decision told India-West the Indian government had made a one-time exception for Attero, a nascent company allegedly having trouble finding material for reprocessing. The attention given to the Attero license by the press and public makes it unlikely that similar authorizations will be given out, the source added.

Several Indian companies have already taken a lead in creating end-of-life processes for their products. ReGlobe, Inc., founded in 2009 by brothers Mandeep Manocha and Nakul Kumar, is working with Nokia — the largest supplier of cell phones in India — on a “take-back” campaign for used handsets, chargers and batteries.

Housed in a tiny office on the campus of the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon near Delhi, ReGlobe has set up 1,400 Nokia collection points throughout India for consumers to return their old products. These are then shipped to Belgium for precious metal recovery and recycling.

The brothers — who hit upon the idea during a visit to Dharavi, a large slum in Mumbai where much of the country’s e-waste is dismantled — estimated they have collected more than three tons of e-waste since September, when Nokia rolled out the program.

“Consumer awareness was really low when we started,” said Kumar, adding that the company is promoting a print and television campaign on the environmental benefits of recycling, and is also working with educational institutions.

“Lots of consumers are shifting resources to brands that are ‘green,’ so companies must showcase their environmental leadership in some way,” Manocha told India-West. “It does make business sense because the brand image is enhanced.”

“A lot is happening on the ground in India now,” noted Mehta of MAIT. On the drawing board, Indian manufacturers are working to make sure their products meet at least the minimum global standards for hazardous substances, he said, adding that Wipro and HCL have shown leadership by proactively launching green products.

Additionally, almost every Indian electronics manufacturer has tried to promote an end-of-life process on its Web site, encouraging consumers to responsibly dispose of old electronic goods.

“India is coming out of the middle ages and into a modern era,” Mehta said.

India-West staff reporter Sunita Sohrabji received a fellowship from the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists to report on electronic waste dismantling in India.