India’s E-Waste Economy

Image: Sascha Pohflepp/ Creative Commons
What happens to your phone when you throw it away is usually the problem of a vast, informal waste economy.

In dump yards across India, unorganised workers called ‘khattewalas’ sift through piles of trash in the local dump yard, looking for electronic gold. They collect scrapped computers, mobile phones, CRT monitors – anything that powers the information age.

These are sold to kabadiwallas, who in turn sell it to the ‘thekedars’ who manage godowns and small shops. These shops don’t just source from India, they get e-waste from around the world. Hidden within the texts of Free Trade Agreements are loopholes that allow ‘non-new goods’ to be imported without tariffs. The job of digging out precious metals from these is left to India’s informal e-waste dismantling markets – such as Delhi’s Old Seemapur district.

To start with, everything has a circuit board. To separate its components, they’re set on fire – filling the rooms with lead fumes. Children and adults work on this e-waste (500,000 in total – according to one report), hack into discarded electrical components with their bare hands, smelting motherboards with flame-torches, imbibing the fumes of now-toxic waste.

It’s an informal recycling industry that’s been around forever. Hazard is a part of the worker’s lives, with two-thirds suffering from respiratory ailments. When researchers tested the breast milk composition of women living near prominent e-waste dumps in Kolkata  and Taizhou (China), they found e-waste’s toxic signature – high concentrations of PCB and PBDE (Polychlorinated Biphenyl and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers). Both of them have been known to kill animals exposed to them even in small amounts.

Elsewhere, silver and mercury were found in the hair and bodies of workers at e-waste processing facilities. When we replace our ‘ageing’ mobile phones, do we give enough thought to how toxic they really are?

Beneath the screen

Workers in the informal e-waste sector are often deal with the chemical elements, often exposed to lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, chlorine and bromine – to name a few. It’s a dirty job that is often left to them alone.

For a growing number of corporations, it’s a goldmine of recycled possibilities. A report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) predicts 5.2 million tonnes of e-waste by 2020. With great economy comes great waste. And, with great waste comes great economy. 

India’s plan to become a mobile phone manufacturing hub is going to contribute to this figure. In 2015-16, 110 million phones were manufactured in India. Twice that number were sold in the same year. The target is to make 500 million by 2019.

India lures international investors as the world’s most lucrative mobile phone market. But could handling e-waste present an equivalent opportunity?

The smart way to recycle a smartphone

By 2025, the waste-management market is expected to be worth $13.6 billion.

While the Indian consumer is growing by the year, their environmental fallout is still only a fraction – contributing 16 percent of India’s e-waste. The largest chunk of up to 75 percent was caused by public and private industries.

If the onus is on the company making these, then the question becomes one of whether regulations or incentives are to be used to make companies follow up on the environmental costs of their products.

As part of India’s E-Waste Management and Handling (Rules), 2011, companies are expected to manage how their products are disposed of. It’s a requirement called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) sets down its guidelines.

In India, it’s a case of process management. From the informal Kattewalla to the people they sell it to – processes regarding safe segregation, collection and disposal of e-waste need to be made environmentally friendly. The hope is that the systems that process these are regulated and non-hazardous.

Emerging markets show trends of replacing phones earlier than mature ones. In India, the problem is compounded by the large-scale replacement of feature phones with smartphones. It doesn’t help that manufacturers create a ‘planned obsolescence‘ of devices by pushing software update cycles that make older phones redundant over time (a five million dollar lawsuit was filed against Apple).

India’s mobile phone revolution is underway, built on the foundation of older devices. Informal workers choke on the fumes – but their sector still pays more per kilogramme of e-waste than the formal one. Until it makes financial sense to switch to a better model, countless thousands will continue to suffer from the breakdown of our discarded devices.


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