“There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore.”
Why Talk About E-Waste?
E-waste is commonly defined as electric and electronic wastes that are no longer functional. Due to the exponential increase in electronic devices all over the globe, the massive depletion of non-renewable resources, in addition to the toxins released by untreated e-waste, is proving to be perilous. Some of these challenges have been discussed in this essay.
The scale of e-waste treatment today
According to a report from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) in collaboration with the UN E-Waste Coalition, released at Davos in January 2019, the world produces an average of 50 million tonnes of e-waste in a single year, worth over $ 62.5 billion and is projected to reach 120 million tonnes per year by 2050, if current trends continue. Presently, only 20% of this waste is formally recycled.
A multi-dimensional crisis
Precious elements including gold, silver, copper, nickel, palladium, indium, etc are necessary components of electronic equipment. Most of these elements are very difficult to extract given the monetary and environmental costs. Further, mining most of these elements displaces communities and contaminates eco-systems.
To a certain extent, the threats posed by the manufacturing of electronics may be overlooked for the tremendous benefits of the IT revolution. Indeed, IT is hailed as an emissary of sustainable development. However, the conventional process of take, use and throw: a linear model of consumption, makes it difficult for the environment to replenish the industries with equivalent resources for future production. Thus, the means of producing electronics is as important as utilizing them for the ends of sustainable development of human civilization.
Further still, the unorganised system of e-waste disposal, most of which is dumped into landfills, puts a tremendous strain on the assimilation capacity of the environment. The toxic elements cause serious illnesses, poison the food chain, and are most paradoxically, gold dumped into the garbage.
Many developing nations also have to deal with E-waste dumped illegally by first-world countries into their countries, an issue that the Indian delegation highlighted at the COP held in 2019.
The situation back home
The Indian government, having rightfully recognised the importance of E-waste management, passed legislative acts in the form of the E-Waste Management and Handling Rules (201)1, E-Waste Management Rules (2016), and amendments to the same act in 2018. These provisions mandate Extended Producer Responsibility — Electronic manufacturers must buy back their products and process them.
There is limited official data on e-waste in India. The Global E- Waste Monitor suggests that India produced 3.230 kilotons of E-waste in 2019, of which 0.9% is documented to be collected and properly recycled.
While India is among a handful of countries to have e-waste legislation in Asia, a lot still needs to be done pertaining to the implementation of the laws. E-waste management in India is dominated by the Informal Sector. There exists little safeguards for workers who do not have adequate access to safety gear, and most processing units are illegal. Overall, there is no economic security. Furthermore, due to rudimentary techniques, and lack of infrastructure, the processing of discarded e-waste is inefficient and incomplete. This results in pollutants running unchecked in all forms.
Mining of iron ore, manganese ore, chrome ore, gold, copper, lead, zinc, tin, molybdenum, and wolfram, to list a few metals used in the production of electronics, are reserved exclusively for Public Sector Industries in India. This leaves the government with the ethical responsibility of setting up organised urban mining operations for toxic chemical components.
A model circular economy
The PACE report suggests a reboot: a switch from the linear to the circular economic model. For sustainability, electronic devices must be bought back by producers after their use, sorted by category, and repaired and resold if they are in decent condition. Only when repair and reuse is not possible, should components be taken apart, to be given new life. It is imperative to maintain this protocol to avoid unnecessary costs of recycling that may overburden the system.
Thus, the circular model advocates keeping all components at their highest value at all times, ejecting minimally. The wasted material obtained can be accommodated for production after processing. In the context of sustainable electronics, it advocates Urban Mining (segregating and recycling metals from the scrap) instead of traditional mining techniques. Other suggestions include sustainable product designs like extended product life, improved customer care, and ensuring extended producer responsibility.
Research and Development pursued extensively, can help to great extents, from cutting down the costs of urban mining at more efficient rates to producing renewable alternatives to costly components. After a certain period of time, the use of freshly mined precious elements such as gold, silver, etc, must be scaled out and even eliminated if possible.
The transition from a linear to a circular economy requires the active participation of multiple stakeholders like the government, citizens, and industries. In addition to legal reforms and frameworks, consumer awareness is necessary to bring out old, but-not-yet discarded pieces of electronics from drawers and cabinets, into the E-waste recycling stream. The most essential aspect is for all stakeholders to take action: preventing the planet from being buried in e-waste.
(Written by Lavanya Goswami and Edited by Anoushka Gehani)