All about the harmful effects of electronic waste, and the right way to resell and recycle it
“Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain,
For strip-mined mountain’s majesty above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee,
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea.”
― George Carlin
What’s true for America is doubly true for India. A study released by the World Health Organization last month rated New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world – it also mentioned air pollution as the fifth largest killer in India.
For people living in Delhi – and other Indian cities – the data comes as no surprise. For decades, we have been (ineffectually) trying to address problems associated with fuelwood & biomass burning, factory pollutants and vehicle emissions. Meanwhile, an equally toxic killer has silently spread its wings – waste generated from the appliances we use at home and the smart devices that control our lives.
According to a recent report by UN’s StEP Initiative, which was established to tackle the world’s eWaste crisis, nearly 50 Million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2012 – or about 7 kg for every person on the planet. India alone generated over 1 Million metric tons of waste from electrical and electronic equipment in 2013. Given our growing appetite for smarter appliances and the rapidly expanding population of online users (an estimated 243 million Indians will access the Internet by the end of this month) , it’s no surprise that the volume of e-waste in our country is also growing exponentially.
While countries such as US & UK have been trying to bell the cat for decades, India has only recently woken up to this menace. Two years ago, the government passed legislation on disposal of e-waste, and a growing bunch of companies are helping recycle e-waste in a safe and responsible manner. One such company is Delhi based Karma Recycling Pvt Ltd. A government authorized collector and segregator of e-waste, it helps companies and households dispose their e-waste in an environment friendly manner.
My Big Red Bag in conversation with Akshat Ghiya, founder and CEO of Karma Recycling, to understand the nitty gritty of the problem and possible solutions.
What is e-waste and why is it harmful to the environment?
Simplistically, anything that is wired – or goes into something with a wire and socket – constitutes as e-waste. This includes gadgets and appliances that we use at home – such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, printers, TV, CD & DVD players, refrigerators and their peripherals. A much bigger component of e-waste is electronic equipment and devices used in offices – such as servers, networking equipment, medical devices, scanning and fax machines, storage drives and a whole host of other equipment.
Traditionally, we Indians are used to handing over our unused objects to the local kabadiwalla. Now this man is extremely efficient when it comes to disposing local household goods that are typically made of glass, plastic and metals. But electrical and electronic devices also contain several hazardous elements, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, antimony, cobalt & chromium. These elements, if not handled carefully, leak into the sky and land, leading to increased toxicity in both the air we breathe and the water we drink. And this is where the local kabadiwalla comes up short.
We have spent a lot of time watching kabadiwallas dispose e-waste in Seelampur and Dharavi, and what we saw left us shaken. Unaware of the harm that the hazardous metals can cause if not handled properly, they use unsafe disposal procedures such as working without protective covers, burning electronic parts and dipping them in acid tanks. Apart from harming the environment, these practices also cause lung and other fatal diseases to the kabadiwalla (This Greenpeace video shows the harmful effect of such practices on the workers health). On the other hand, if this waste is handled in the right manner – using safe systems and technology wherever possible – more reusable items can be extracted which can then be refurbished while the non-reusable objects can be disposed without harming the environment.
As per our estimates, 90- 95% of e-waste in India is handled by this unorganized sector and that is where the crux of the problem lies.
Who are the biggest generators of e-waste? Are there certain types of e-waste that are more toxic than others?
With technology being increasingly deployed by institutions of all shapes and sizes, companies, governments educational institutions are the biggest generators of e-waste. But with increasing churn in gadgets and appliances – people are replacing their phones, laptops and home appliances much more frequently than before – households also make a not insignificant contribution.
The more electronic components that a device carries, the greater its potential for polluting the environment if not disposed correctly. Generally, IT equipment, refrigerators and the motherboards of computers, laptops, tablets & mobile phones have the greatest potential for harm.
What measures are companies and the government taking to address this?
In 2012, the government passed the E-Waste Management and Handling Rules, which make it mandatory for all companies – irrespective of their size – to hand over their e-waste to authorized collectors and segregators of e-waste. The government also encoded the extended producer responsibility in these guidelines, holding the producer of the electrical or electronic device responsible for the systematic collection (take-back) and recycling of their products. (A producer is a manufacturer of electrical or electronic appliances, such as Samung or Nokia; while a corporate is a consumer of electronic equipment, such as a bank or a small analytics company)
Unfortunately, the legislation is being enforced very poorly. The government needs to conduct regular audits of producers, corporates and even households and enforce heavy penalties on offenders. This needs to be backed up with creating greater awareness of the harmful effects of improper e-waste recycling amongst all stakeholders, including individuals.
