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India: A dumping ground for e-waste

By Bibhu Ranjan Mishra in Bangalore
August 15, 2006 02:52 IST
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India is gradually becoming a dumping ground for electronic waste (e-waste). Toxics Link, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, claims India annually generates $1.5 billion worth of e-waste.

A survey by IRG Systems, South Asia, reveals the total waste generated by obsolete or broken-down electronic and electrical equipment in India is around 1,46,180 tonnes per year based on select EEE tracer items. This figure does not include waste from electrical and electronic equipment imports.

Experts say the IT sector in the country is the largest contributor to e-waste (over 30 per cent) – with Bangalore alone generating an estimated 8,000 tonnes of e-waste annually – but is sluggish in implementing a clear cut e-waste management policy.

"Most IT companies in India show little interest in e-waste management as they fear it might slow their growth," says V Krishnan, a scientist working with The Energy and Resources Institute, a non-profit working in the field of energy and environment.

Wilma Rodrigues, founder member, Saahas, a voluntary organisation working on issues related to solid waste in Bangalore, says: "Barring a few MNCs like IBM, Intel and HP, there are very few IT companies in Bangalore who have a formal policy on where to recycle or dispose their e-waste. Some of them donate obsolete PCs to educational institutions and do not keep track of what happens to these after the end of the life-cycle."

Bangalore houses over 1,300 software companies, 36 hardware units, umpteen BPO firms and churns out around 30,000 obsolete computers every year. However, the city is slowly waking up to the issue. There are now at least three formal recyclers – E-Parisara, Ash Recycler and AER Recycler.

E-Parisara runs a recycling unit at Dobaspet industrial area, about 50 km from Bangalore with a capacity of one-tonne per day and Ash Recyclers is said to have a similar capacity.

"We are planning to raise our capacity from the present one tonne per day to two tons right away and ten tonnes by next year for which we have sought approval," said P Parthasarthy, a chemical engineer from IIT, Madras and founder of E-Parisara.

The company, however, is not able to utilise even its present one-tonne per day capacity. Its prominent clients are MNCs like IBM, HP, Lucent and Philips. E-Parisara is planning to open units in other cities like Mumbai and Chennai as joint ventures with local recyclers.

According to data accessed by Teri, the average life span of a PC has come down from 4.5 years in 1992 to two years in 2006. In India, the figure is said to be about three years. Over 30 per cent of PCs become obsolete every year.

The volume of obsolete PCs, which is just a part of e-waste, can be gauged if one takes into consideration large organisations like TCS, Infosys Technologies and Wipro, which employ over 50,000 employees each. Infosys does not agree, though, that it contributes to a substantial amount of e-waste.

"As a corporate citizen, Infosys is committed to demonstrating a high standard of environmental protection, sharing of best practices and provision of a safe and healthy work place. We have a sound Environmental Management System and is in the process of establishing an Occupational Health and Safety Management System," an Infosys spokesperson said.

Software services and R&D services provider MindTree Consulting says it has launched an organisation-wide e-waste awareness programme.

"We are in the process of articulating our own charter on e-waste management. As a first step, we have launched an organisation-wide awareness programme on e-waste and a content-based feature on our intranet portal that provides information and builds sensitivity among MindTree minds to contain and efficiently manage e-waste," said Subroto Bagchi, co-founder and COO of MindTree Consulting.

India's third largest software firm Wipro, recently accused by Greenpeace of neglecting e-waste management, claims it has initiated action to dispose e-waste through authorised agencies.

"Wipro recognises the seriousness of the issue and has taken several actions in this regard. We have taken a drive to educate our customers on upgrading their old equipment and have an upgrade programme in place. Additionally, we have initiated actions to dispose e-waste through authorised agencies," says Wipro vice-president (corporate business unit) Anil K Jain.

According to Deepak Chari, GM, WeP Peripherals, "As a large IT hardware company, we are extremely cautious about e-waste. We take back the old print heads and cartridges and recycle them in an eco-friendly manner by giving the entire waste to E-Parisara."

WeP Peripherals has also initiated efforts for the collection and disposal of e-waste in collaboration with E-Parisara. Some companies have also started to tackle the growing volume of obsolete computers by seeking to postpone obsolescence.

"Typically, we deploy our older IT assets to less processing-intensive areas such as Internet browsing terminals in our offices and convert these into various training assets," said V Chandrasekaran, CEO and MD of Bangalore-based Aztecsoft.

Agrees Bagchi. "We make optimum use of our investment in hardware. On an average, our PCs and servers serve us for a minimum period of 4 to 5 years. Of course, we upgrade them if the situation so warrants. The older PCs are sometimes put to use in less critical operations."

How countries generally tackle e-waste:

  • About 80 per cent of e-waste generated in the US is exported to India, China and Pakistan.
  • Unorganised recycling and backyard scrap-trading forms close to 100 per cent of total e-waste processing activity. About 25,000 workers are employed at scrap-yards in Delhi alone where 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes of e-waste is handled every year. Computers account for 25 per cent of it. Other e-waste scrap-yards exist in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.
  • In the US, a bill that came into effect on July 1 this year has made the manufacturer, and not the consumers or government, responsible for the costs of recycling e-waste.
  • In Japan, manufacturers are responsible for collection and recycling of obsolete electronic equipment for which they charge a recycling fee from consumers while selling. In  Taiwan, it's manufacturers who pay for the collection and recycling of e-waste.
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Bibhu Ranjan Mishra in Bangalore
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