e-waste mounts in India's backyard, causing health issues

s-waste can destroy the ecological health of the country given those defunct laptops, phones and other electronic goods have to be broken down by hand for precious metals, but their residues end up being thrown in rivers and drains leading to degrading land and water quality

e-waste mounts in India

India’s e-waste has gone up by 400 per cent in the last five years. In 2014, the country produced almost 1.7 million tonnes of e-waste and this is growing at 7 per cent annually.

e-waste can destroy the ecological health of the country, given those defunct laptops, phones and other electronic goods have to be broken down by hand for precious metals but their residues end up being thrown in rivers and drains leading to degrading land and water quality.

The problem is that the Central Pollution Control Board has no basic information on just how much e-waste is being generated in the country. While the CPCB estimate that 1.47 lakh tonnes of e-waste were generated in 2012, the figure put out by Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) was that of eight lakh tonnes for the same year.
The CAG figure is closer to the truth since the United Nations' University provided an estimate that in 2014, the quantity of e-waste being generated was 16.41 lakh tonnes.

A senior engineer at the CPCB has pointed out that "10 states, including Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, UP, West Bengal, Punjab and Karnataka, generated 70 per cent of the total amount of e-waste.”

NCR’s Department of Environment has highlighted that Delhi alone is generating 35 tonnes of e-waste a day, with 1,700 trucks being required every day to lift this waste. No land has been allocated to dump it within the NCR and other neighbouring states are not willing to give land for this purpose.

Most of this waste is being handled by the unorganised sector, including kabadi wallahs, which in turn is causing them to face a variety of health issues.

Dr TK Joshi, who heads the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Maulana Azad Medical College and had studied the health of 250 people working in the city as recyclers and dismantlers over a 12-month period, discovered that almost all of them suffered from breathing problems such as asthma and bronchitis.

Sabyasachi Patra, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Association for IT, agreed with Dr Joshi’s findings. “Traditionally, consumers tend to sell their old electronic items to ‘kabadiwallas’. It is, therefore, important that this parallel unorganised segment is included in the eco-system as they can help in the effective collection of e-waste,’ said Patra.

There is, therefore, a pressing need to ensure recycling be handled in a professional and sanitised manner, especially since CAG has also warned that over 7.2 MT of industrial hazardous waste, 4 lakh tonnes of e-waste, 1.5 MT of plastic waste, 1.7 MT of medical waste and 48 MT of municipal waste are being generated annually.

Realising the magnitude of this problem, the Ministry of Environment notified the e-waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2011. These were notified in May 2011 and came into effect on May 1, 2012, whereby people will now be required to dispose of their discarded electronic items at designated centres.

The aim is to reduce the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment by specifying the threshold for use of hazardous material, including lead, mercury and cadmium.

The new rules also emphasise that producers of these goods will have to ensure 30 per cent e-waste collection, based on their projected sales, by 2018 and 70 per cent by 2023.

The ministry stated that this could be done through a variety of ways such as a deposit refund scheme and an e-waste exchange program. Every state will also be expected to set up e-waste dismantling and recycling units in industrial park and register and ensure the good health of those working in this industry.

But Jeevesh Kumar, executive director of Greenpeace Eco-Management, one of India’s largest eco-management company, said, “In India, e-waste must be separated at the source. We need to introduce the right technology to do so, otherwise heavy metals can seep into the groundwater and cause contamination of the food chain.”

But the problem does not stop here. Doctors are also expressing concern regarding a quantum increase in cases of lead poisoning.

No doubt, the government is giving a major push to solar energy without highlighting that solar power uses lead acid batteries which are difficult to recycle.

Gopal Krishna, heading Toxics Watch Alliance, pointed out: "The problem of lead acid batteries can be seen across Bihar. Bihar may have the highest density of solar panels but where the extended producer does not seem to have any responsibility towards the recycling of these lead batteries.'

Off grid solar batteries house up to 40 pounds of lead, which is known to cause high blood pressure, kidney damage and abdominal pain in adults, and behavioural problems in young children because it interferes with neurological development.

"Unfortunately, lead poisoning occurs over a period of time and patients generally come to hospitals with a range of complaints making it difficult to diagnose. Doctors are now coming across increasing cases of lead poisoning across people working in the metal industry and those being exposed to hazardous materials," added Krishna.

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