What’s the big deal about e-waste?

India produced 8 million tons of electronic waste in 2009. In 2012, the number may cross 12 million tons. No big deal. With a population of  1.3 billion, it  means a mere 10 Kgs per capita !

The big deal is here. e-waste is the fastest growing pile of waste worldwide, and in India and China it is growing faster than the world. Great ! It simply means that India and China are absorbing new technology and discarding old technology at a rate faster than the world. So good for them.

No.

The reality is that a large part of this heap is contributed by the west. Despite anti-dumping laws, there are huge consignments of e-waste being brought in India and China in the name of ‘second hand products for reuse and/or resale’. In reality  these containers go straight to the unorganized recycling sector. Ok. So what? If the unorganized sector is getting a livelihood, isnt it good enough?

The issue is that they do get a livelihood in return of their lives !

Let us look at the entire mechanics of how this whole stuff works. e-Waste is collected through multiple sources including the ragpickers, large ITES companies, manufacturers, governments and of course the banned import route. (Sometimes I think, imposing a ban on anything is equivalent to signalling that now you can make money out of this!) The collection chain is an extremely “well organized” network with a clear hub and spoke arrangement. The ragpickers sell their foraging to the slightly bigger scrap retailer. Such scrap retailers then sell it to a scrap dealer. Many such dealers then sell it to a regional scrap agent. These agents collect the scrap on behalf of the scrap tycoon.

This tycoon directs the scrap to recycling agents who then download it to local recyclers. These local recyclers dump it on their labour, often bonded labour. Such labourers actually recycle the scrap with three simple tools : A sledge hammer, a match stick and acid. The collected scrap is simply broken into pieces. The wires are burnt in heaps. The PCBs (printed circuit boards) are dipped in acid and the metals are dissolved in the acids. The output obtained is metal pieces and plastic from the external casings, a highly contaminated lump of copper from the wires and various metals in form of sulphates and chlorides and nitrides and other salts. And of course the largest output is the by products – poisonous gases, tar, leachants, wasted acids and chemicals.

There is absolutely no problem in dealing with these pollutants. There is a simple mechanism. The poisonous gases are inhaled by the workers. So human lungs take care of treating the gases. Left over gases become a part of the city atmosphere. So we have a few million lungs cleaning the gases. The leachants and tar and other stuff that runs into the ground is absorbed by the soil. The earth being earth, it simply allows the poison to seep in. Occasionally it may seep in directly in an aquifer. Else it may simply be absorbed by trees (if there are any!). And as far as wasted acid and other dissolved chemicals are concerned, it is very easy to let it flow to the nearest drainage that finally terminates either water bodies either above the earth’s surface or below. If it is above the earth’s surface, the treatment is simple. Aquatic life takes care of it. So may kidneys, gills, intestines are available to clean the water. So the final residue on the planet is only a few dead bodies. That’s fine. Someone needs to sacrifice for the benefit of the environment !

It is a scary situation. We, at Respose, conducted a small dipstick survey. (Of course it was a under cover operation. And we could only venture as far as our common sense and a sixth sense of danger would allow.  Recyclers dont like too much inquisitiveness. So one needs to know when to back out. ) The survey was based on the economic and health aspects of the waste workers.

Table 1 : Average Sick Days observation in waste labourers

People interviewed

37

Average Years in this activity

Average monthly earning

Avg No of sick days in a month

Avg weight (kg)

Male Adults (above 14)

15

5

4500

3

48

Female Adults (above 14)

4

5

3000

4

42

Male Children (under 14)

10

4

1400

6

29

Female Children (under 14)

8

3

1200

6

27

Table 2 : Average Daily Earning of ragpickers

 

No. of. Respondents

Material collected

Average daily income (Rs)

Male Adults

10

Plastic, Metals, Paper, household electronic equipment

76

Female Adults

30

Plastic, cloth, metals

53

Male Children (under 14)

43

Plastic, cloth

32

Female Children (under 14)

37

Plastic, cloth

27

This is the big deal.

While the ‘mafias of waste’ are making huge money, the actual workers are languishing.

Respose aims to change this. We therefore appeal –  DO NOT throw away your electronic waste and please DO NOT sell it to your local scrap retailer.

2 thoughts on “What’s the big deal about e-waste?

  1. A day is not far off when other countries start dumping/transfering eWaste to India for recycling, similar to breaking of junked ships, toxic wastes, etc. India is slowly becoming the dumpyard for these wastes. There may be money in that business. The off-gases from the processes and the liquid waste generated are simply released into our environment without the required cleaning. Above all, these jobs are reported to be done by children/women folks. Benefits at what risk? Whether it is worth it? If so, let there be proper regulation by the government.

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