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E-waste management warrants introspection, reexamination, and course correction

·4 min read

Ecologically sensitive management of e-waste threatens to become one of the defining challenges of our times. E-waste is the fastest growing stream of waste. This year, global e-waste will reach 57.4 million tons, which is greater than the weight of the Great Wall of China, the heaviest man-made object.

And e-waste is growing fast. It grew by 21 percent between 2014 and 2019 and is growing annually by 2 million tons.

A combination of factors like growing industrialization, economic prosperity, shorter product lifespans and planned obsolescence by manufacturers have led to increased rates of e-waste generation. The coronavirus-induced shift en masse to online learning and rapid digitalization across sectors has fuelled unprecedented demand for electronics. And we must be cognizant of the e-waste problem we are staring at.

E-waste is the most valuable stream of waste. A ton of e-waste is likely to yield more silver than a ton of silver ore. Despite this, recycling rates remain low at 15 percent globally. This must increase.

Additionally, we have no clue where 80 percent of e-waste comes from, where it is disposed of, what are the pre-treatment methods for resource extraction before discarding e-waste and the manner of discarding the waste.

There is also the problem that around 20 percent of undocumented e-waste is exported as second-hand products or as e-waste to low- or middle-income countries. In higher income countries, 8 percent of e-waste is discarded in waste bins and ends up in landfills.

The manner of e-waste disposal requires serious re-evaluation and change.

More than 90 percent of e-waste is handled by the informal sector that resorts to unscientific and dangerous methods of resource extraction from e-waste, which is dumped irresponsibly post extraction. This seriously impacts human health and environment. The rich are diverting their e-waste, not just globally but also locally.

The theme of the International E-Waste Day is the role of consumers in improving the rates of re-use, refurbishment, and recycling of electrical and electronic products. It forces us consumers to introspect and change our consumption habits and patterns, and more importantly get interested and involved in how the e-waste we generate is dealt with.

Some hardware manufacturers have taken the initiative to promote responsible recycling. I will use an example to make this point clearer. On average, more than 90 percent of a Dell product can be recycled, however when the company takes back a device, its goal is to always€¯refurbish€¯and reuse first €" extending the lifecycle for as long as possible.

Using modular components, minimal adhesives and limited numbers of screws is key to achieving this, along with designing products for easier repair and recycling of components. Because if a device can't be refurbished, those component can be used to refurbish other systems, or recycle them for reuse in new products.

The company takes plastics from recycled electronics and uses these to create new plastic parts, to date creating over 100 million pounds of recycled plastic parts and used closed-loop plastic on more than 125 different product lines. They also take rare-earth magnets and aluminium from old hard drives and use them to create new hard drives in select products.

Most leading hardware manufacturers run product re-purchase and recycling programs. There is growing consciousness among product manufacturers on the need to encourage responsible recycling and to provide an avenue for consumers to do so. We as consumers must also take the lead in understanding the means to dispose our e-waste efficiently and responsibly.

For its part, the government of India had introduced the E-Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2011, which were notified in 2011 and came into force on May 1, 2012. The Union environment ministry notified the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016 which came into effect from October 1, 2016.

These rules are applicable to every producer, consumer or bulk consumer, collection center, dismantler and recycler of e-waste involved in the manufacture, sale, purchase, and processing of electrical and electronic equipment.

While government mandates and guidelines are in place, it is upon us consumers to genuinely feel for the planet and act responsibly. And efforts are being made in this direction. Increasing product life cycle is a vital part of the solution. Civil society organisations like Smile Foundation are playing an important part in doing so. They are taking education to underprivileged children by operating gadget libraries across the country.

These gadget libraries utilize electronic gadgets like tablets, phones etc. for the benefit of the maximum number of students, driving access to education through finite hardware assets, ensuring they are utilized optimally.

Mahatma Gandhi had said "the earth has enough for everyone's need but not enough for everyone's greed."

We have but one planet to live on and thrive off. It is time we seriously examine our consumption and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment and make it environmentally conscious.

Dr Aatish Parashar is professor, dean and head, Central University of South Bihar, and an expert in environment communication


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