Consumer vs Ewaste


This paper has been jointly authored by S SURESH KUMAR, a post graduate in computer science, and a research scholar employed with GoI alongwith Dr SP VICTOR Head of Department & Director of Research Centre at St Xaviers College , Palayamkottai Tirunelveli both of whom instill great concern for nature.

Keywords : WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipments, recycling technologies, MSW (Muncipal Solid Waste), BER (Beyond Economical Repairs)

Recent growth in the electronics sector and rapid changes in technology mean that more and more consumers are generating growing volumes of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipments), much of which is still operational. Faced with a limited and fragmented recycling and reuse infrastructure, many consumers are storing old equipment in their homes or discarding it with their regular trash as it turns out to be an easy option for them.
This report attempts to explore as to who will overtake the other in the race between ‘consumer’ and ‘e-waste’ and also suggests that more workable solutions regarding safe disposal of e-waste are available so that e-waste don’t overrun the consumer in the long run.

Processes and policies governing the reuse and recycling of electronic products need to be standardized worldwide to stem and reverse the growing problem of illegal and harmful e-waste processing practices currently followed in developing countries.
Making appropriate recycling technologies available worldwide and standardizing government policy approaches to reuse and recycling could dramatically extend the life of many computers, mobile phones, TVs and similar products and allow for more complete end-of-life harvesting of the highly valuable metals and other components they contain.
WEEE has been characterized as one of the fastest growing categories of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). Though the actual volume of electronic waste generated in India is not tracked or cannot be tracked in view of the growing nature of illegal trade in e-waste. M/s Toxic Links an NGO based at New Delhi has made a pioneering effort to assess the quantity of e-waste generated in India. In addition to the large demand for natural resources that product turnover generates, the resulting electronic waste also precipitates a growing volume of toxic inputs to the local waste stream. If not contained, these toxic chemicals can come back to consumers and the public as air, food, and water contaminants.
Consumer and environmental impacts of the equipment that is returned for recycling and reuse extend to its fate in the lesser developed countries of the world or to those countries where there are no stringent laws governing the e-waste. A substantial quantity of the equipment returned for recycling, more than half by some estimates may actually be exported for disposal in other countries where environmental and occupational health protections are weak and landfills are not properly controlled. Solving this important consumer and environmental challenge requires a better understanding of the current factors that drive high product obsolescence and replacement rates and of the limitations of existing consumer options to reuse and recycle electronics equipment. Current product design features and changes in technology and wireless services often make it difficult, if not impossible for consumers to avoid frequent replacements of functional electronics equipment. The benefits of technological innovations must be accessible in ways that generate less waste and maximize product life expectancy and interoperability across the family of digital products and services that most consumers are using. Changes in business practices and government policies must aim to do the following:
(a) Remove obstacles to equipment upgrades and repairs and develop quality and safety standards for refurbished products.
(b) Enable consumers with information, tools and technical support to encourage and facilitate product upgrades and repairs, and to secure privacy for equipment reuse; and
(c) Eliminate artificial drivers of product turnover and barriers to reuse such as hand set locks on cell phones and product designs that prevent battery replacement.
Though consumer alternatives to sending retired equipment to landfills and incinerators have been growing, consumer awareness of electronic waste recycling options is low, and the infrastructure for reuse and recycling is highly fragmented, inconsistent, inconvenient, and often costly for consumers. However, because electronics recycling programs rarely track the actual fate of products returned for recycling or track it in a transparent manner, firm data on their impact are not available. Some electronic products are refurbished for resale, raising questions about the safety and quality of these goods and their impact on the waste stream in countries where they are sold.

The global technological revolution is fueling the rapidly increasing e-waste recycling problem. As seen from the chart at Appendix ‘A’, one has to remember that with the growth in technology, the amount of e-waste generated also increases. The demand to effectively and safely recycle the obsolete electronics is pushed by the same demands our society imposes to manufacture the new, smaller, faster and more efficient software. The environmentally safe disposal of e-waste has rampantly become a problematic issue over the past decade. Technological advances and legislation at all levels has vaulted e-waste recycling into an evolving multi-billion dollar a year industry.
The environmental concerns regarding e-waste stem from the many compounds that are known to have adverse impacts on the health of the environment and all living beings. The following hazardous elements and compounds can be found in everyday e-waste:
(a) Lead in cathode ray tubes and solder
(b) Mercury in switches and housing
(c) Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
(d) Antimony trioxide as flame retardant
(e) Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables, and circuit boards
(f) Selenium in circuit boards as power to supply rectifier
(g) Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors
(h) Chromium in steel as corrosion protection
(i) Cobalt in steel for structural strength and magnetivity

