Recycling versus Resposal : the e-waste case

Resposal, a term coined by Respose Waste Management and Research, India, stands for responsible disposal. Respose does not use the term recycling because a recycling process may simply  not be responsible enough.

Recycling, according to Respose, is a flawed industry. In developing countries such as India, the e-waste processing sector is grossly abused by the informal recyclers who have no concern for the environment. The typical informal recycler uses primitive tools such as fire and acid. Most of the available WEEE in India, almost to the tune of about 80%, ends up with informal recyclers who simply crack open the equipment and rip off the PCBs and Wires. The rest of the body is directly sold to scrap metal dealers. The PCBs are immersed in acid baths to recover gold. The wires are burnt in the open to recover copper. In both these processes, the damage to the environment is unimaginable. Also the quality of the recovered metal is significantly impacted. The total yield of such processes cannot go beyond 30-40% . The advantage this sector enjoys is its extremely low cost. The capital investment is almost nil and the labour is often underpaid. Also, very often this labour comprises mainly of children and women. The long term impact of this business is therefore highly negative in terms of health, education, and all other issues imposed by economic constraints. Therefore if we consider social costs as a part of production cost, the informal e-waste recycler has a very high total cost of production. Because the social costs are left out of the equation, theoretically the informal process results in supernormal profits. At the same time since the yields and the purity are low, the actual realization of the profits is much lower. Sometimes even lower than the formal resposal process.

As against this e-Waste resposal is a potential candidate for creating high value in terms of both tangible monetary benefits as well as intangible social and environmental benefits. In the organized sector, the process is compliant with environmental norms and a mechanism exists to continuously monitor the compliance. The process is split into two phases, dry and wet. In the dry process, where no chemicals are used, it is a simple mechanical size reduction. The size of PCBs is reduced till the layers separate. The mixture of the mixed metal granules and the epoxy powder is separated by a density separation technique. The entire process can be made completely automatic and environment friendly. In the second stage the separated mixed metals go through a series of steps, some of which use chemicals and some use incineration. However the effluents are properly treated before discharge and environmental compliance is maintained. It is a completely closed “black-box” process so that there is no direct risk to the labour. In this case the yield is increased to as high as 98% . Also the purity of the metals is much higher fetching higher returns. Thus, in this process, no social costs are incurred. The only cost is the operational cost. While the capital cost is high, it is surely less than the social cost incurred. Also, the capital cost is a one time expense whereas the social cost is incurred everytime the process is run. Therefore it makes infinite sense to replace marginal social cost by a one time fixed capital cost.

Also, considering that labour costs are always on the rise, in the informal recycling sector a stage will eventually come when the labour costs may have a sharp impact on profits. Whereas in the resposal process, since dependence on labour is kept lower, this rise in labour costs has a much lower impact. Apart from the economic impact, there is a large positive impact on the environment by virtue of resposal. The metals recovered from the WEEE can meet some percentage of the overall metal demand. This means, given that there is only a limited stock of metal on the earth, the existing mines in the world can perhaps last much longer. Needless to say that lesser the mining, lesser is the damage to the forest cover, lesser is the erosion of the carbon sinks. Conversely, the informal recycling process creates a higher pollution leading to a higher Greenhouse effect, contributes to erratic rainfall patterns, has an impact on health, and drains the economic resources towards curative causes rather than allowing to invest the same in preventive medicine. Apart from pollution the informal sector employs child labour and women at dirt cheap prices. This, while it seems to give the poor an economic incentive, in reality it prevents them from being able to pursue larger opportunities. An unskilled labour in an informal recycling environment perennially lives in the same profile and the only escape from abject poverty is through organized crime.

In the resposal process, conversely all these social drawbacks are addressed. Respose is therefore committed to bring in a complete revolution in the e-waste recycling industry and encourage their gradual shift to resposal.


2 thoughts on “Recycling versus Resposal : the e-waste case

  1. Pingback: Symbiosis of informal sector and formal e-waste resposal agents | Respose

  2. Pingback: Why are most authorized e-waste businesses struggling? | Respose

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