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Opportunities in Electronic Waste for Atmanirbhar Bharat

Presently Electronic waste is illegally routed into unregulated channels of    mafia or informal traders having control in the e-waste market. The supply of e-waste attracts 5 per cent GST. This has indirectly allowed various informal sector players to trade in e-waste by moving it from one city to another by simply paying the GST to ensure legal compliance. — Vinod Johri


We are always puzzled over obsolete and outdated electronic items, mobile phones, laptops, keyboards, leads, computers, old transistors, VCD, VCP, TV,  remote controls, electronic cords, UPS, batteries, mouse, scanners, modems, pen drives, server, printers, routers, speakers, smart watches, smart lights, medical testing equipments etc. With COVID-19 keeping people indoors and on devices, the usage of electronics is only getting higher. All electronic items have limited life span so they are obsolete sooner or later.

E-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams with an annual growth rate of 3-5%. E-waste quantities are rising 3 times faster than the world’s population and 13 per cent faster than the world’s GDP during the last five years.  

According to information available in public domain, 53.6 million tonnes worth of electronics in 2019 has been discarded, globally up 20 percent in 5 years. But only 17.4 percent was recycled sustainably. 

Bharat 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). It is expected that it may rise to 5 million tonnes by 2021. 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 worldwide.

Definition of E-Waste

E-waste is any electrical or electronic equipment that’s been discarded. This includes working and broken items that are thrown in the garbage. E-waste is particularly dangerous due to toxic chemicals that naturally leach from the metals inside when buried. The definition of e-waste is likely to keep expanding. In an era of rapid technological advancement, more and more highly sophisticated electronic goods are being invented and manufactured. The technology innovators continue to create electric devices designed to make our lives easier and more convenient in every conceivable way. Therefore, the menace of E-Waste will only grow exponentially over the years.

Hazards of Electronic waste

Waste from end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment, is a rapidly growing global problem. E-waste contains valuable materials that have an economic value when recycled. Unfortunately, the majority of e-waste is recycled in the unregulated informal sector and results in significant risk for toxic exposures to the recyclers, who are frequently women and children who have minimal awareness about the adverse consequences of mishandling e-waste. If the gadgets aren’t handled properly, they can lead to organ damage, neurological damage and severe illness not only for the waste workers but also the population residing in the vicinity. Reports show that e-waste workers suffer from stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness and even DNA damage. Incineration of e-waste also discharges lethal gases into the air.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health risks may result from direct contact with toxic materials that leach from e-waste. These include minerals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Danger can come from inhalation of the toxic fumes, as well as from the accumulation of chemicals in soil, water, and food. This puts not just people in danger but land and sea animals as well. In developing countries, the risks are exceptionally high because some developed countries send their e-waste there.  

USA’s Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 60 million metric tons of e-waste end up in landfills every year. When E-waste gets buried at a landfill, it can dissolve in microscopic traces into the gross sludge that permeates at the landfill. Eventually, these traces of toxic materials pool into the ground below the landfill. This is known as leaching which poisons nearby water. Hazardous chemicals like mercury, which are used to extract these metals, leach into the soil, which will be damaged forever. If dumped in landfill, the soil around discarded batteries, tube lights, CFL bulbs will be barren. 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. The soil from informal electronic recycling sites that recover metals showed high levels of contamination across Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

High Risk  E-waste handling

Presently Electronic waste is illegally routed into unregulated channels of mafia or informal traders having control in the e-waste market. The supply of e-waste attracts 5 per cent GST. This has indirectly allowed various informal sector players to trade in e-waste by moving it from one city to another by simply paying the GST to ensure legal compliance. There is a lack of legitimate and cost-effective formal collection mechanisms to channelize waste from consumers into the formal segment. Bharat treats less than 1 per cent of its e-waste formally. There are now 312 authorised recyclers in the country.

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Guidelines on E-Waste

CPCB has issued Implementation Guidelines for E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016 vide G.S.R. 338(E) dated 23.03.2016 effective from 01-10-2016. These rules are applicable to every producer, consumer or bulk consumer, collection centre, dismantler and recycler of e-waste involved in the manufacture, sale, purchase and processing of electrical and electronic equipment or components in specified schedule. Two categories of electrical and electronic equipment namely (i) IT and Telecommunication Equipment and (ii) Consumer Electricals and Electronics such as TVs, Washing Machines, Refrigerators Air Conditioners including fluorescent and other mercury containing lamps are covered under these Rules. The main feature, of these rules, is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Target based approach for implementation of EPR has been adopted in the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016, which stipulate phase wise collection target to producers for the collection of e-waste, either in number or weight, which shall be 30% of the estimated quantity of waste generation during first two year of implementation of rules followed by 40% during third and fourth years, 50% during fifth and sixth years and 70% during seventh year onwards.