As the quantity of e-waste generated increases with the growth in electronic industry, one has also to be concerned with its safe disposal in an environmentally friendly manner. In addition to the potential environmental damage and resulting penalties, the disposal of electronic waste carries with it the liability related not to what the equipment is made of, but to what it contains. From the chart at Appendix ‘B’, the growth of electronic goods market in India is clearly seen. As seen from the chart, it can be inferred that in view of the growth of electronic goods in India presumed to increase exponentially, the safe disposal of the same also need to be catered to in order to prevent the e-waste from overrunning the end user / consumer. For example companies disposing of old computers leave themselves open to the risk of unwanted data exposure if private client data or proprietary information is not properly removed from hard drives. Another concern for organizations disposing of technology is software license infringement. If a hard drive is not properly erased prior disposal, any software found on the computer can be recovered and used or sold, violating the software companies’ licensing agreements. The same thus leads to the commonly found e-waste management system currently in India which is as potrayed at Appendix ‘C’.
It is also learnt from available records that considerably more equipment is shipped to China and other Asian nations apart from African countries, where it is dismantled under unsafe conditions, poisoning the local people, land, air and water.
Currently, India imports roughly 280,000+ tons of e-waste annually and this is expected to double by the year 2013. Most of the e-waste that enters this country is done under illegal circumstances and much of it comes from developed nations such as the US, UK and Europe. Though most of these countries have laws prohibiting the export of e-waste it is generally relabeled and redirected in the name of charity organizations as “working/donated computers and other electronic devices” in order to pass through Customs and shipped off to buyer who is eagerly awaiting for its arrival at an underdeveloped nation.

Considering the various liability risks involved with the disposal of electronic waste, it is important for one to choose an e-waste disposition option that not only is environmentally compliant but also protects the interests of the individuals therein. For example manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard try to limit the risk of unpredictable outsourcing by doing the bulk of their recycling in-house and closely monitoring any of their partners.
With e-waste becoming a more prevalent problem, it is important for both manufacturers and end users of electronic equipment to develop effective end-of-life disposition strategies. Failure to do so could mean severe consequences to irreparable damage to one’s own environment.

The end user is always left wondering to the fate of his returned electronic products. The same is summated as under in a nutshell. In India, let’s say that a Government Organisation ‘A’, wants to get rid of an unusable/obsolete FAX machine. The FAX machine is declared BER (Beyond Economical Repair) by a board of personnel who without any technical wherewithal sentence the EEE equipment (herein FAX machine) to its final disposal. The same is generally disposed off by auctioning to the highest bidder. With this the FAX machine is ‘struck off’ the Govt ledger and is thus ‘accounted’ in Govt records. Upon arrival at its destined location, it is then trucked to an area that unloads and “disassembles the electronics” for its valuable components which contain small amounts of gold, silver, copper, etc. The most common method of extracting these metals is burning of the PCB board under a hot open forced flame (generally 870°C) where the worker is exposed to the heavy black smoke.
The worker then removes the non usable components by use of various hand tools such as a hammer and chisel. The PCB board is then bathed in corrosive acids such as cyanide (mostly used to recover the gold). These chemicals, once used, are generally dumped on the open ground as there exists no processing plants in India to take care of this hazardous waste. The gold is then recovered and melted into “bars” for easy sale and distributed to various buyers. This gold is generally not 99.9% pure due to the process that is used to extract and thus is “unregistered” as directed by local and international laws. This gold contains many impurities lessening its value. This gold is used to make jewelry for sale locally on the open and underground market. NOTE: One metric tone of e-waste from personal computers contains more gold than recovered from 17 tons of gold ore. In 1998, the amount of gold recovered from e-waste was the same as recovered from 2 million tons of gold ore. This will keep the flow of e-waste flowing for years to come. This is only part of what is recovered. Other metals such as copper, silver and platinum are also recovered. Most of the methods used to recover these metals use acids that cannot be broken down at a common level and thus is disposed of improperly.
Another example is of the PCB Recycling Machine which is no different as all of the e-waste (herein PCB) material is merely ground up into a powdery substance and the same chemical process is used however, at a faster rate and is less handled by humans. Still the same problem exists in the disposal of the hazardous chemicals; where to dump them? They generally end up in the sewer systems and open ground once they are used. Plastic coated copper wire is extracted with the same process, it is simply soaked in a very corrosive acid until the plastic melts away and the copper is recovered (and silver in many cases). The invention of the PCB Recycling Machine does nothing but increase the amount of output of the PCB boards and its metals in the form of powder. You are still left with a nightmare to clean this up but only at a faster pace. Thus these and various other problems thus adds to human woes.

A large number of informal markets striving on e-waste trade have been found to flourish in India. However, it has been seen that the following are the recycling steps that are most commonly seen amongst the formal as well as the informal recyclers.
(a) Manual Dismantling:

The accrued electronic and electric waste in India is dismantled and sorted manually to fractions which contain printed wiring boards (PWB), cathode ray tubes (CRT), cables, plastics, metals, condensers and other invaluable materials like batteries, LCDs or wood using chisel, hammer and other such crude methods.

(b) Refining and Conditioning :

The different e-waste fractions are processed to directly reusable components and to secondary raw materials in a variety of refining and conditioning processes viz acid baths etc.
(c) Final Disposal:

This is the most sought after option. Herein, the e-waste is disposed off in a municipal landfill which leaches into the ground water which thereafter serves as feed to fishes and which are in turn consumed by humans.