Many companies are still unaware of the 2012 legislature and continue to hand over their e-waste to the local kabadiwala. In our experience, there is some awareness amongst large to mid sized companies, but none amongst the smaller companies, which are significant in number . Even amongst companies that are aware, compliance is extremely low.
Are these measures adequate? How does India compare with the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable e-waste disposal?
No, these measures are woefully inadequate – India is living in the Neanderthal age on this subject!
First of all it is important to recognize that is not an easy problem to solve – the US & UK have been addressing this issue for 10-15 years now, and despite numerous programs and incentives, only about 30% of their e-waste is properly recycled. The good thing is that we know what worked – and didn’t – in these countries, so we can hopefully shorten our learning curve.
The most important measure is to create much greater awareness amongst individuals, producers and corporates. The contamination caused by improper recycling is is polluting our air and water and taking numerous lives every year. The government should run a campaign on the same scale as that against tobacco or polio. At the same time, information on e-waste and recycling should be incorporated into the school curriculum – this a common practice in the West and extremely effective. As children become aware of this menace, they will also educate their families and together they can take steps to ensure that their e-waste is handled properly.
The second important measure is proper enforcement of the 2012 legislation through clear guidelines, audits and heavy penalties for non-compliant producers and corporates. The government also needs to be committed to ending the informal recycling of e-waste; instead, it should encourage setting up of more authorized collectors, segregators and recyclers, and incentivizing the ones which already exist, creating opportunities for the integration of the informal sector with the formal sector.
Everyone, from the government to producers, corporates and individuals, has a critical role to play if we want to preserve the earth for future generations.
Is the prevalence of e-waste imports into India making the situation worse?
It is illegal to import e-waste into India, but we can’t deny that due to a variety of reasons, a large amount of e-waste from the developed world gets dumped in India, China & Africa. This is making the situation worse right now because a lot of this e-waste is also being handled by the informal sector using unsafe practices. But if we could safely recycle this imported waste through authorized companies, the problem can turn into an economic opportunity!
Are there companies in India that are leading the way in responsible disposal of e-waste?
We are seeing some positive changes in recent times, and a few companies are adopting education on this subject as part of their CSR initiatives. An example of this is Indus Towers, the world’s largest telecom tower company. We are helping them organize activities on World Environment Day to create awareness amongst their employees. The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) has also been regularly holding drives to spread the word amongst member companies.
What services does Karma Recycling offer ?
We passionately believe that what goes around, comes around – and nowhere is this more true than for the environment. Karma Recycling works with producers, corporates, households and other institutions to help recycle their electronic waste in an environment friendly way.
When you hand over your electronic waste to Karma as an individual or household, we first segregate it into reusable and non reusable – we ensure that the non reusable devices are recycled in a safe manner by working with licensed e-waste recyclers. The reusable devices are refurbished by us, and after stringent quality controls, we sell them at extremely competitive rates on our online portal. We believe that re-commerce – or refurbishing discarded electronic devices – is a huge economic opportunity for India given that a large section of the population may not have the resources to buy new devices. It is good for the environment and pocket friendly!
We arrange free pick- up of devices all over India, for which customers can also get a preliminary quote on our website (Currently this service is offered for mobile phones, laptops and tablets). For devices other than mobile phones and computers, we hold e-waste collection drives in large housing societies in NCR and ensure that this waste is safely recycled.
We offer similar services to producers and corporates, but obviously the scale is much larger there. We also advise these organizations on how the new laws apply to them, and train them on the adoption of safe e-waste disposal practices. Apart from this, we also hold regular seminars at schools, colleges and industry bodies such as CII to spread awareness about the importance of proper recycling of e-waste. We also work closely with government bodies such as Delhi Pollution Control Committee on policy matters related to e-waste.
Editor’s End Note:
On World Environment Day, let us do at least one thing to create a cleaner earth. Plant a tree, commit to a car pool, pledge not to litter public spaces or hand over your waste to a green recycler. If you are interested in ensuring that your discarded electronics do not contaminate the environment, you can sell your old mobile phones and computers online at :
You can also help organize an e-waste collection drive in your neighbourhood – drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
To buy refurbished mobiles, laptops and tablets, you can visit www.karmashop.in. Two other companies offering this service online are www.gobol.in and www.greendust.com: unlike Karma, they sell refurbished factory seconds.
Here is some more information from the Centre for Science & Environment on safe disposal of e-waste.
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Images and video are the property of Karma Recycling Pvt Ltd