India generates over 4 lakh tonnes of E-waste in a year. Lets look at the problem & some solutions here.

Today life seems easier with everything just a touch of a button away. We listen to music on swanky mp3 players, type out important documents on our PCs and laptops, watch movies and television on our branch new plasma or LCD screens and use our phones for pretty much everything. However, beneath the glitzy surface of all this amazing, ‘cutting edge’ technology looms a dark reality: E-waste! Electronic waste or e-waste basically refers to discarded or thrown away electronic goods. It includes a wide range of items from broken down television sets, refrigerators and toys, to out of date mobile phones, music players and computers, thrown away by unconscientious and uninformed consumers. As technology gets upgraded further and faster, electronic goods get out-dated more rapidly. In practical cases they may just be replaced by better and faster technology while in other cases old goods are replaced just because they are no longer the latest fashion or trend. So where does all this technological one-upmanship leave us, well, with mounds and mounds of unrecyclable, hazardous, downright dangerous e-waste.

In India e-waste contributes to over one per cent of the total waste generated, that’s about 330,000 tonnes of e-waste a year. Furthermore an additional 50,000 tonnes of e-waste is illegally imported into the country, mostly from developed countries. In fact it is estimated that just computer waste, exported to Asia, comes to about 10.2 million units of waste. All these discarded computers stacked tightly in a pile would cover one square acre of space and stand 674 feet high! Now this is just the computer waste, imagine if we were to include other electronic goods as well.

Unfortunately e-waste does a lot more than just take up space in our municipal dumping grounds. E-waste contains over a thousand chemicals, many of which are toxic and can create serious environmental and health hazards. Computer chips for example, now found in everything from computers to microwave machines, contain many poisons, including gallium arsenide, cadmium, and beryllium. Cathode-ray-tube televisions and computer monitors have enormous amounts of lead built into the glass to stop stray radiation from escaping. If these old TVs and PCs are improperly discarded at the dump, they can shatter and release dangerous amounts of lead into the ground and eventually into the water table. Mercury is another toxic material found commonly in e-waste, it is used in switches and CFL bulbs. PVC, a known carcinogen, is used in the plastic coatings of the wires and cables, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are included in other plastics, such as the outer casing of processors.

If these products are burned, broken or discarded improperly — they release highly toxic substances into the atmosphere. If they’re thrown into landfills and allowed to break down over time, they release the same poisons into the land and possibly into the water table. All these toxins can then affect the environment, poison our air and water and affect our health in numerous ways, causing anything from cancer to respiratory diseases and affecting the growth and development of the most vulnerable section of our society, young children and infants. Unfortunately, toxicity is not the only problem with e-waste. E-waste is also notoriously difficult and expensive to recycle. In India 90% of the recycling of e-waste that takes place is carried out by rag-pickers, scrap dealers and kabbadiwallas. This informal recycling sector use processes like burning and leaching to remove a few precious metals and then discard the rest, leaving toxics and heavy metals to escape into the environment.

To add to the problem, we are now developing a culture of use and throw away, one that we didn’t have before in India. Recognising the importance of this throw away culture, companies that manufacture electronic goods now design them to fail or become out–dated sooner, leading consumers to throw them away and replace them faster… and the vicious cycle continues. The long and the short of this use and disuse cycle is that we not only have a mounting e-waste problem but that we also waste water, energy and other natural resources in manufacturing newer and ‘better’ goods faster and faster.

Check out the short film Story of Electronics to learn more about this cycle..

Thankfully, it’s not all darkness and gloom and there’s a lot we can do to sort out this problem of e-waste. Step one is to STOP gravitating towards this throw-away culture. Let’s stick to our roots and use and use and use again. Don’t throw away your old mobile phone, just because a newer model has come out with a marginally larger screen, if you’re updating your computer just buy a new memory card, hard drive or software instead of chucking the whole deal and starting with all new equipment… remember, a keyboard, is a keyboard is a keyboard. If your fridge breaks down go to your repairman and not an appliances store and when printer cartridges run dry, just refill them instead of retiring them.

There are of course times where you just have to have a new electronic good (though these should be as few and far between as possible). In these situations, giving away or selling used electronics are great ways to extend their use and keep them out of landfills. You can give your friend an old mp3 player or your neighbour your old toaster or even donate your computer to a school or NGO, so your functional old stuff can become a valuable tool for someone else.

When buying new electronics you can also choose to be a responsible consumer – what does this mean? – well it just means buying your electronic goods from those companies that have a good track record when it comes to e-waste, whose products have fewer toxics and more recyclable parts when compared to their competitors. Choosing green electronics does more than help reduce the impact of e-waste, it will also make the electronic industry sit up and take product their product’s sustainability more seriously.