US Regulation

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of USA gives Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to control hazardous waste from cradle to grave. This includes the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA also set forth a framework for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. A total of 67 countries have legislation in place to deal with the e-waste they generate.

Recycling of E-waste

The way forward for consumers could be the 4R method of reuse, repair, recycle, and research. Information in public domain says 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.

While recycling is one of the sustainable solutions to manage e-waste, adequate emphasis should also be placed on “reducing” and “re-using” before recycling. A circular concept, therefore, aims to reduce e-waste at each step in the lifecycle of electronics. It is crucial to design electronics with a longer lifespan and be repairable in order to step towards a green recovery.  

The products need to be designed so that they can be reused, durable, and safe for recycling. The producers should also have buy-back or return offers for old equipment and plans to incentivise the consumer financially. Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things (IoT) could hold the potential to dematerialize the electronics industry.  

An ordinary circuit board from a mobile or laptop contains roughly 16 different metals. E-waste contains several toxic materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, or polychlorinated biphenyls. Most informal sectors will probably be able to retrieve a couple of metals and landfill the rest.

The way forward to ensuring a sustainable chain in manufacturing and recycling is to build effective reuse methods. The purpose of extracting metals and plastic from e-waste is to use them towards making more electronics.  UN report says the total recovery rates for cobalt at 30 percent (despite technology existing that could recycle 95 percent). It’s used for laptops, smart phones, and electric car batteries, and recycled metals are two to 10 times more energy-efficient than metals smelted from virgin ore. As much as 7% of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste, with 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore.

Top recycling countries

Switzerland is one of the biggest global producers of e-waste and recycles roughly 75 percent of this discarded material. Top five best recycling countries — 1. Germany – 56.1%, 2. Austria – 53.8%, 3. South Korea – 53.7%, 4. Wales – 52.2%, 5. Switzerland – 49.7%.

IIT  Delhi research

To deal with one of the fastest growing waste streams, researchers at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi have developed a zero-emission technology to manage and recycle e-waste to wealth. It said a team led by K.K. Pant and his research group in the Catalytic Reaction Engineering Laboratory at Chemical Engineering Department have adopted a methodology that uses e-waste as an Urban Mine for metal recovery and energy production. The adopted methodology is a three-step process: (i) Pyrolysis of e-waste (ii) Separation of metal fraction, and (iii) Recovery of individual metals. Researchers said using their method, e-waste is shredded and pyrolyzed (decomposition brought about by high temperature) to yield liquid and gaseous fuels, leaving behind a metal-rich solid fraction. On further separation using a novel technique, the leftover solid residue yields a 90-95% pure metal mixture and some carbonaceous materials. The carbonaceous material is further converted to aerogel (solid of low density) for oil spillage cleaning, dye removal, carbon dioxide capture, and use in super capacitors. 

In the next step, a low-temperature roasting technique is employed to recover individual metals such as copper, nickel, lead, zinc, silver and gold from the metal mixture. It gives a recovery of nearly 93% copper, 100% nickel, 100% zinc, 100% lead and 50% gold and silver each. It is a green process in which no toxic chemicals are released into the environment. The team has successfully installed a 10 kg/h (Kilogram per hour) pyrolysis plant for e-waste recycling at IIT Delhi.  The gaseous product obtained from the pilot plant is primarily composed of hydrogen and methane whereas the liquid product is rich in hydrocarbons suitable for energy generation. 

The technology is an outcome of a Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, funded project and developed technology will cater to the need of “Smart Cities,” “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan,” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat” initiatives of the government, IIT-Delhi said.  

The technology has also been patented and published in internationally reputed journals such as the Journal of Cleaner Production, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Waste Management and the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering.

Suggested Policy measures

1. National Scrap Policy should be framed for all sorts of Electronic Waste, domestic – industrial scrap as their recycling into products of various electronics, domestic, industrial, packaging, building material, chemicals, landfill etc. will boost national economy and GDP besides ensuring environmental safeguards.

2. E-Waste authorized agencies and industries be liberally licensed across the nation so that people, organizations, Govt. agencies dispose their E-Waste at authorized destinations. 

3. All E-Waste recycling industries should be given concessional tax treatment in respect of GST or Income Tax or local taxes. 

4. All Government Departments with huge pile up of E-Waste should dispose it within specific time frame. 

5. Public awareness should be carried in Media sensitizing against selling E-Waste to local kabari or unauthorized dealers. 

E-waste is an opportunity for self reliance in manufacturing of electronic goods, computers, mobiles etc. reducing imports and increasing exports substantially. 

The author is Sah Vichar Vibhag Pramukh, Delhi Prant, SJM

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