Society for Conservation of Nature



( Published in Friday 14 September 2018)

India’s annual e-waste generation was 1.8 million MTs in 2016 and is expected to reach 5.2 million MTs by 2020. When such is the prediction highlighting the urgent need to address the health hazard of e-waste without proper regulation of the recycling process by the informal sector, it is high time that our Indian Government should rise up to the occasion to prevent the increasing environmental damage and health hazards. Electronic and electrical equipment that have become unfit for their originally intended use or which have crossed the expiry date are called e-waste. Computers, servers, mainframes, monitors, CDs, printers, scanners, copiers, calculators, fax machines, battery cells, cellular phones, transceivers, TVs, iPods, medical apparatus, washing machines, refrigerators and air-conditioners are known as e-waste. Valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold and platinum could be recovered from the e waste, if they are processed scientifically.

The toxic constituents of the e-waste make them hazardous when they are dismantled and processed in a crude method. The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) that present in the computer monitors with heavy metals like lead, barium and cadmium may be harmful during the improper processing and cause an adverse impact on the human nervous and respiratory systems. In the same way, lead and cadmium present in the printed circuit boards, beryllium of the motherboards, mercury in switches and flat-screen monitors, cadmium in the computer batteries, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the cable insulation and bromine in plastic housing may cause damage to the human body parts such as nervous system, kidney and liver, lungs and skin, heart, lever and muscles, brain and skin, kidney and liver, immune system and endocrine respectively. Thus the e-waste containing toxic contents not only affect our health but also endanger our valuable ecosystem seriously.

As recycling and disposal of e-waste is mostly done by informal/unorganised sector, they are considered to be highly polluting, making an adverse impact on human health and the environment as well.

Mumbai stands first among the top ten cities generating e-waste followed by Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Pune, Surat and Nagpur. The government, public and private sectors act as the primary source of e-waste to the tune of 70%. Individual households contribute only 15%. The balance 15 % is produced by manufacturers.

The substances like liquid crystal, lithium, mercury, nickel, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), selenium, arsenic, barium, brominated flameproofing agent, cadmium, chrome, cobalt, copper and lead which are the inherent part of the electronic equipment are toxic and carcinogenic. The adverse impacts caused in India are highly hazardous since people involved in recycling of e-waste in unorganised sector work not only without any protection measure or safeguards but also live close to the untreated e-waste dumps and landfills.

People belong to the unorganised sector only recycle and dispose of 90% of the e-waste generated in India. The unskilled workers mainly from the slum areas are involved in the recycling process by using primitive methods. The workers are found operating here even without any glove or mask when they use nitric acid for removal of gold and platinum from the circuit boards. Mostly children are   engaged in dismantling the circuit boards.  Private and public sector prefer selling their e-waste to informal dismantlers as they get more price since the expenditure is less when the recycling is done through the unorganised sector. Hence, proper regulation is to be enforced in processing e-waste by organised sector. The generation of e-waste in large quantity in recent years poses a serious threat to the environment and human health. Awareness programmes are to be conducted to make the stakeholders and the public understand the real health problems caused by untreated e-waste and the value of the components, and guide them to dispose of the e-waste properly through authorized sector only.  When Government of India promotes ‘Swachh Bharat’ programme, definitely everyone must keep the country without any untreated e-waste also.

Inventorization of the e-waste produced annually should be done by engaging an established agency by the Government. Then only suitable steps can be planned for recycling and disposal of the e-waste in an organised manner. When the valuable metals are extracted from the e-waste, it can meet out our domestic requirement. In that way, our dependence on other countries for the import of such metals can be dispensed with. As the e-waste contains toxic components, it is very much essential to segregate them carefully and dispose of them scientifically in order to manage the environment sustainably. Moreover, the consumers also should understand certain intricacies. While they buy any electrical/electronic product, it may be somewhat expensive. However, after certain years of use, its lifetime may expire. At that time, it is better to dispose of them properly by selling such products to the organised sector. During that time, the product becomes scrap, as the metal present only may have some value. So, naturally it may fetch a small price only. But the consumers are hesitant to part with the outdated product thinking of the original price what they paid while   purchased originally and of course some with the sentiment attached to the product. Considering the adverse impacts caused by the untreated e-wastes on the land, water and air; the Government should encourage the new entrepreneurs by providing the necessary financial support and technological guidance. Establishment of start-ups connected with the e-waste recycling and disposal should be encouraged by giving special concession.