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E-waste as Treasure

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    7th Feb, 2019

A latest UN-WEF report titled ‘A new circular vision for electronics’ highlighted that a Tsunami of e-waste would hit the shores of mankind if sustainable solutions of the problem were not worked out. As part of better management of e-waste it underlines the importance of extracting precious metals found in the e-waste such as gold, cobalt, platinum, silver, rare earth metals like neodymium and others.

Analysis

Why do we need to be worried?

  • Around 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste is annually generated across the world, and this figure is expected to rise by 3-5% annually.
  • Recycled e-waste forms only 20% of the total e-waste generated which means that around 80% of e-waste is burned, sent to landfills or illegally shipped and treated through sub-standard techniques. Improper disposal leads to the release of carcinogenic brominated pollutants.
  • Landfills are already being exploited beyond their capacities, which leave few other options than recycling the electronic products.

Issues with e-waste management

  • Poor and inefficient recycling methods are a two-fold blow for the reason that more than 70% of this e-waste eventually lands up in various landfills, thus, losing the precious metals, which ultimately results in increased mining.
  • The abysmal recovery rate of the metal from the e-waste is another consequence of inefficient extraction methods. For instance, recovery rate for cobalt is a paltry 30%. Cobalt is in huge demand for various electronic items like laptops, car batteries and mobile phones. If we could get it through recycling e-waste, it will ease the unnecessary mining pressures.
  • Even though e-waste is regulated under “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal”, but it still continues to be illegally shipped to the developing countries (e.g. India, China, Brazil) from developed countries (e.g. USA, Japan, Australia, Western Europe and others).
  • Quantification of e-waste is another obstacle in the management of e-waste. The lack of updated inventory of e-waste generated makes the collection, recycling and disposal a difficult task.
  • Informal sector is the only community that has recognized the treasure in e-waste. However, the sector extracts the metal by burning plastic, which only complicates the issue given the environmental as well as the health concerns of the workers. In addition to that, the methods used by them are very fundamental with low recovery rates.
  • Although, India has rules in place under E-Waste Management Rules, 2016 but poor implementation makes it ineffective. Apart from this, lack of awareness about existing collection centres for old electronic products under extended producer responsibility (EPR) making the problem worse.

Silver lining of e-waste

  • If processed scientifically, precious metals like gold, platinum, silver and copper can be recovered.
  • Recycling of e-waste is energy efficient in comparison to extraction of metals from virgin ores. The report says that this energy efficiency is to the tune of 2-10 times. Shortening the product development lifecycle saves significant amount of consumption energy.
  • The additional mining for metals is a burden by virtue of it being energy intensive activity. The report highlights that around 7% of global energy consumption is directed towards mining operations. It also limits the consumption of fresh raw material by making available metals for re-use.
  • Furthermore, mining from ore emits 80% more carbon dioxide per unit of gold in comparison to mining from e-waste. Thus the smaller carbon footprint of recovery of metals from e-waste in comparison to the ores facilitates sustainable development.
  • The valuable metals extracted from the e-waste can be used to reduce the nation’s dependence on imports from other countries for these metals.
  • Apart from saving energy, reducing pollution and green house gas emissions, the scientific extraction of precious metals also saves natural resources.
  • Electronics’ recycling is the cornerstone of solid waste diversion and realization of zero landfill nations.
  • Developing nations can take advantage of the situation of being the global dumping grounds of e-waste though formalizing the waste management that would result in more economic opportunities for the population such as professional recyclers, refurbishers as well as newer markets for the dismantled valuable components.

Solutions

  • The UN-WEF report suggests that kick-starting circular electronic economy can be the panacea for e-waste. It espouses multi-pronged approach that takes into account all the stakeholders. Eventually, it would also reduce the cost of the electronic items for the end consumers by around 7% by 2030.
  • The electronic products must be designed and manufactured in an environmentally sustainable manner, which makes them reusable and recyclable sans any threat to the health of those engaged in the supply chain.
  • The producers should also have buy-back policies for old electronic products and offers that incentivize the customers financially on returning old equipment.
  • The report also accentuates on ‘urban mining’ that augments the extended producer responsibility (EPR). This emphasizes on producers establishing more designated collection centres in the city where the customers can sell their old products.
  • The recirculation of resources, or ‘circular economy’, can be the basis for urban mining as an alternative to mining virgin ores. This can offset the subsidies given by the government for promotion of scientific e-waste management.
  • The producers can be given annual targets for recycling which is proportionate to the weight of the annual production of the electronic products.
  • The producers would have to ensure that these products are recycled as per the global safety SOPs. This would also include making sure that the old products reach designated recycler.
  • The producers must provide the postal address and helpline numbers of collection centres along with the products.
  • It has the potential to generate more employment and provide safe working conditions for the workers in informal sector.
  • A monitoring system must be in place to check the implementation of EPR and other rules under E-Waste Management Rules, 2016.
  • The government should put in place measures to check the illegal import of e-waste. Also, proper updated inventory of e-waste can assist in ensuring that the nation does not receive e-waste more than it can manage.
  • Awareness campaigns about the central role of customers in managing the e-waste must be taken. They must be told about the health hazards and the need to sell the used products in the formal sector. Also, the government can incentivize the customers to recycle the End of Live (EOL) products.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

 One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Discuss the statement in the light of the possibilities and concerns of extracting precious metals from e-waste.

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