E-Waste- the looming crisis

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Information and Communication technologies have revolutionized the way we live, work and communicate. New electronic products have become an integral part of our daily lives providing us with more comfort, security and opportunities for acquiring and exchanging information from across the world. Simultaneously, this has also led to unrestrained resource consumption and consequent waste generation. The rapid growth of technology, its regular up gradation and a high rate of obsolescence in the electronics industry have generated a new waste stream known as e-waste, and this consists of end of life electrical and electronic equipment/products. It includes computer and its accessories, typewriters, mobile phones, remotes, compact discs, headphones, batteries, LCD/Plasma TVs, air conditioners, refrigerators and other similar household appliances.



The composition of e-waste is diverse and falls under ‘hazardous’ and ‘non-hazardous’ categories. Broadly, it consists of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, plastics, glass, printed circuit boards, concrete, ceramics, rubber and other items. Iron and steel constitute about 50% of the waste, followed by plastics (21%), non-ferrous metals (13%) and the balance by other constituents.


E- waste:  where is it generated?


Globally, about 20-50 MT (million tonnes) of e-wastes is disposed off each year, which accounts for 5% of all municipal solid waste. According to the Comptroller and Auditor- General’s (CAG) report, over 7.2 MT of industrial hazardous waste, 4 lakh tonnes of electronic waste, 1.5 MT of plastic waste, 1.7 MT of medical waste, 48 MT of municipal waste are generated annually in India.


The table above indicates the ten largest e-waste generating States in descending order. Mumbai and  Delhi head the list of the ten top e-waste generating cities in India followed closely by Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Pune, Surat and Nagpur.

The main sources of electronic waste in India are the government, public and private (industrial) sectors, which account for almost 70 per cent of total waste generation. The contribution of individual households is relatively small at about 15 per cent; the rest being contributed by manufacturers. Though individual households are not large contributors to e-waste, they consume large quantities of consumer durables which eventually turn into e-waste.


A report of the United Nations predicted that by 2020, e-waste from old computers would jump by 400 per cent on 2007 levels in China and by 500 per cent in India. Additionally, e-waste from discarded mobile phones would be about seven times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher by 2020.


Environment Concerns & health hazards


E-waste is broken down in not just for recycling but for the recoverable materials such as plastic, iron, aluminium, copper and gold. However, since e-waste also contains significant concentration of substances that are hazardous to human health and the environment, even a small amount of e-waste entering the residual waste will introduce relatively high amount of heavy metals and halogenated substances. The materials are complex and have been found to be difficult to recycle in an environmentally sustainable manner even in developed countries.


Unless suitable safety measures are taken, these toxic substances can critically affect the health of employees and others in the vicinity – which manually sort and treat the waste – by entering their body through respiratory tracts, skin, or the mucous membrane of the mouth and the digestive tract. The presence of elements like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium etc in e-waste make it  hazardous in nature and creates serious pollution upon disposal.


Electronic waste recycling and developing countries:


Recycling facilities exist in developed countries and stringent measures have been taken by the Governments regarding disposal of e-waste. However, there are difficulties in implementing regulations and dealing with e-waste owing to increased activism by environmentalists and the high cost of recycling. For instance, waste traders in Europe or USA have to pay US $20 to recycle a computer safely in their countries while they can sell it at half the cost to the informal traders in developing countries. Again, while it costs Rs. 12,000 to recycle a tonne of rubbish after segregation in the U.K., shipping the rubbish to India costs just about Rs. 2,800.  Thus, despite concerns on the issues of fraudulent traders and environmentally unsound practices, it is easier and cheaper for these countries to ship e-wastes to the developing countries leading to a win-win situation. The only difference being that the rich country is dumping toxic waste on the poorer country.


India is one of the largest waste importing countries in the world. In 2009, India generated 5.9 million tonnes of hazardous waste domestically and imported 6.4 million tonnes. It generates about 3,50,000 tonnes of electronic waste every year and imports another 50,000 tonnes.


