Life, nowadays has become so fast and luxurious that we can not imagine it without the sophisticated electrical and electronic items.
Again the rapid technological innovations in computing following the doubling of the processing power of chips almost every two year are rendering most of the electrical and electronic items obsolete in the blink of an eye. This coupled with changing life styles with more disposable income in littering the urban scope with the digital detritus of the digital age called E-waste.
E-waste is a generic term encompassing various forms of electrical and electronic equipment that may be old, might have reached end-of-life and most importantly cease to be of any value to their present owners and it has been identified as one of the fastest growing waste steams.
The electrical and electronic goods are broadly classified under three major heads; ‘White goods’ comprising of household appliances like refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machine, air conditioners etc.; ‘Brown goods’ include television, cameras, camcorders etc; and ‘Gray goods’ like computers, scanners, printers, mobile phones etc. Other sources of a waste are consumer and lighting equipment, electrical and electronics tools, sophisticated toys, sports equipment, medical devices, monitoring and control instruments etc. The residues of digital life are too many.
Though disposed electronics are classified as waste, they are significant secondary resources due to their suitability for direct reuse, refurbishment and recycling.
E-waste does not create visible mountains like municipal waste, nevertheless it is a very complex, non-biodegradable and toxic waste. Electronic and electrical appliances consist of thousands of different parts made of hundreds of different substances including plastics, metals, glass as well as organic and inorganic compounds. Compounds such as brominates flame retardants, metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium compounds found in these appliances are highly dangerous persistent organic pollutants that pose health and environment risks. They bio-accumulate through the food-chain and the hazards are more acute in the event of incorrect disposal and inappropriate recycling techniques.
Landfills used for waste disposal are prone to leaking and also lead to leaching of heavy metals and other toxins into the soil which may contaminate not only the soil but also the water table. Mercury, cadmium and lead are among the most toxic lactates, e.g., lead from broken glass of TV’s and monitors can expose lead to leaching. Landfills are also prone to uncontrolled fires which can release toxic fumes. Disposal through incineration is also dangerous as the residual ash contains toxic metals.
Incorrect recycling process such as open air incineration, acid bath leaching are commonly used for recovery of precious metals from the e-waste. Irreparable damage is done to the environment during these processes when compared to the short term monetary gains.
The matters are not helped further by the fact that public at large remains unaware of their own toxic footprints and as part of its life-style replaces functional electronic gadgets with the latest model with impunity. This lack of awareness is further aggravated by the lack of proper recycling facilities for e-waste in India.
Currently, out of the total e-waste recycled in the country a mere 5% is recycled by the handful of formal recyclers and this is recycled by the informal recyclers. The e-waste recycled by the formal recyclers is done following environmentally sound practices which ensures that damage is minimized to the environment. They also adopt processes so that the work force is not exposed to toxic and hazardous substances released while recycling the waste.
But they cannot match either the reach or the network of the informal recyclers used for sourcing of old electrical and electronics items from businesses as well as individual households. The items are collected, segregated and the ones that cannot be sold ‘as it is’ are further dismantled by the informal recyclers. The final step after collection, segregation and dismantling is recycling. Most of the processes used by the informal recyclers are manual using simple tools like hammers, screw drivers etc. and by the use of rudimentary techniques like burning of wires in open, using acid baths for extraction of precious metals. Furthermore, these activities are carried out without wearing any protective wear like masks, gloves etc. In the absence of suitable processes and protective measures, recycling e-waste results in toxic emission to the air, water, soil and poses a serious environmental and health hazard.
Thus, the challenges are multifold – environment and health related, lack of awareness amongst carious stakeholders including public at large, investment required for setting up of state of the art waste management facilities, monitoring and reporting of the e-waste generated (setting up of centralized management reporting by item) and most importantly reconciling technological development with sustainable development.
To tackle the problem of e-waste measures like sensitization of various stakeholders followed by putting in place the system to manage environmentally sound disposal of e-waste should be taken.