Apologies to my young readers (?!) on the usage of a very circa 2000s “cool vibe” greeting. Yes, you were probably not born when people like me were young and called other “Dude”.

Meantime.. the festive season in India! The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness“, or more likely, the season when all good marketing folks do their best to get us to respond to their programmatic, and sometimes unsubtle cues to…

BUY NOW! BUY NOW! BUY NOW!

Text translation from Hindi: “Big Diwali Sale- Diwali’s biggest (firecracker) explosion“. Kids acting like grown-ups is so creepy, but that’s my personal opinion. Probably works very well from a “cut-through” perspective. The Indian audience is very fond of young kids acting grown-up (basis my research on Granny’s Favourite Dance Shows)
I have to admit…if I was going to spend money I would spend money on that Pixel 3. (i get no money for admitting to being an android slave)

These ads are actually working! For a moment there, I almost considered buying one of those phones. Must commend the e-commerce sites for making me salivate for things I don’t want..yet. (Disclaimer: No-one is paying me anything for these free tongue-in-cheek promotion sounding blitzkrieg).

To get back..so, if all goes according to many well-laid plans..

INDIANS WILL BUY A MOUNTAIN OF MOBILE PHONES

Thanks to seamless data transfer on cloud, you won’t even notice…that your old mobile phone is no longer with you.

I doubt anyone’s going to have this reaction. This was back in the 2000s, before everyone had a mobile phone.

BUT SERIOUSLY, WHERE DID YOUR PHONE GO?!

Your phone, after some possible re-use and dismantling, will eventually end up in the growing stream of eWaste. This is the fastest growing waste-streams in the world, and India’s joining the party. We are the fifth largest producer of e-waste. Our per-capita waste generation is still under 2 kg/person/year…but then anything divided by a billion is a small number!

The Global eWaste Monitor estimated India’s eWaste (in 2016) to be 1.9 million tonnes. If you want to visualise that…it’s like..9.6 lakh adult Asian elephants sitting around doing nothing but leaching toxins into the environment.

The real Indian elephant. The current population in India is under 30,000 elephants (2017 census). So imagine you have 30 times the elephants in India, and all of them weigh 2000 kgs. That’s the kind of e-waste volumes we are talking about.
Photo credit: muthukumaran [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

If you think that’s a lot, here’s a scarier thought…we haven’t yet reached saturation point in our consumption of electronic equipment. With increasing digitalisation, falling prices and shorter replacement cycles, the future could see us leading incremental growths in eWaste.

Within the country, dated information indicates the obvious correlation between eWaste and urbanisation. So cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore are high generators of eWaste. Oh by the way, we also import waste from the west, like we don’t have enough problems of our own. (I need a “Hands Raised In Surrender” icon).

Big cities also tend to attract waste from other parts of the country, because of economies of scale in the dismantling and other processes that’s already happening. I assume even distant states like mine in the North East send their eWaste to bigger metropolises like Kolkatta through informal and formal networks. Seelampur in Delhi is reputed to be processing almost 25% of the e-waste in the country! Compare this to the fact that only 5% of the e-waste is getting processed under regulatory norms.

SO, WHERE’S ALL THE eWASTE THEN?

95% of India’s eWaste disappears into the informal sector. This is a rather unique phenomenon, the fact that we have millions of people who are structured into an informal, almost subterranean network of people who pick up after India’s rich & urbanised classes. Reminds me of Morlocks in HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Click here for plot all ye lazy non-readers of books.

You think your eWaste disappeared, but you only shifted the burden of that waste onto a set of marginalised people who live on the edge of society.

“Dismantling eWaste in New Delhi”. Image originally uploaded by ThousandWays, GermanWiki, Wiki Commons. Most eWaste probably ends up at Delhi’s Seelampur. This place is estimated to be receiving ~25% of the total eWaste in the country. That is HUGE.

The informal sector for waste is a hugely commercial and toxic environment for its denizens. Here eWaste collected by kabaadiwallahs gets auctioned, traded and then dismantled. Dismantling and the extraction of re-sellable elements is done in very unsafe conditions. There is exploitation, but also desperation.

Various authorities in waste management seem to agree that the informal sector is a highly efficient collection network that needs to be incorporated into integrated solutions. However, the informal recycling & waste processing is a part of the chain that needs to get shifted to proper recycling plants.

What’s the solution?

Please breathe deeply and accept this fact about human societies- that there never is a clean-cut solution, especially in our country. Heavy-handed policies that discount the employment of thousands in the informal sector is not the answer. This is going to be a difficult and multi-stakeholder problem, but here’s what you can do in the meantime.

  1. Check if your phone manufacturer has a take-back policy. All electronic manufacturers are required by law to have accepted the Extended Producer Responsibility. This means they have to be able to take back a certain % of what they put in the market every year. As a consumer, you have EVERY right to ask how your manufacturer is planning to do this.
  2. Check if the e-commerce site has tied up with a Producer Responsibility Organisation. Again, these PROs work with various stakeholders to ensure electronic equipment gets disposed at authorised recycling units. Here’s a link to Flipkart’s eWaste policy
  3. Find out if there are NGOs that work with formalising the informal waste-collector/ dismantling communities. I personally love what Saahas Zero Waste does in Bangalore. Find similar organisations in your city.
  4. Finally, be aware of what you consume. Newton is going to turn in his grave, but it’s increasingly evident that consumption has an equal and opposite impact. It would be quite hypocritical and Luddite of me to ask you to stop using electronic equipment, but ask yourself how best you could extend the use of electronic .
  5. All is not bad of course. Indians have until very recently been extremely careful with product usage. We used to Repair, Reuse and Recycle quite intuitively. Try and go back to that lifestyle. If in doubt, ask yourself…”what would my mother do“?

Before you go, check out this article. It walks you through Seelampur, the graveyard of electronic waste.

The featured image is by Dmelow – Own work, ” Eric Lundgren on clean up e-waste project in Ghana”. CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69437255

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Posted by:Dechen

Hi! I write on sustainability, books and simply lying fallow. I've worked for 14 years in various industries, but nothing will mean as much as making a real difference through the advocacy of Sustainability. This is a topic that I think is critical in developing economies like India/South Asia.