[Explainer] The why and how of disposing electronic waste

First published in Mongabay India. This is an excerpt. Click here for the full piece. A crowd-sourced e-waste repository came out of this piece. You can find hacks, organisations, repair links here.

  • Consumers discarded 53.6 million tonnes worth of electronics in 2019, globally up 20 percent in 5 years. But only 17.4 percent was recycled sustainably.
  • India generates about 3 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste annually and ranks third among e-waste producing countries, after China and the United States. Reports state that it might rise to 5 million tonnes by 2021.
  • With COVID-19 keeping people indoors and on devices, the usage of electronics is only getting higher.
  • The way forward for consumers could be the 4 R method of reuse, repair, recycle, and research.

What do you do with your e-waste? The answers would possibly range across a wide spectrum – from ‘what is e-waste’, ‘office IT vendor’ and ‘collection boxes’ to ‘we just dump it in the dustbin’ or ‘hoard it in a cupboard.’ It would appear that disposing of e-waste effectively (or at all) is not a priority because, unlike our natural waste, it doesn’t really get in the way.

How much e-waste are we generating and why should we worry about it?

Simple answer: because we’re quickly reaching up to the brim with it.

According to a 2019 United Nations report, titled ‘A New Circular Vision For Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot’ consumers discard 44 million tonnes worth of electronics each year; only 20 percent is recycled sustainably.

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 shows that consumers discarded 53.6 million tonnes worth of electronics in 2019 globally, up 20 percent in 5 years.

India generated 3.2 million tonnes of e-waste last year, ranking third after China (10.1 million tonnes) and the United States (6.9 million tonnes). Following the current growth rate of e-waste, an ASSOCHAM-EY joint report, titled ‘Electronic Waste Management in India’ estimated India to generate 5 million tonnes by 2021. The study also identified computer equipment and mobile phones as the principal waste generators in India.

With COVID-19 keeping people indoors, the usage is only getting higher; and without proper intervention, it is likely to be over 100 million tonnes by 2050.

What happens if we don’t recycle?

Two things – from dumpsters, it either goes to landfills or travels down in unregulated markets.

Ashley Delaney is Founder at Group TenPlus, a Goa company that manages the collection of electronic waste. “An ordinary circuit board from a mobile or laptop contains roughly 16 different metals,” says Delaney. “Most informal sectors will probably be able to retrieve a couple of metals and landfill the rest. Hazardous chemicals like mercury, which are used to extract these metals, leach into the soil, which will be damaged forever. If you find discarded batteries, tube lights, CFL bulbs, chances are the soil around them will be barren. Simply put – composting sites have fungus growing around it, despite being a ‘waste space’. But look around a dumpster, e-waste will ensure that nothing natural will grow around it, not even grass.”

Once the quantities increase, the leaching of metal finds its way to everything around that space, even food. When e-waste travels to our oceans in large quantities, it contaminates water with gaseous or liquid toxins, which we can’t even see. A study led by SRM University, Tamil Nadu, found that soil from informal electronic recycling sites that recover metals showed high levels of contamination across Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

Why should we recycle e-waste?

The point of extracting metals and plastic from e-waste is to use them towards making more electronics. This is not as easy as it seems. These metals are difficult to extract – the UN report puts the total recovery rates for cobalt at 30 percent (despite technology existing that could recycle 95 percent). It’s used for laptops, smartphones, and electric car batteries, and recycled metals are two to 10 times more energy-efficient than metals smelted from virgin ore. The way forward to ensuring a sustainable chain in manufacturing and recycling is to build effective reuse methods.

This is also vital because the key elements in most electronics – rare earth metals – aren’t exactly rare as their name suggests, but are definitely hard to obtain, at least locally. The latest forecasts show that e-waste’s global worth is around $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the GDP of most countries. It’s also worth three times the output of all the world’s silver mines.

Is my local kabadiwala (scrap dealer) a good option?

Short answer: no.

When you give your e-waste to an unauthorised waste-collector, you’re contributing to the chain of unregulated markets, which accounts for handling over 95 percent of e-waste generated in India. These markets attempt to extract metals from devices to sell them onward, but possibly with fewer skills per metal and the necessary safety standards.

“There are thousands of informal dismantling and recycling units – Dharavi in Mumbai, Meerut, Moradabad, Seelampur in Delhi, and many more,” says Pranshu Singhal, Founder, Karo Sambhav. “These spaces engage in open-air burning of wires to extract copper, use cyanide-based acid to extract metals – at great harm to themselves and the environment around them.”

Once they extract copper from a product –it finds its way back into the secondary market, whatever part of the world it might end up. The challenge primarily is the practices that are deployed.

A 2018 documentary ‘Welcome to Sodom’ explores the almost dystopian, shocking world of the Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana, where life revolves around toxic waste, versus a hope of a healthier life. The site says, “Every year about 2,50,000 tons of sorted out computers, smartphones, air conditions tanks and other devices from a far away electrified and digitalised world end up here, shipped to Ghana illegally.”

Reports show that e-waste workers suffer from stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness and even DNA damage. There is a body of research, the report cites, that shows “a significant risk of harm, especially to children who are still growing and developing. Individual chemicals in e-waste such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, PCBs, PBDEs, and PAHs are known to have serious impacts on nearly every organ system.”

Dharavi is one of the top hubs in India for the informal recycling of e-waste. Studies have shown that even the water there is acidic and the fumes are causing health problems. As Delaney says, “Don’t go to a kabadiwala – you’re handing him a knife to either kill himself or someone else with it.”