REST IN PIECES - 20,000 kg of electronic waste dumped on the nation's shores daily

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By It is known as a goldmine for world-class software. But now India is also turning into a vast scrapyard for hardware from around the globe. G.S. Mudur reports on the hazardous consequences in Paradise
  • Published 28.03.04

It’s a hostile zone. Strangers are greeted with stares in Mandoli, an industrial estate on the Delhi-UP border. High brick walls and heavy iron doors block views of activities in the industrial plots within. But one door is open. Beyond it lies a scrapyard where boys tear apart electronic components with bare hands. There are vats of acid lying around. A few feet away, something is brewing in a giant black cauldron, spewing strange-smelling smoke.

People familiar with what’s going on say it is here that the innards of computers are torn, crushed, burnt and boiled in acid to extract copper for wires and gold for jewels. It’s a site where computers are recycled — claim one of the many environmental watchdog groups in the city. India may be a great source of the world’s software. But it might also be emerging as a giant sink for hardware.

Environmental activists who have documented computer recycling in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi say India’s domestic electronic waste (e-waste) and the import of discarded computers might soon turn the nation into the world’s largest computer graveyard. Recycling units, while extracting valuable metals from the hardware, also pose severe occupational as well as public health hazards.

Surveys by environmental groups indicate that the practice of illegal e-waste recycling under hazardous conditions is rampant in at least these cities. “Imported waste is flooding the market,” says Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, an environmental group and a member of an international coalition campaigning against the movement of toxic wastes.

Toxics Link investigators spent weeks talking to customs and shipping agents to track the import of e-waste. “It is not landing on deserted beaches in the middle of the night,” says Agarwal. “It comes through seaports and customs.”

The government has begun to acknowledge the e-waste problem. Earlier this month, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) called a national workshop on e-waste management to chalk out strategies to tackle e-waste.

“No one really knows the extent of the problem. The first thing on our agenda is to conduct a rapid assessment survey in the four metros,” says CPCB chairman V. Rajagopalan. “It’s also important that we determine the contribution of various industries to e-waste,” he says. Televisions, refrigerators, and other home appliances also end up in recycling markets.

Toxics Link estimates that a conservative figure on the amount of e-waste landing in the country would be 20,000 kilos a day. India itself has nearly two million computers in the pipeline for recycling.

Under existing laws, all recycling of e-waste in India is illegal. E-waste may be imported and recycled only at licensed recycling plants. But there is not a single plant currently licensed in India to process e-waste.

Toxics Link investigators who scanned shipping documents say that the e-waste is brought into the country by misleadingly labelling it as mixed metal scrap or secondhand computers.

Senior environment ministry officials concede that e-waste, while restricted, still comes through. “There is a gap in communication,” says a senior CPCB official. Customs need to be sensitised to this.

A senior state pollution control board official from Haryana says imported second-hand computers have been known to promptly end up in recycling units.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams around the world today, fuelled by the exponential growth of personal computers and by their rapid rate of obsolescence. Some industry officials estimate that by 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new one that enters the market.

Between 1997 and 2004, 315 million computers worldwide are expected to be ready for disposal. Without recycling, this will result in the ejection of 550 million kilos of lead, 900,000 kilos of cadmium and 180,000 kilos of mercury in the environment, says a paper by University of Georgia scientists in the journal Materials Today published in January this year.

Concerns about e-waste began to mount two years ago when an international coalition of environmental watchdog groups raised an alarm in a report titled Exporting Harm. It claimed that millions of kilos of e-waste were being exported to Asian countries, including India. The export was driven by the lowest cost of recycling in Asia. “Cheaper labour and lax environmental standards make India an attractive site for recycling,” says Agarwal. “It costs about $20 to recycle an old computer in the US. Instead, waste brokers sell the computer for export and make about $5 a piece,” he says. “The cost of recycling in India is about $12 and everyone makes money.”

Lead, cadmium, mercury and other substances like chro-mium, plastic and flame retardant materials in computers are hazardous substances. The acid treatment and burning, while posing occupational hazards to workers, could also contaminate the environment through effluents and toxin-laced smoke, say environmental scientists. “Since all the recycling is done in illegal scrapyards, there are no controls on processes and discharge of effluents,” says Agarwal.

Toxics Link investigators found recycling units discharging the waste acid water into neighbouring grounds and venting fumes from burning plastic and metals into the air. Lead can damage the brain and the reproductive system, mercury and cadmium can harm the kidneys. They, however, concede they have no data yet to directly link the e-waste to ill health.

Recyclers are wary of talking to strangers. In Kanti Nagar, a crowded locality of east Delhi, Khalid, a junked-computer dealer, politely declines to entertain questions about the source of the printed circuit boards, old monitors and electronic innards of computers strewn about and stacked high in his ground-floor shop. “The PC is now a toy. When it gets old, you just throw it away,” he says. Khalid says the items in his shop are picked up at auctions of discarded computers destined for tod-phod — break-up and recycling. Is it profitable? He won’t answer.

