Photo: Kilian Seiler/Unsplash
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the fastest-growing waste streams worldwide. Increasing industrialisation, standards of living and disposable income have prompted a surge in the volumes of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) in the market – and a concomitant increase in e-waste as well.
According to ‘Global e-waste monitor 2020’, 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, of which only 17.4% was recycled. India is the world’s third biggest contributor – with 3.2 million tonnes of e-waste generated a year, after China and the US. So for India to transition from a linear to a circular economy vis-à-vis electronics, policymaking and better legislative enforcement have to play catalysts.
In December 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken on the virtue of using electronic items to the fullest and discarding old items carefully, and the need to better handle electronic waste. More recently, in August 2021, he announced a ‘Waste to Wealth’ mission, focusing on utilising waste for better use.
But to this day, e-waste management in India remains plagued with ineffectual implementation.
According to a 2020 report by the Central Pollution Control Board, India generated 1,014,961 tonnes of e-waste in FY 2019-2020 – up 32% from FY 2018-2019. Of this, the report found that only 3.6% and 10% were actually collected in the country in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
It also said that the informal sector controls more than 90% of e-waste collection and handling processes in the country. Not surprisingly, neighbourhood kabadiwala is still the go-to source of waste collection for most people in the country.
Waste management and the environment
India is the only country in South Asia with a specific e-waste law in place, since 2011. The e-waste rules, formerly the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, provide guidelines for the transportation, storage and recycling of waste, and also introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR).
EPR is a known policy tool that requires makers of electronics to take financial and/or physical responsibility for managing the disposal of their products after the end of their lives. In 2016, the rules were broadened to introduce a ‘Producer Responsibility Organisation’ (PRO) to help collect and recycle e-waste, and brought buy-back, deposit refund and exchange schemes under the EPR.
Under the EPR mechanism, either the producer or a delegated third party – the PRO – must collect the waste for recycling or refurbishing. A 2018 amendment to the rules introduced year-on-year collection targets for producers under the EPR. From 2023 onwards, for example, producers/PROs are to collect at least 70% of the waste vis-à-vis their products from 2023.
While this policy tool has been successfully implemented in some parts of the world, it has also sparked a debate on aspirational collection targets. That is, ambitious waste-collection targets in the initial phase of policy implementation are hard to achieve because the reverse supply chain and mechanisms are still being set up and tested.
In addition, the formal sector suffers high handling and waste-procurement costs, underused capacity and some other related issues. A 2020 report also said formal-sector producers had to bear the extra environmental (including disposal of hazardous components and treatment of collected waste), health and safety, and compliance costs.
The informal sector doesn’t face the costs the formal sector does. But on the flip side, its contribution to the recycling process remains mostly unnoticed, and its workers labour in unsafe conditions. In this context, setting arbitrary yet ambitious collection targets could further endanger them.
A way forward
One way to solve the e-waste challenge is to effect better policy and implementation. In addition, the government must set evidence-based pragmatic instead of ambitious targets. This would require tracking the quantum of e-waste being produced and the recycling capacity to process it.
Second, we need a vital shift in the policy environment itself. Most environmental policies in India are of the ‘command and control’ variety – in which producers are probably penalised if they miss a preset target. Such policies often lead to long-term failures. Instead, we need policies of the ‘carrot and stick’ variety – with a penalty at one end and an incentive at the other.
For example, to encourage e-waste recycling industries, the Chinese government set up a fund. It was used to subsidise the e-waste recycling process in the country, while the government also showcased significant improvements in the e-waste recycling market. It also provided subsidies to help informal sector actors to formalise their activities.
As our consumption of electronic goods increases, so will the amount of e-waste, more so given the pandemic and post-pandemic paradigm of working from home. The need of the hour, in sum, is to make the conversion of ‘waste to wealth’ easier while we endeavour to completely understand the salient numbers of the country’s e-waste collection.
This needs to be followed by setting pragmatic targets, and a robust implementation mechanism and to bridge the formal and informal sectors.
Sajal Jain and Tarun are researchers at ICRIER.