E Waste

Managing e Waste

By: Manishika Jain
Computers and electronics have revolutionised the world but brought with it negatives that have created issues of e waste. Developing nations fall prey and turn into toxic dumps with carcinogenic wastes leaching into ground water and noxious fumes polluting the atmosphere through open burning.

India urgently needs parameter specific management options and environment friendly solutions to mitigate the e waste problem. Computers and mobile phones spew up newer, cheaper models that tempt consumers to be on the move as well as acquire additional ones. Product obsolescence has reduced from six to two years for computers, with software companies coming up with renewed versions every time, making it necessary to switch over to the latest updates for better performance.

E Waste | Definition

The digital generation is now creating electronic waste that is the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream. With upgraded mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers the e waste burden of our nation is rising alarmingly. The classification of e waste according to the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive include, large household appliances (ovens, refrigerators etc.), small household appliances (toasters, vacuum cleaners etc.), office and communication (personal computers, printers, phones, faxes etc.), entertainment electronics (TVs, HiFis, portable CD players etc.), lighting equipment (mainly fluorescent tubes), e-tools (drilling machines, electric lawn mowers etc.), sports and leisure equipment (electronic toys, training machines etc.), medical appliances and instruments and surveillance equipment and automatic issuing systems (ticket issuing machines).

Although e waste is a summation of solid waste generated from numerous electronic devices but this study places special emphasis on computers and cellular phones. Despite its common classification as a waste, disposed off electronics form a category of secondary resource often reused. For example, many fully functional computers and components are discarded during upgrades, refurbished, and its constituents recycled as raw materials.

Over the last 12 years, the telecommunication/ information and communications technology (ICT) sector has undergone rapid changes. With high growth in the mobile sector, mobile penetration rates stood at more than 40 percent at the end of 2006. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) data suggest that the number of mobile cellular subscribers surpassed the 3 billion mark in August 2007. At current growth rates, global mobile penetration is expected to reach 50 percent by early 2008. Despite major differences between the developed and the developing world, mobile services have been critical in enhancing access to telecommunications in many developing regions and rural areas, where fixed lines remain limited or non existent.

The consumption pattern of cell phone usage of developed and developing nations are studied on a temporal base. The marked increase in subscribers, post 1999 in developed nations is followed by a similar pattern in developing nations. In a period of three years, figures have shown a drastic increase.

The graph alongside shows the growth rate of personal computers during 1993-2000. China tops the list with a whopping increase of 1052 percent and India is a close second with an increase of 604 percent, with the world average standing at 181 percent. With continued growth at the same pace, and without e waste programmes in place, the toxic hazards might as well spiral out of control.

Disposal of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment are dealt differently in different countries – separate departments are set up to classify e waste generating sources. In India ICT equipment are irrevocably finding its way in the total e waste generated, with a burden of about 146,000 tons per year.

The United States of America is a major e waste generating nation with a total waste generated accounting for 21,244,000 tons per year. The entertainment equipment, foremost being the TV, alone amounts to 55.6 percent of USA’s e waste, while personal computers and monitors together form nearly 10 percent. Germany produces e waste amounting to 1,089,000 tons per year. Compared to its geographical extent, Germany’s e waste production is significantly high, with IT and entertainment accounting for 13 percent, in contrast to large household appliances, which accounts for over 54 percent.

Programmes for Developing Nations

Trade in e waste is controlled by the Basel Convention, which is the global environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes. The Convention has 170 Parties and aims to protect human health and environment against the adverse effects resulting from the generation, management, transboundary movements and disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

The Basel Convention came into force in 1992, yet, developing nations even today serve as a dumping ground for massive e waste generated by richer nations. These wastes find their way across oceans into India, Pakistan or China where about 80 percent of the e waste generated in the USA is exported. Unorganised recycling and backyard scrap trading forms close to 100 percent of the total e waste processing activity. Because the United States of America has not ratified the Basel Convention and has no domestic laws forbidding the export of toxic waste, estimates show that about 80 percent of the
e waste directed to recycling in the USA does not get recycled there – but are put on container ships and sent to countries such as India.

At the recycling yard, poor workers handle wastes under hazardous circumstances. E waste processing involves dismantling the equipment into various parts – metal frames, power supplies, circuit boards, and plastics – which are separated, often by hand. The appalling condition of the workers need to be brought under the direct concern of our legislators. Many corporations also incinerate such waste along with municipal garbage, releasing large quantities of mercury, lead and poisonous chemicals directly into the atmosphere. Global studies have shown an e waste composition of 5 percent in municipal solid waste – nearly the same as plastic – but much more hazardous as it contains a cocktail of chemicals.

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E waste recycling

Treated properly, e waste can be a recycled valuably, although incorrect handling results in toxins and carcinogens entering pollution streams. Technical solutions are available but in most cases a legal framework, collection system, logistics and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied. Electronic waste processing systems have matured in recent years following increased regulatory, public, and commercial scrutiny. Also the environmental and social benefits of reuse are several: diminished demand for new products, lower requirement for virgin raw materials and less use of landfills.

Since e waste is a potential source material the metals that can be adequately recycled needs to be worked out to formulate management imperatives for a sustainable product designing. In the hierarchy of end-of-life disposal methods, land filling is considered the most harmful, and recycling the most environmentally tolerable.

The table below shows that most of the components used in the computers have recycling capacity of less than ten percent. This creates a major issue of concern for the research and development sector. The most important drive is now to look into the major components that have a low recyclable efficiency and search for eco-friendly substitutes by a stronger R & D support system.

The common methods used to dispose such wastes were open burning, land filling and incineration till the 1990s when a few European countries banned the disposal of e waste in landfills. This created an e waste processing industry in Europe. In Switzerland the first e waste recycling system was implemented in 1991 beginning with collection of old refrigerators. Legislation followed in 1998 and since January 2005 it is possible to return all electronic waste to the sales points and other collection points free of charge. The European Union has implemented a similar system under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

In sophisticated recycling units electronic material is shredded, and expensive equipment separates the various metal and plastic fractions, which then are sold to various smelters and or plastics recyclers. A typical electronic waste recycling plant as found in some industrialised countries combines the best dismantling and component recovery machinery with increased capacity to process large amounts of electronic waste in a cost effective manner. Material is fed into a hopper, which travels up a conveyor and is dropped into the mechanical separator, which is followed by a number of screening and granulating machines. The entire recycling machinery is enclosed and employs a dust collection system. New systems include cable, cathode ray tube and printed wire board recycling.

Management Concerns

  • R&D sector needs to innovate eco-friendly substitutes for major non-recyclable components
  • Disposal methods should be under strict vigilance – open burning and land fill should be curbed
  • Recycling of e waste should become a viable option. Parts of machinery should be recycled separately as this is environmentally feasible
  • E waste being an urban problem, city and municipal laws should be made strict and revised from time to time.
  • Separate disposal boxes should be available for e waste so that entry into municipal waste is minimised
  • The Indian Government should formulate stringent rules to ban the imports of hazardous waste materials as per the Basel Convention
  • It should be made compulsory for all MNC’s and producers of electronic goods industry to conform to ISO 14001 norms.
  • Bio plastics and bio polymers should be used instead of the petrochemicals based products.
  • Indian Government should encourage beneficial reuse of e waste and provide incentives to those business units which promote recycling
  • Producers responsibility should be extended and legislation should be made strict for polluting units. In light of this, polluters pay principle should be enforced.
  • Public awareness will assist consumers to segregate e waste from municipal solid waste and manage it separately either with the help of municipal bodies or with NGO’s.

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