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  • 10/23/2023


Why in news?

Recently, The Indian Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA) released a report on ‘Pathways to Circular Economy in Indian Electronics Sector,’ following a government effort with NITI Aayog to explore opportunities to harness e-waste.

  • The report talks about changing the outlook on e-waste management to build a system where discarded electronics can have a new life, either by themselves, or by reintroducing components and precious metals into new hardware.
  • There could be an additional $7 billion market opportunity in harnessing e-waste, the report said.

About E-Waste

  • Electronic waste or e-waste describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. It is also commonly known as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) or end-of-life (EOL) electronics.
  • Used electronics which are destined for refurbishment, reuse, resale, salvage recycling through material recovery, or disposal are also considered e-waste.
  • Informal processing of e-waste in developing countries can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.
  • The growing consumption of electronic goods due to the digital revolution and innovations in science and technology, such as bitcoin, has led to a global e-waste problem and hazard.
  • The rapid exponential increase of e-waste is due to frequent new model releases and unnecessary purchases of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), short innovation cycles and low recycling rates, and a drop in the average life span of computers.
  • Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants.
  • Recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to the health of workers and their communities.

E-waste Hides Toxic Materials

  • While above ground, modern electronics are safe to use and be around. However, most electronics contain some form of toxic materials, including beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead, which pose serious environmental risks to our soil, water, air, and wildlife.
  • When E-waste gets buried at a landfill, it can dissolve in microscopic traces into the gross sludge that permeates at the landfill. Eventually, these traces of toxic materials pool into the ground below the landfill. This is known as leaching.
  • The more E-waste and metals at the landfill, the more of these trace toxic materials show up in the groundwater.


The Dangers of E-waste

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health risks may result from direct contact with toxic materials that leach from e-waste.
  • These include minerals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
  • Danger can come from inhalation of the toxic fumes, as well as from the accumulation of chemicals in soil, water, and food. This puts not just people in danger but land and sea animals as well.
  • In developing countries, the risks are exceptionally high because some developed countries send their e-waste there.
  • Studies have shown this global e-waste has detrimental effects on the people that work with the e-waste but also the people that live around it.
  • Because of this, a proper recycling process needs to be put in place to protect us and future generations.


Does India have e-waste management?

  • E-waste management is largely informal in India, as in the case of recycling. “Roughly 90% of collection and 70% of the recycling are managed by a very competitive informal sector,” the ICEA report says.
  • The informal sector is good at salvaging older devices for parts and profiting from repairs with them. Then there are almost industrial hubs like Moradabad, where printed circuit boards (PCBs) arrive in the tonnes to have gold and silver melted out of them and sold.
  • The Union Government notified the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022 last November in order to digitise the process and provide more visibility to the movement of e-waste in the economy.
  • The level of e-waste may grow, too, as phones get cheaper and people use them more on the back of cheaper data plans. There has been a significant increase in people damaging their phones (as opposed to the devices simply getting too old to keep working).
  • The informal sector relies on a number of tools and techniques to stay competitive. For instance, the report’s authors speak of ‘cannibalisation,’ a euphemism for repair shops buying whole devices and breaking them down to serve as spare parts for repair.
  • As tariffs for finished products are sometimes lower than they are for parts, this works out in the repair shop’s favour.

Why is a circular economy important?

  • Demand for electronics is growing across all price segments, even as the production of these devices entails the use of scarce elements and high emissions. Instead of merely salvaging these parts, a circular economy seeks to bring them back into the electronics ecosystem.
  • The circular economy is oriented to nature as its role model. In essence, the concept of the circular economy aims to keep raw materials in a closed loop.
  • In this way, resources are maximally used, the need for new ones is reduced, waste is avoided and the life cycle of products is increased. In short, the waste of today becomes the raw material of tomorrow - the same as in nature.
  • In this way, the circular economy differs from the current economic system i.e. the linear system, in which products are manufactured, used and disposed

How can e-waste be recycled?

  • The ICEA report suggests public-private partnerships to distribute the costs of setting up a sprawling “reverse supply chain,” an expensive prospect that envisages collecting devices from users, wiping them clean of personal data, and passing them along for further processing and recycling.
  • It also suggests launching an auditable database of materials collected through this process, and creating geographical clusters where these devices come together and are broken apart.
  • A key recommendation is to incentivise so-called ‘high yield’ recycling centres.
  • Facilities that recycle are generally not equipped to extract the full potential value of the products they handle, for instance extracting minute but precious amounts of rare earth metals in semiconductors.
  • The IT Ministry launched a scheme last April to cover 25% of the capital expenditure on such facilities.
  • Simply encouraging repair and making products last longer- perhaps by supporting a right to repair by users is also a policy recommendation that may reduce the environmental burden of electronic waste.