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An E-Disaster

With Delhi set to become the largest producer of e-waste in India by 2020, more recycling and less dumping of old appliances seems to be the only solution to this recurring problem

Ranit Das, a resident of Noida, was fed up of his laptop, which he owned for the past five years, as it was showing some major technical glitches, and finally stopped working. So, last week, he bought a brand new one which was a major upgrade to the previous one. He then decided to sell the old one to a scrap dealer near his house. Little did he know that most of the parts of his laptop would pile on to the already existing 85,000 metric tonne of e-waste in Delhi-NCR.

According to the United Nations, electronic waste, otherwise known as e-waste (any discarded product with a battery or a plug like laptops, mobile phones, refrigerators) “poses a major threat to the environment and human health”. “With the increase of electronic gadgets in the past couple of years, the amount of e-waste is growing every day and is becoming one of the — if not the most hazardous form — of waste material”, says Ranjana Goswami, an environment rights activist.

According to a study by the UN, India is the fourth largest producer of e-waste in the world, amounting to over 20 lakh metric tonne. While Mumbai is the city which produces the most amount of e-waste in the country (96,000 metric tonnes), Delhi-NCR stands at the second position. However, according to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), Delhi will produce 1.5 lakh metric tonne of e-waste by 2020, thus not only making it the most e-waste producing city in India, but also one of the leading cities in this regard in the world.

“The major reason why e-waste is on the rise is that most of us don’t know what to do with our e-waste”, says Goswami. According to a study done by a Delhi-based NGO, Toxics Link, 90% Delhiites do not know how to dispose of e-waste.

“Most of us sell our old electronic devices to the unorganized sector, i.e., scrap dealers. However, they are extremely disorganized and scientifically unaware. Most of them open up these appliances, and the parts which are not at all working anymore, are either discarded or burnt”, says Bhagwati Suman, the director of Auctus E-Recycling Solutions. “The parts of devices like refrigerators, televisions and AC’s contain lead, and when they are burnt, they produce harmful gases which contribute a lot to the increasing air pollution of the city and is also responsible for acid rain,” he adds.

“The e-waste that is dumped in landfills stays there for days, and they contain harmful polymers that release a toxic liquid if they are dumped in the open for a long period of time. This toxic liquid, goes into the soil, making it more fragile. When it rains, this toxic liquid is washed into the river Yamuna, thus polluting it”, says Suman.

E-waste not only affects the environment but also causes hazard to human health. According to the Assocham report, high and prolonged exposure to these pollutants emitted due to e-waste damages nervous systems, blood systems, kidneys and brain development, and can cause respiratory, skin disorders, bronchitis, lung cancer, heart, liver, and spleen damage. The same study also reveals that 67% of e-waste workers in Delhi suffer from various diseases like breathing disorders, skin infections and even cancer. In addition to this, the report also states that almost 50% of the total number of e-waste workers are children aged between 10 to 15 years.

“Instead of just dumping our old appliances to the unorganised sectors, we should concentrate more on recycling it”, says Suman. “The average life of an electronic appliance like TV, fridge or AC is approximately 9-10 years, but if we recycle the parts, we can increase the longevity to more than 20 years”, he adds. “At Auctus E-recycling solutions, we ask people to donate their old appliances to us, so that we can properly fix and recycle the old parts instead of burning and then again re-sell them to another person, at almost half the price of the original appliance. In this way, we are not only recycling the old appliance, but also making it usable for another person”, says Suman.

“More than 45% of the total e-waste in India comes from the industrial sector like offices and factories. So if we can reduce that, then the amount of e-waste produced can be cut short by a huge number”, says Shekhar Sharma, spokesperson of Hindustan E-waste Management Solutions. “We go to different companies and conduct workshops on the hazards of e-waste and urge them to donate their e-waste to us so that we can recycle it”, he adds. Sharma claims that major IT companies like IBM, Wipro and TCS donate a large amount of their e-waste to the Jangpura based e-waste management firm.

Abhimanyu Mehra, a mechanical engineer, came back to Delhi after his higher studies in Paris to settle this humongous e-waste problem that is plaguing the capital. His company, Adatte E-Waste Management Pvt Ltd, has recently set up a recycling plant in Bhiwandi, Rajasthan, so that he can recycle and properly dispose of the circuit boards inside computers and mobile phones. “Most dealers, while recycling the mobile phones and computers, dispose of the circuits and motherboards and install new ones. But it is these that cause the maximum amount of damage to the environment. So if we could recycle or scientifically dispose of these in a plant, we can create a better environment for us to live in,” says Mehra.

But such recycling companies are few and far between. According to Assocham, only 1.5% of the city’s total waste is recycled, while the rest is either burnt or disposed in landfills. “My plant has a capacity of recycling 2,000 metric tonne of e-waste per month, but we recycle about 40 metric tonne a year”, says Bhagwati Suman.

The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has set up 37 e-waste collection centres across the city to counter this growing problem, but environmentalists like Suman believe that it just a small step. “We need to educate people about managing their e-waste. It is only if the citizens become more aware that we can curb this e-waste problem”, concludes Suman.