Environment and E-Waste in India

Studies by the NGO Toxics Link, and an assessment by Swiss seco-EMPA in Delhi, India, showed that there was a large informal recycling sector active in recycling and recovering materials such as gold, silver, copper and lead from e-waste. On the one hand, the informal recycling sector recovered precious metals and materials from waste which would have otherwise gone to the landfill, while also providing employment to thousands of people, mostly unskilled workers. On the other hand, they use extremely hazardous recovery processes and techniques, which not only make for very dangerous working conditions, but also cause widespread environmental damage in the form of air, water and soil contamination.

The situation is similar in other large urban areas such as Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai where urban poor are engaged in recycling and recovery activities of all sorts of waste, including electronic waste. The challenges are therefore not only environmental but multi-faceted: political (awareness raising for better waste management with local municipal bodies); technical (state-of-the-art waste management technologies that respond to local needs and characteristics); management (especially in the operation and maintenance of waste management infrastructure as well as monitoring and reporting); social (reconciling technology choices and local development needs such as employment); economic (generation of financial resources, through taxes, fees, subsidies); and organisational (work organisation, and stakeholder networking).

These challenges give rise to opportunities for new business ventures, tackling poverty by improving the health and income levels of recyclers, making recycling operations more efficient as well as reducing the impacts on the environment.

Taking these challenges and opportunities into account, the Environment and e-Waste in India project's focus is on the e-waste recycling sector in Mumbai. about which there is little information, though unconfirmed reports point to Mumbai as an important destination in the end-of-life for large quantities of e-waste. The project aims to promote not only cleaner and safer recycling, but also provide better income earning opportunities for the urban poor.

Mumbai, the capital city of the state of Maharashtra, is not only the most urbanized city in India, it is also the largest, with a population of a staggering 15 million. It is the commercial and financial hub of India and also its largest port city, with most of India's imports and exports flowing through the city. In addition, the Greater Mumbai Metropolitan Region is an important manufacturing hub for all industries, including the electrical and electronics sectors.

Therefore, Mumbai has a large base of companies, manufacturers and government users who are bulk users of office electronics such as PCs, which become e-waste at their end-of-life. There is also a large market of household users of electronic and electrical products. Mumbai is also the point of entry for used electronics, of which a large part, though ostensibly for reuse by weaker sections of society, are sent for dismantling and recovery operations.

Currently, in Mumbai, as in the rest of India, there are no set procedures or legislation regulating e-waste. The waste is mostly taken by scrap dealers, either at auctions from large companies or collected from various users, and scavengers. The re-usable parts are sold as spares, while the rest is used to recover various metals. The biggest environmental and health hazards come from the recovery of metals such as gold, silver, copper etc. The residues which contain heavy metals and toxic organic traces are dumped in the open. This metal recovery takes place almost exclusively in the informal sector, without any ecological and environmental precautions being taken.

UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics (DTIE) has undertaken a number of activities to support this project's theme, including cleaner production and sustainable production and consumption, environmentally sound technologies, waste management and related issues.

As part of UNEP's global initiative on e-waste, Mumbai was chosen for an in-depth assessment of the nature and size of the e-waste problem. The project objectives are:

  • To create public awareness about the e-waste problem,
  • To initiate a policy process to prepare WEEE rules,
  • To improve skills & technologies used by various actors in the e-waste chain,
  • To promote regional networking to share best practices.

In order to achieve these objectives, the planned and ongoing activities under the project are:

Rapid Assessment of E-waste in the Mumbai-Pune Region: UNEP, in partnership with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), has conducted a rapid assessment of the e-waste that is generated in the Mumbai-Pune region. MPCB is an autonomous government body responsible for implementing various environmental legislations in Maharashtra. Among other functions, it is also responsible for pollution prevention and control as well as increasing environmental awareness in the public. The assessment was finished at the end of November 2006 and the results will be available shortly.

Informal Sector Networking & Training: UNEP, together with the Indo-German-Swiss e-Waste Initiative, is working with the informal recycling sector to improve their techniques and processes and prepare them for a more formalised role in the future. In order to develop interest among the informal recyclers in the training, recyclers from Bangalore who had already participated in the training were invited to Mumbai to meet with their counterparts and share their experiences. Through direct recycler interactions, the project can build greater confidence among the recyclers, who are otherwise difficult to reach and suspicious of interacting with strangers outside their network.

Support in formulation of national WEEE legislation: The SCP Roundtable recently held in Mumbai, India, brought together high-level officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to discuss, inter alia, the issue of e-waste in India and it was agreed that the issue would be taken up for further consultations with relevant stakeholders. UNEP also participated in the National WEEE Legislation Workshops held in New Delhi in September 2005 and in Bangalore in May 2006, which were organised by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, India

Awareness Campaign: Toxics Link, UNEP and MPCB is jointly conducting over a four-month period an awareness campaign in schools & colleges in Mumbai . The campaign aims to create awareness on the hazards of e-waste, the importance of safe and environmentally friendly management. It will highlight the critical role of different stakeholders, especially household consumers as well as stimulate greater efforts of the government in environmentally friendly e-waste management. In addition, a stakeholder workshop held on 28 November brought together consumers, producers, governments and NGOs to chart a way forward.

E-waste management session: UNEP is sponsoring a session on Sustainable E-waste Management in Asia within the framework of the 7th Asia Pacific Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption & Production (APRSCP) Conference in Hanoi, April 2007. The first half of the session is scheduled as a knowledge exchange of current e-waste management practices and legislation around the world. The second half is envisaged to provide a platform for discussion on the need for and role of the regional network to promote sustainable e waste management in the region. For further information on the 7th APRSCP conference, kindly refer to its website www.aprscp.org.