Electronic waste management in India takes a leap forward

What’s needed to get waste management in India up to speed? Aggressive targets are good, but adapted systems are even better.

by Sunita Paudyal

Electronic waste management in India is making moves to keep up… India is among the fastest growing economies in the world, and an increasing part of the population now has a good disposable income. This has naturally led to higher demand for consumer goods, but also to more waste generation. However, unfortunately, many of the waste management systems are still trying to catch up with demand. Especially when it comes to e-waste. As a result, India is now the second most polluting country on the planet. To address these problems, India has adopted laws to hold polluters to account through “polluter pays” initiatives and ambitious recycling objectives. However, are these efforts likely to be sufficient, or does India need to take aggressive action on waste management before the situation becomes unmanageable?

History of waste management in India

The constitution of India provides for environmental protection and improvement, including waste management. However, it took two decades from the UN conference in Stockholm in 1972 before the country really started to focus on waste management.

India only became a party to the Basel Convention in 1992, although it committed to adhering to the requirements under the convention in 1989. There have been waste management laws in India since 1998, when hazardous waste management rules were first issued. These were followed by several other sets of rules, for example, covering biomedical waste and solid waste management. India has since issued various laws and regulations to support sustainable development, with a focus on avoiding and minimizing environmental damage.

However, the waste management system has remained largely unchanged—and is a long way from being able to manage the extraordinary increase in waste generation that occurred as the economy and the country developed and grew.

In 2014 India launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). This was designed to clean up the country and minimize pollution within 5 years. The Subramaniam committee, established around the same time, proposed to revamp several environmental laws and waste management rules in 2016 based on a principle of “Extended Producer Responsibility”. The focus was on the management of the final stages of the life of products, and the 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle.

E-waste is one of India’s fastest-growing waste streams and is not handled well by the current waste management systems.”

Electronic waste management in India

Along with plastic waste, electronic waste (e-waste) is particularly problematic for waste management in India. It’s one of the fastest-growing waste streams and is not handled well by the current waste management systems. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of India estimated that 1,014,961.2 tons of e-waste was generated in 2019–2020. Soaring demand for electrical and electronics equipment has resulted in exponential growth in e-waste. This is a global problem, but is particularly acute in Asia, which now produces the most e-waste by volume on the planet (24.9 Megatons per year, compared with 13.1 in North America and 12 in Europe). To make matters worse, India only recycles 1% of its e-waste, compared with 16% in China and 15% in the USA.

Most of the e-waste is handled by informal sectors which use nonscientific and dangerously crude methods for recycling and treatment. E-waste contains several valuable and toxic materials such as iron, copper, gold, and other precious and rare earth metals. The recovery processes for heavy metals such as mercury and lead can lead to severe environmental and health damage if not conducted appropriately. It’s therefore crucial to use reliable technology in e-waste management systems.

Requirements for e-waste management in India

India’s E-waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2011 were established to support environmentally-sound recycling of e-waste generated in the country. However, despite subsequent revisions of the rules, the collection, segregation, and processing of recycling are still relatively disorganized, and use crude practices that result in inefficient recovery and higher pollution.  

In May 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) issued a draft revising the e-Waste Management Rules 2016. The draft makes several new proposals, including:  

  •  Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) Framework  

The current EPR framework is focused on e-waste collection targets and requires only producers of electronic goods to meet collection targets and other obligations. The revised rules will include recyclers and refurbishers. They also include more ambitious recycling targets from 2024–2025.  

  • EPR Certificate 

The EPR certificate is a trading certificate for recycling and refurbishing e-waste. It enables producers to meet their EPR obligations by purchasing certificates from authorized recyclers or refurbishers. 

  • A more comprehensive range of electronic products  

Several new electronic products have been added to the draft regulation, including small and large cooling and heating appliances, handheld electrical and electronic tools, medical equipment, and electrical and electronic toys. 

  • Requirements for consumers and bulk consumers of electronic goods 

Any facility that consumes electrical and electronic goods in any quantities will be required to hand over its e-waste to registered recyclers or refurbishers only. 

  • Stricter requirements for recyclers and refurbishers 

E-waste recyclers and refurbishers will be required to register with the CPCB. Producers and manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment will be required to channel their waste only to authorized recyclers and refurbishers. Recycling and refurbishing entities will be required to handle, recycle and treat e-waste in line with the guidelines established by the CPCB for sound environmental management of e-waste. 

  • Environmental compensation 

The rules provide a detailed penalty structure for producers of electrical and electronic equipment that do not fulfill requirements. These include paying environmental compensation. Penalty provisions will carry forward unfulfilled obligations to the following year, for up to 3 years.

Where we go from here: Improving e-waste management in India

India has been making some deliberate moves towards recycling and refurbishing e-waste by amending, revising, and enforcing various laws. However, it now needs appropriate waste management infrastructure and qualified personnel to implement these laws and regulations effectively and efficiently. Waste management systems based on scientific conclusions and new technology have been shown to work effectively in many other countries. The ambitious and aggressive targets enacted in law in India will be difficult to achieve without improvements to its waste management systems.

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