The rapid growth of e-waste is a major side effect of the evolution of revolutionary new technology. It represents the hidden cost of a digital society that relies on devices and machines to drive industry, services and the financial sector.
Technological advances have driven down the cost of devices as middle-class incomes rise. But while the technology is developing and improving at unprecedented speed, as a result the amount of e-waste generated will exponentially increase in the coming decade as devices are discarded with increasing frequency.
Half of global e-waste constitutes personal devices such as computers, screens, smartphones, tablets and TVs, with the remainder being larger household appliances and heating and cooling equipment. Out of this, only 20% of global e-waste is recycled annually, meaning 40 million tonnes of e-waste is either placed in landfill, burned or illegally traded. This is despite 66% of the world’s population being covered by e-waste legislation.
The United Nation’s University 2017 Global e-Waste Monitor places India as one of the highest contributors to global e-waste, as in 2016, the country generated over 2 million metric tonnes of e-waste.
India is unique in that the sheer volume of e-waste is at odds with the number of those with access to electronic devices. Only 26% of the population in India own a smart phone, yet this represents such a large number of people that India is also the second largest smart phone market in the world – four times bigger than the United States, for example.
In a juxtaposition of circumstances, India is often cited as a leader in the management and recycling of e-waste, yet over 90% of its waste is managed in the ‘unorganised sector’, i.e. small businesses and individual entrepreneurs, from typically low-income marginalised communities. Consequently, India’s e-waste is managed by those with the least access to technology.
Indeed, on top of this digital divide, the lack of governance and safeguards in managing e-waste means many of these workers are putting themselves at significant risk. For example, 80% of e-waste workers in India suffer from respiratory ailments due to improper standards and many of the 500,000 children who work in e-waste collection do so without adequate protection and safeguards.
There is consequently a balance to be struck between managing the huge levels of e-waste in India, and ensuring that the informal unorganised sector workers remain able to access the work they do, albeit safely and at a fair price.
In an attempt to address this dichotomy, and streamline the e-waste management industry, in 2011 the Indian government brought in the Electronic Waste Rules (EWR), placing the responsibility of properly disposing of e-waste with the producer, shifting the burden of responsibility to manufacturers by imposing incentives that reward more environmentally friendly design. However, there were many issues with this legislation.
For example, Sonia Garga, Project Manager, Sahaas Zero Waste, a start-up that converts waste into resources believes that the EWR rules “mandate an individual to drop the e-waste at an authorised collector, but do not provide any incentive against it. This forces e-waste to end up with informal sector and loses track on further recycling”.
In addition, the OECD state that ‘a lack of binding financial mechanisms to direct producers to cooperate, a lack of regulation for bulk consumers and the omission of many major manufacturing and refurbishing stakeholders from the legislation – prevent it [the EWR] from being effective.’
To close these gaps, in 2016, these e-waste management rules were updated to specifically outline collection of waste procedures, including e-retailers as producers and using a target-based approach for applying responsibility. Whether they are strong enough to support the low-income communities that currently shoulder the burden of e-waste without cutting them out, whilst ensuring that manufacturers take responsibility for building more sustainable devices – remains to be seen.
What is clear, is that for Digital India to be sustainable, the government, industry and public sector must work together to develop pre-emptive solutions to dealing with the wider issues associated with the pursuit of the 4IR, such as the growing mountain of e-waste. The broader architecture of a digital society, must therefore include effective and flexible approaches to production and consumption that are designed to ensure both society and the technology, is protected.
The answer to both conundrums is adoption of the ‘circular economy’, a model in which a product and its materials are constantly recycled, stretching their value and use as far as possible. It is a departure from the traditional linear economic growth model predicated on 'take, make, dispose' towards a growth model based on creating closed loops of production, consumption and re-use. It opens up the supply chain to new, innovative ways of re-using waste to extend its useful life as far as possible.
Whilst this is a revolutionary idea in many ways, India is in a unique position once more in that its culture is predicated on the central concept of the circular economy in terms of efficiency of limited resources. For example, research shows that India’s informal waste management sector is often more effective than similar systems in industrialised countries, primarily because low income communities have always found ways to reuse and recycle materials as far as possible. Indeed, if this practice could be further monetised, and lower income communities allowed to upscale their efforts, or indeed if manufacturers were to adopt some of their approach, a report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that transition towards a circular economy could bring India annual benefits of $624bn by 2050. It could also lower India’s greenhouse gas emissions by 44% in 2050, compared to the current trajectory.
However, to progress the circular economy further, ‘Digital India’ needs to address the current challenges; inefficient informal waste management systems, safety and social protection initiatives for workers; continuing to focus on tightening existing e-waste rules for manufacturers; and building smart cities for the future that focus on energy and water efficiency.
It is estimated that 50 million tonnes of e-waste will be generated globally in 2018. India has the chance to lead the way in driving the transformation of the circular economy, enabling it to capitalise and leverage the existing culture of circular activities. In doing so, it will create new forms of employment, facilitating sustainable environmental management and reducing both the health and environmental risks currently associated with disposing with the mountains of electronics that are currently rising from the dawn of the 4IR. Their success, however, depends on collaboration and innovation.
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