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The Electronic Menace: Why E-waste is a Major Concern Today E-waste today poses an equal threat to the environment as all other forms of pollution, and it is only through collaborative efforts that this menace can be combatted

By V Ranganathan

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The world today is in the midst of a rapidly expanding wave of digitization. As technology evolves and continues to automate functions across industries, countries across geographies have witnessed visible growth in the use of electronic devices across every sector. In light of this situation, India has emerged as a prime example of a country that has successfully harnessed the complete advantages of digital technology. While progress has been made in all sectors, however, the country today must also be aware of another type of growth that has been taking place simultaneously: the rise in numbers of redundant or unused electronic devices that lead to the creation of "e-waste'.

E-waste in India

According to a joint study by Assocham and KPMG, India ranks as the 5th largest producer of e-waste in the world, discarding roughly 18.5 lakh metric tonnes of electronic waste each year. Most of this e-waste is generated by the telecom sector, a direct outcome of the focus donated to it in the 1990s as part of the telecom revolution that hastened India's progress towards digitization. This progress has only increased in momentum over time, concurrently increasing the rate at which technology, and hence devices, have become redundant. While 70per cent of the discarded devices is in the form of computers, mobile phones also make significant contributions to the generation of e-waste in the country. Assocham has also found that most Indians prefer to switch to new mobile devices every two years, thereby validating the above-stated contribution by the telecom sector. This fact, combined with the country's electronics import bill that currently stands at $57 billion, clearly indicates that an excess of discarded electronics goods is a contemporary issue to be addressed.

Lack of Proper Means of E-waste Disposal

Given the extensive nature of this issue, governments across the world have adopted a dual strategy to ensure proper e-waste management: firstly, public e-waste legislation that details the protocol to be followed for disposal have been established by 66per cent of governments across the world. The second strategic aspect involves concerted efforts towards raising public awareness about the hazards of e-waste. Both these strategies have, however, been met only with mild success. Currently, only 20per cent of global e-waste is recycled properly, with the number dropping to 1.5per cent in the Indian context. Comparatively, the government and private organizations have been major culprits in e-waste generation, with three-fourths of all of India's e-waste production being routed back to them. Conversely, e-waste disposal is mainly handled by the unorganized sector in the country; a sector that comprises a population that cannot differentiate between overall waste and e-waste due to the previously stated lack of public knowledge.

Health Hazards of E-waste

Similar to other forms of pollution, e-waste too, mainly causes problems in two domains: health and the environment. E-waste such as computers, mobile phones, televisions and other devices contain minute amounts of a variety of metals (such as gold, silver, copper and tin) that can be reused if extracted efficiently during the disposal process. The unorganized sector, however, is inadequately trained in facilitating this process, choosing instead to merely dispose of e-waste in large landfills along with other waste. As a result, most of these salvageable materials leak into the soil, contaminating large tracts of lands and making them unfit for cultivation. Additionally, metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead, which are commonly found in device circuit boards, may leach into groundwater, causing debilitating health issues such as damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, lungs, nervous system and bones. As the population most in contact with these metals, the unorganized sector bears the major brunt of these problems. Households too are not immune to this phenomenon. Similar to leakages found in batteries, unused electrical devices slowly release toxic chemicals over time that pose similar health hazards within the space where they are stored.

The Road Ahead

A distinct lack of public awareness regarding e-waste and limited avenues for organized and safe e-waste disposal are the two primary issues plaguing countries across the world today. Private organizations, in conjunction with the government, must be cognizant of their role in the creation of this situation and look to adopt policies that work towards its alleviation. Measures such as more stringent e-waste production and disposal policies represent the first steps towards this endeavour. Additionally, concerted efforts must be made by both local and government bodies to educate people about the current state of e-waste in the country, especially in the unorganized sector where the focus on countermeasures is needed to address health concerns. Thus, e-waste today poses an equal threat to the environment as all other forms of pollution, and it is only through collaborative efforts that this menace can be combatted.

V Ranganathan

Founder and Managing Director, Cerebra Integrated Technologies

V. Ranganathan is the MD and Founder, Cerebra Integrated Technologies which has commissioned Cerebra Green – one of India’s largest e-waste recycling facilities

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