is a sight that that is increasingly only too common
in urban India, and now even in some more prosperous
rural areas of the country: ramshackle piles of dismembered
pieces of discarded electronic equipment such as computers,
CD players, televisions and cell phones lying around
in the odd corners of offices and homes. Or else simply
dumped in the open in garbage heaps, and then being
painstakingly searched through by rag-pickers of all
ages, who look for any elements that can be resold.
In developing countries such as ours, where recycling
occurs as a matter of course because of the widespread
poverty and sharp inequality that mark our consumption
patterns, this may seem as something quite obvious and
hardly worthy of comment. Some may even see this as
evidence of our greater ability to use and re-use material
items more effectively than the wasteful West. Yet this
cavalier attitude to electronic waste is already emerging
as one of the major hazards to the health of both the
environment and our people, and we ignore the crucial
issue of electronic waste management at our own peril.
This is particularly so because India, like many other
developing countries, has to deal with e-waste that
is far in excess of what is generated by production
and consumption within the country, as we are net importers
of e-waste that is cynically dumped on us by the developed
world. The global trade in e-waste is huge and growing,
and is only partly illegal even though there have been
attempts to regulate it.
In fact, e-waste is the fastest growing component of
municipal waste across the world, and some estimates
say that more than 50 million tonnes of it is generated
every year. A major reason for this is the very short
life-span of most electronic goods, especially in the
West, where such goods are routinely replaced at least
every two years, and then either simply discarded or
exported to developing countries where there is still
a demand for such second-hand goods. Because of the
high rate of obsolescence, very large quantities of
e-waste are generated.
But why exactly is such e-waste more of a problem than
all the other waste that is regularly generated by industrial
societies? The problems arise from the very significant
health and environmental hazards associated with e-waste.
Most electronic goods contain significant quantities
of toxic metals and chemicals. If these are left untreated
to lie around in landfills or dumps, they leach into
the surrounding soil, water and the atmosphere, thereby
generating obvious adverse effects for human health
and ecology. Many elements of the waste are hazardous,
as the circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, connectors
and other elements that are essential for most such
goods almost always contain poisonous substances such
as lead, tin, mercury, cadmium and barium.
Therefore the health impact of e-waste is evident. It
has been linked to the growing incidence of several
lethal or severely debilitating health conditions, including
cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, and
birth defects. As usual, this impact is worse in developing
countries, where people often live in close proximity
to dumps or landfills of untreated e-waste.
There are basically four ways in which e-waste can be
dealt with, and none of them is really very satisfactory.
The most common one, especially in the developing world,
is simply to store it in landfills, but this has all
the dangers described above. For this reason it has
already been banned in the European Union and some other
developed countries, who instead tend to export this
waste to poorer countries. Another way is to burn the
goods concerned, but this too is problematic because
it releases heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury
into the atmosphere.
Re-using and recycling are obviously preferable because
they increase the life-span of the products and therefore
imply less waste over time. The re-use of second hand
electronic goods in the developing world falls in this
category, although it still eventually generates waste
that ends up located in these countries. But recycling
needs to be done in particular ways that protect the
workers concerned, who would otherwise be exposed to
all the health hazards mentioned above. In most developing
countries, this is a real problem because recycling
is dominantly done in scrap yards by hand, without any
protection for the unskilled workers involved in such
These difficulties in dealing with e-waste probably
explain why the global trade in e-waste has expanded
so rapidly, as developed countries find this an easy
way to simply transfer the problem to poorer countries
whose governments are either not aware of all the risks
involved, or feel that they are accessing cheaper second-hand
versions of electronic goods.
Some international attempt at regulation has occurred.
The Basel Convention of 1992 is an international treaty
(part of the United Nations Environmental Program) whose
central goal is "environmentally sound management”,
which involves controlling hazardous waste from its
production to its storage, transport, reuse, recycling,
and final disposal. It is supposed to set up controls,
enforcement mechanisms and requirements that signatories
agree to follow. These include preventing and monitoring
illegal traffic in hazardous waste, promoting cleaner
technologies and production, and focusing specifically
on helping developing nations.
Typically, the US, which signed the treaty, has not
yet ratified it, and the NGO Basel Action Network, or
BAN, has called the US "the worst actor" among
developed countries that perpetuate dumping of hazardous
waste in developing nations. It is estimated that as
much as 80 per cent of the waste that is collected for
recycling is actually being exported from the US.
The European Union has implemented a ban on the export
of e-waste, but it has generally been found to be ineffective,
as the illegal trade in e-waste continues to flourish.
According to Greenpeace, inspections of 18 European
seaports in 2005 found that as much as 47 per cent of
the waste destined for export, including e-waste, was
illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes
of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was
illegally shipped in 2003 to the China, India and Africa.
This even though China has also banned the import of
e-waste since 2000!
India is one of the important destinations for this
global hazardous trash, although there are few estimates
of how large the problem actually is since so much of
the trade is extra-legal. Once again Greenpeace has
found that in 2005, as many as 25,000 workers were employed
at scrap yards in Delhi alone, where as much as 20,000
tonnes of e-waste were being handled in a year, around
a quarter of this coming from computers. Other e-waste
scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai,
Bangalore and Mumbai, but there are surely many more
spread across the country that have not been identified.
The poor regulations and absence of any clear policy
of the Indian government or state governments, for dealing
with electronic waste generated within the country add
to the problems and potential for disaster. Indeed,
it is surprising that this issue is still not sharply
on the policy antennae and there have been no calls
for urgent action.
Some of this may be due to the more general and deplorable
tendency for so many of our policies, including those
relating to the environment, to come to us dictated
by the current concerns and fashions of the West. So
now, since “global warming” is the flavour of the month,
all other environmental concerns, including the more
severe and immediate problems of pollution and degradation
that affect our people directly, are being given relatively
Yet this is an issue that clearly must be addressed
immediately. Strategies must be evolved to reduce the
generation of e-waste, to prevent the legal or illegal
import of such waste, and to develop feasible and safe
ways of dealing with it within our own context and requirements.
Otherwise the unregulated accumulation of electronic
waste may well lead to a public health disaster in the