According to research conducted by Greenpeace, Mumbai tops the country with around 50,000 tonne of e-waste every year. The figure is projected to increase to 3 lakh tonne per annum by 2011. Apart from that, the manner in which e-waste is presently being recycled is highly harmful for the environment and human health as well.
Currently, the total e-waste generation in Mumbai and Pune is around 5 lakh metric tonne per annum. The present e-waste recycling in India is carried out in two steps – dismantling and segregating. “Recovery of valuable metals and resource recovery are not taking place. The reason for this is that resource recovery facility is available only in Belgium. The Indian Govt is in an all out effort towards early setup of the project for resource recovery which is expected to take shape by this year end at Mumbai.
Thus, it is felt that the Indian Govt is channelizing all its resources in the meaningful direction so as to achieve a workable solution towards safe disposal of e-waste in an environmentally sound manner.

In order to ensure a harmonious relationship between the consumer and e-waste, the following course of action is recommended so as to ensure that e-waste does not get ahead of the consumer in the long run which can turn out to be disastrous to mankind.
Within the overall aim of implementing a clean and transparent e-waste channel in India, one of the actions suggested is to assist the informal e-waste recyclers in reaching a formal status and in improving their process in terms of workers health and safety and emission control to the environment.
Numerous training methods needs to be formulated such as training of trainers (ToT), a training of enterprises (ToE) and a follow-up period for implementing improvement measures.
(a) Training of Trainers (ToT) :
As a first step, a training of trainers (ToT) needs to be held with consultants from different backgrounds (NGOs, Industry, Academics). The objective should be to teach them to analyse a company’s process and identify improvement potentials.
(b) Training of Enterprises (ToE)
The next step after ToT should be the ToE. The objective should be to have the companies analyse their process themselves, with the help of the freshly trained trainers, and to identify themselves where improvements are possible. As trivial it may seem, it is not such an easy exercise for the recyclers to analyse in a rational way with the help of process flow charts and activity they have been doing for generations. Such an approach guaranties a full participation of the recyclers, instead of having external people telling them what to do.
(c) Action Plan and Follow-Up
This part is certainly the most important of the entire training program, and also the most expensive. Indeed, there will be many expectations that would have arisen during the ToT and ToE, and it is necessary to closely follow the target group in order to make sure that they effectively improve and find some benefit in doing so. Basically the action plan needs to focus on the following actions:
(i) Door opening
The “door opening” activity describes all necessary tasks to put the informal sector in relation with the relevant regulatory bodies they will have to interact with in order to become formal. Indeed, such groups have always been kept out (voluntarily or not) of the formal system, so that they need to be accompanied by the trainers for entering the formal world. The final objective is to figure out how to comply with requirements for obtaining Certificates for Establishment and Operation (CFE and CFO).
(ii) State-of-the art facility
One of the major issues that is expected to come out of the ToE is that especially the precious metal recyclers cannot continue to handle hazardous chemicals in a densely populated area. Therefore, a proper facility must be found. This involves a place connected to municipal water supply and sewage, energy supply etc. Since the present target group is not only made of precious metal recyclers, but also of scrap dealers and dismantlers, it is relevant to include the latter in the facility.
(iii) Technical input
This is the key issue of the entire training, as the main improvements concerning health, safety and environmental impacts are technical. The technical inputs mainly need to focus on the following:
(ai) Personal protective equipment (PPE): Every stage of the recycling processes require specific protective equipment. The trainers task is to teach the recyclers which PPE to use for which process stage, how to use the equipment, how to dispose of it when unusable, where to purchase it.
(aii) Emission control: Emission control consists of two main outputs to environment, namely acid fumes and effluent. Fumes must be controlled through a proper equipment, avoiding exposure to workers on the one hand, and on the other hand neutralizing the fumes before emitting them to the atmosphere. A strategy must be defined for effluents, whether they can be treated on site and dumped in the sewage, or be sent to a proper treatment facility.
(aiii) Process improvement: Especially the precious metal recovery may be improved in its chemical process. Two objectives must be aimed at, namely improving the recovery yield and replacing hazardous inputs (e.g. Mercury, Cyanide) by less dangerous products.
(aiv) Structural organisation of workshops: In general, whatever the process, all stages take place at the same site without differentiation. A plan should be designed to clearly separate the different steps, such as storage of material, storage of chemicals, operation area, cleaning of material etc. Also, book keeping of inputs and outputs of material and money should be organised.
(av) Association building : The target groups need to be organised into some kind of formal body, which is the gateway to training programs and expert input.

With the growth of electronic industry at a rampant pace, the author has researched whether the consumer or the e-waste will overgrow the other. The various e-waste recycling technologies known to mankind are in a nascent stage and needs to be dwelled upon by mankind in order to come up with a safe and sound e-waste recycling technology which is environmentally friendly and also safe to mankind.


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(The Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Feb 25, 2002)

Appendix ‘A’


Appendix ‘B’


Appendix ‘C’