Electronic waste, a public health hazard

Author Published: 2nd Oct 2017   12:05 am Updated: 1st Oct 2017   7:47 pm

Electronic waste is no more a problem of the rich and elite in India but a cause of serious concern for the environment. The toxic waste, generated from thousands of tonnes of discarded electronic devices across the country, plays havoc with public health with nearly five lakh child labourers being exposed to the dangerous cocktail of heavy metals, chemicals, mercury and other carcinogens. Though India is the fifth largest producer of e-waste in the world, its record of recycling is very poor. Less than 2% of the electronic waste is recycled through an institutional process. With rapid penetration of mobiles, computers and other consumer electronic devices, e-waste is growing 30% annually and is set to explode beyond manageable means if urgent steps are not taken to regulate recycling sector. Computer devices account for nearly 70% of e-waste. Unfortunately, India is yet to put in place a widespread and regulated institutional process to recycle, reuse and dispose the e-waste safely. There is a need to promote public awareness about this key environmental aspect and involve the informal sector in this humungous task. The global e-waste generation, which stood at 41.80 million metric tonnes in 2014, is likely to touch 49.80 mmt by 2018. While countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland recycled almost 50% of their e-waste in 2014, India’s record has been pathetic with less than 2% being recycled. What is more alarming is the employment of child labour, without any protective gear, in the collection of the discarded electronic devices, exposing them to the toxic fumes.

In India, the collection of discarded mobiles and computers is done entirely by the unorganised sector, posing severe public health hazards. According to a study by the industry body Assocham, about 80% of the e-waste workers suffer from respiratory ailments due to improper safeguards. They also run the risk of damage to lungs, liver and kidneys. The Environment Ministry had notified e-waste management rules last year, introducing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) provision that stipulates for collection 30% waste in first two years and up to 70% in seven years. However, a majority of the brands operating in India do not have the wherewithal to handle waste that is generated by their goods at end of life stage. Despite having a ‘take back’ system in place, it is seldom implemented on the ground as the manufacturers do not provide adequate information on their websites. One of the major challenges facing the e-waste management sector in India is the mechanism for inclusion of thousands of producers and importers under the ambit of regulation. India must take a cue from countries like Norway where e-waste ‘take back’ system is being implemented quite effectively for more than 12 years now.