A study sponsored by a Swiss research agency conducted by the International Resources Group (IRG) Systems South Asia — a market consultancy involved in energy, environment and natural resources in New Delhi — has estimated that between 900 and 1000 computers are dismantled in the capital every day. The study, from October 2003 through March 2004, examined several processes used to extract important electronic components and metals from dismantled computers. IRG examined metal extraction and the dismantling of monitors.

“The more the amount of raw material available for recycling, the greater are the financial returns,” points out Amit Jain, managing director of IRG Systems South Asia. In the coming years, as the volume of junked computers grows, recycling is expected to become economically even more attractive for the people involved in the trade. “The environmental implications of such recycling may assume dangerous proportions in future,” says Jain who presented a paper on the economics of e-waste at the CBCP workshop.

The gold extraction process examined by the IRG team led to 99.9 per cent pure gold, which could well end up in jewellery. “A single PC does not yield gold worth the effort but a kilo of gold-plated connector pins extracted from many computers make the process economically attractive,” says Jain.

Copper extracted from the printed circuit boards is further processed and used to draw copper wires. And some integrated circuits are removed and consumed by small-scale electronic industries in India.

With China closing its doors on e-waste nearly two years ago, experts believe that India will emerge as a prime destination. The survey by Toxics Link at the Chennai seaport showed that computer scrap comes in from the US, Singapore, Malaysia and West Asia. Two international agreements hammered out in the 1990s known as the Basel convention and amendment effectively ban the export of wastes from the developed countries.

But by March this year, only 44 countries had ratified these agreements. At least 62 countries need to sign for the agreement to come into force. India, Canada, Japan, Russia, Singapore, UAE and the US are among countries that have not ratified the Basel convention and amendment yet. “The US has failed to control or prohibit the export of e-waste,” says Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), a coalition of international environmental activists.

California is the only state in the US so far to pass legislation that attempts to deal with the export issue beyond just studying the problem. But its first attempt last year was “worse than doing nothing,” Puckett told The Telegraph.

Last September, BAN said the e-waste bill that California was examining had “loopholes that allow waste brokers to grab money from recycling funds and just sell the waste offshore. All restraints listed in the bill for exports can be ignored as long as one claims that the recycled e-waste will be recovered for use in new electronic components.” The California law will come into force in a month.

A top official of a leading international hardware manufacturer in New Delhi said the industry expects many countries to introduce new laws for the recycling of e-waste within the next five years. Eleven countries — Belgium, Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — already have mandatory electronic recovery laws. The official said hardware manufacturers are likely to pass on the cost of recycling to consumers through incremental increases in the price of the products at the time of sale. “But recycling has to be a shared responsibility — both manufacturers and consumers have a role in the takeback scheme.”

India’s organised hardware industry also appears unprepared to take back products for recycling. “The hardware industry here works on small margins and the unorganised sector accounts for about 60 per cent of the market,” points out Vinnie Mehta, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT), which represents the hardware industry. “Even a small increase in the cost of branded products to cover the cost of recycling will make consumers migrate to the unorganised sector for their personal computers,” he says.

A takeback scheme would require consumers to segregate household junk and separate e-waste for recycling. Hardware industry representatives also say that India is unprepared for a takeback scheme. It is okay for small countries like Switzerland and Taiwan, but in the current situation it will be hard to implement in India. “The culture of waste segregation is still to percolate into Indian society,” says an industry official. “Even if I separate plastic waste from kitchen waste, the garbage collector puts it together when he gets it,” he adds.

“We can’t cut-and-paste solutions from elsewhere in India,” says Mehta. “We need to address problems from our own social, economic and cultural perspective. It’ll probably have to start with education and sensitising the public about handling waste not just from computers but all the other electronic appliances as well.” Although India’s roadmap to tackle its e-waste is still far from clear, all appear to agree that the faster it’s done the better.

Otherwise, the PC on your desk that brings you e-mail now might one day deliver toxins into the air.

Recycle and recover


One of the world’s largest manufacturers of hardware, Taiwan was among the first to introduce recycling of used computer hardware, including printed circuit boards, monitors and notebook computers in 1998. Consumers can return used hardware to one of the 600 ‘takeback stations’ where it is dismantled for recycling.


Since 2001, manufacturers in Japan have been expected to recycle a range of electronic appliances including air conditioners, television sets and refrigerators. Manufacturers can charge an extra US $20 to US $40 on each item to cover the cost of recycling.

European Union

Last year the EU passed a directive that requires producers of electronic
products to take financial responsibility to recover and recycle e-waste. All member states are expected to put into place systems for the collection of e-waste from private households by December 2006. They aim to meet a target of 4 kg e-waste per resident per household each year.

South Korea
It enacted takeback laws in 2003 to cover major electronic items. By 2005, the law will include smaller electronic products such as mobile phones and cameras.


In 2002, China banned the import of waste or junked air conditioners,
refrigerators, laser and ink jet printers, mobile communication equipment, printed
circuits, cathode ray tubes and automatic data processing machines.