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Waste Woes: E-waste management emerges as a key concern

March 31, 2014
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In recent years, “going green” has emerged as a key trend in the Indian telecom space. Powering tower sites through battery banks and renewable energy solutions has resulted in significant operational efficiencies and cost savings for operators and tower companies, while contributing towards a reduction in carbon emissions. However, the industry’s efforts towards adopting green practices have been limited to the telecom infrastructure segment, particularly to meeting energy requirements at tower sites. Management of e-waste has largely remained outside the scope of industry’s green initiatives. However, given the growing volumes of mobile phones and other telecom products being used and subsequently discarded, the industry and the government cannot ignore the potential environmental threat from the increasing mass of e-waste.

Currently, India has a wireless subscriber base of over 850 million and the number of mobile phone shipments into the country is growing rapidly. In 2013, over 60 million handsets were imported by the country during July-September, recording a growth of about 11 per cent over the corresponding quarter in 2012. Factors like rapid technology advancements and the need to upgrade to high-end models have shortened the average life cycle of telecom products. Increasing affordability has also contributed to the trend and consumers are now replacing their mobile phones in less than a year of purchase.

At present, the smartphone market is witnessing a year-on-year growth of 150-200 per cent in shipments. While the expanding subscriber base and increasing uptake of mobile phones are signs of market growth, these factors lead to the challenge of proper treatment and disposal of the large volumes of e-waste being generated. Proper management of e-waste becomes crucial as these products contain high levels of toxic components such as lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, arsenic and polyvinyl chloride. These products when dumped in landfills with other solid waste can pose a serious threat to human health as well as the environment.

Notably, most of the telecom e-waste can be reused and recycled. Materials from obsolete, damaged and defective products are often used as inputs for various industries. For instance, components recovered via recycling old phones can be used for the production of bike parts, kettles, car catalysts, etc. However, over 90 per cent of recycling in India is done by the informal sector, which follows outdated and highly unsafe methods for dismantling and recovering components. While several government-authorised recyclers have come up in recent years, substantial volumes of e-waste continue to be processed by the informal sector due to the absence of an adequate collection mechanism, and lack of efforts on the part of manufacturers and consumers.

Besides environmental safety, proper e-waste management can result in the extraction of precious metals such as gold, platinum, silver, palladium and copper. As per industry estimates, a mobile phone contains 250-400 mg of silver, 24-45 mg of gold and 9-16 mg of palladium. However, most of this potential has remained untapped due to the presence of the large informal sector and its obsolete and inefficient practices as well as the lack of smelting and precious metal extraction units in the country. About 200 tonnes of e-waste is annually shipped to countries such as Belgium and Japan for recovery of precious metals.

The lax attitude of the industry and the government with respect to safe disposal of telecom products can be cited as a key reason for limited initiatives in the e-waste management space. Only a handful of manufacturers have undertaken e-waste recycling programmes in the country, but only as an extended part of their existing corporate social responsibility initiatives. Nokia India has been a pioneer in this space. In 2008, it launched its e-waste management campaign, wherein it set up drop boxes across the country to take back used phones, chargers and accessories at Nokia Care Centres. The company witnessed a steep increase in e-waste collection from 3 tonnes to 65 tonnes within four years of service launch. Meanwhile, other handset manufacturers such as Videocon Mobiles, Spice Mobility and Samsung have joined the bandwagon, but the scale and scope of their schemes have not been as large.

Consumers have not played a significant role in the e-waste management value chain due to lack of awareness and incentives. Environmental safety is hardly a concern for users while making a mobile phone purchase. Also, they are more likely to exchange their phones in lieu of some monetary consideration instead of returning the devices to the manufacturers. The lack of awareness regarding the negative impact of unsafe e-waste disposal has been a key reason for limited consumer participation.

The government notified the new E-Waste Rules in 2011 and these regulations came into effect in 2012. A clause of extended producer responsibility (EPR) was introduced in these regulations, which puts the onus of managing telecom devices that are at the end of their life cycle on producers and encourages them to design products that are more environment-friendly.

However, in the absence of stringent penalties, the implementation of EPR has been limited. E-waste management has also found a mention in the National Telecom Policy, 2012, which mandates mobile manufacturers/distributors to install bins at appropriate places for e-waste collection.

Going forward, the e-waste challenge will become more prominent as telecom operators expand their service reach in the country and new mobile phones flood the market. It is important for the telecom sector to realign its objectives of future subscriber growth with adequate disposal of e-waste accompanying this uptake.

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