According to the MoEF, presently there are 28 operational Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facilities (TSDFs) for hazardous waste management in the India. Delhi is the leading processing centre of e-waste in the country. According to the study conducted by the GTZ in 2007, there were about 25,000 workers refurbishing 10,000-20,000 tonnes of e-waste annually.


The work takes place in small illegal units where neither regulations nor environment or health safeguards are in place. Due to lack of any facility for proper storage and disposal of such waste, mishaps like the ones that occurred in Mayapuri, where a worker got exposed to the radiation and in Mundka, where a plastic fire broke out, are the kind of risks that the workers face each day. The situation is the same in the other cities of Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad etc.


E-Waste policies in Indian Railways


Some initiatives have been taken in Indian Railways to reduce the environmental pollution due to e-waste. Guidelines to reduce Environmental Pollution due to Mercury and e-waste in Central Government Hospitals and Health Centres have been approved by Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Govt. of India. These guidelines have been further circulated by Health directorate of Railway Board for implementation in the Railway Hospitals and Health Units. Among them, a few are


  • Hospitals and Health Centers should work to create awareness among health workers and other stakeholders regarding the health and safety hazards of mercury and e-waste (electrical and electronic waste).
  • A clause for buy back policy may be included at the time of tendering for purchase of electronic equipments for minimization of e-waste.
  • E-Waste recyclers authorized by Central Pollution Control Board may be contacted for collection and disposal of e-waste.


Stores Directorate of Railway Board has advised Controller of Stores (COS) of all Indian Railways and Production Units to follow e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 while dealing with disposal of items covered under schedule I of said Rules, from 1st May 2012 onwards. e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, in its schedule 1, defines categories of electrical and electronic equipment covered under the rules. These rules was come into effect from 1st May 2012 and also laid down detailed procedure for seeking authorization and registration for handling e-wastes. Zonal Railways/PUs have been further directed to give vide publicity to it, not only through auction catalogues but also through notices to be displayed on the dates of auctions so as to increase awareness amongst purchasers.


The Way Forward:


In the present scenario, instead of segregated policies by different departments, there is an urgent need for an integrated policy on the e-waste management on Indian Railways. The policy should address the issue by looking at various levels in the supply chain.


As individuals and responsible railwaymen all of us can take action to manage e-waste such as avoiding purchase of electronic items unless essential, organizing the gadgets what we have, donating the useable e-waste, use buy back schemes of the stores, selling the unwanted but usable electronic items to firms dealing in reverse logistics, exploring the local recycling option, avoiding delay in disposing off unwanted gadgets as these might be useful for others and it would be easy to sell, using clouds and web drop boxes instead of investment in large servers or heavy duty machines, making a good e-bag for better use of gadgets, educating ourselves and spreading the message about the toxins in electronics.


Above steps may seem little but as someone has rightly said “All good things must start somewhere and even the greatest feats have started from a single thought that leads into action”.


Source: 1. “E-waste in India”, Research Unit, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi (June 2011).

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2 Responses

  1. I have had many of my friends from abroad visit India. The one overriding observation they all had was the proliferation of garbage on either side of the tracks. I know we have a vast network, but why can’t projects be undertaken to clean this blight, in addition to the cleaning up of trash at stations, which is, commendably, already under way?

    Also, can we bring back earthenware to replace plastic bottles and utensils disseminated at stations? These are also tossed out while the train is in motion,, exacerbating the above issue

    As well, can ALL coaches be retrofitted with trash cans?

    I can see that the environment is already paramount on your list of concerns for the Railway Minister. I thank him for that.

  2. The environment is something you are very familiar with. It’s everything that makes up our surroundings and affects our ability to live on the earth—the air we breathe the water that covers most of the earth’s surface, the plants and animals around us, and much more. But still we are not caring to environment and we are pay penalty to Polluted environment.

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