Is India's E-Waste Problem Spiraling Out of Control?

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Indian youths dismantle reusable parts from electronic waste on pavement in Kolkata on June 5, 2009

The high-pitched, nasal call of the neighborhood scrap collector is a familiar weekend sound in most Indian neighborhoods. In Noida, a quiet satellite city of New Delhi, Ashu Kumar has been collecting old newspapers, phones, computers, digital recorders and refrigerators for the past five years. And for years, at the end of each month, Kumar trekked down a dusty road to the Seelampur scrap market — the largest graveyard of India's ever growing electronic waste — to sell his wares.

In India, yesterday's electronics are today's business, and Seelampur, about 9 miles (14.5 km) outside New Delhi, is the biggest scrap market in the country. On a typical day, visitors are greeted by piles of used goods, like the 50-ton mountain of old telephones that Mohammad Arif, a scrap trader, bought for $2,500 at an auction one winter morning. By evening, the mound will be dismantled and the parts sold off. A 2008 survey by the national government's Central Pollution Control Board said India generated 146,800 tons of e-waste in 2005. According to the Environment Ministry, that figure is likely to reach 800,000 tons next year.

Most of that waste is bought from Indian consumers by scrap dealers and sold in underground recycling markets like Seelampur. But a 2007 study by the Manufacturers' Association of Information Technology and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation in India found that an additional 50,000 tons of e-waste is imported to India from developed countries every year, despite the nation's bans on the dumping and disposal of foreign waste and on the importing of old computers and their accessories. According to activists, importers have long exploited a loophole in the bans that allows for imports of used electronics as donations.

A few yards from Arif's stall, Seelampur begins in earnest. The bumpy road gives way to narrow shaded lanes, lined on both sides with shops filled with the debris of electronic equipment: digital video recorders, air conditioners, televisions, computers, phones. Workers dismantle the equipment with a practiced air. Sagir Ahmed, 60, sits surrounded by keyboards and other computer parts outside his shop. "It takes just a minute to dismantle a computer," he says, bringing down a hammer to break open a monitor. People like Ahmed keep what they can and recycle it. The rest, they sell to small-time recyclers who salvage and sell the metals.

A short distance away, plumes of black, acrid smoke hover over a tract of open land dotted with colorful PVC wires. Men and women in small groups burn the wires, soaking them in open acid baths to retrieve the copper inside. Selling a few kilos of the copper earns them $3 to $5 a day. Nazeeb, 12, has a small mound of copper wires at his feet. He has been working since early in the morning. His eyes are hazy, his complexion sooty. He has a nasty cough. Despite their ubiquity, the government has recently come down heavily on these informal scrapyards for the bad health and environmental effects of their methods of material recovery. The crackdown has made this trade a loosely clandestine activity. A few men come forward menacingly; they do not like strangers asking questions.

The health and environmental risks of informal recycling are high. Extracting metals like copper and gold in open acid baths, which is illegal, releases toxins such as dioxins, heavy metals, lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Acid and chemical residues contaminate water and soil. Informal recyclers work without protective clothing, exposing themselves to hazardous chemicals that can lead to physical injuries — mercury, for instance, can cause brain and kidney damage, and BFRs disrupt hormonal function — and chronic illnesses like asthma and skin diseases.

Despite the activity at places like Seelampur, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says India's e-waste regulations are comparable to the best in the world. "For e-waste, we have set up a couple of new integrated facilities. Not only for e-waste but chemical waste in general, we have signed a $90 million project with the World Bank," Ramesh told TIME. "However, I do agree that our infrastructure for dealing with e-waste or hazardous waste in general is inadequate."

New regulations are designed to improve that infrastructure. By the end of the year, the nation's largest e-waste recycling plant is due to be up and running. Built on government land in Bangalore, it will have the capacity to recycle about 60,000 tons of e-waste annually. The government is simultaneously trying to pass a new law to oversee formal e-waste management, both through the establishment of more large-scale recycling plants and by regulating the formal disposal of e-waste.

The transition won't be easy: 95% to 97% of the e-waste collected in India funnels into the informal sector, in which about 80,000 people work, for recycling. "The informal sector is well networked, has a historic presence and provides fiscal incentive to consumers on collection of waste," says Abhishek Pratap, a Greenpeace India activist. "It provides livelihood to a huge number of poor migrant laborers."

The major challenge for formal recyclers will be to tackle this sprawling informal sector. Informal scrap dealers pay consumers by the kilogram; for an old computer, for example, a consumer might get $10 to $20. Recycling plants won't pay. "Unfortunately, the Indian consumer is used to getting paid for their waste," says Priti Mahesh, a project manager for Toxics Link, an environmental NGO. "It will be difficult for [formal recyclers] to go from door to door and collect the waste, which the informal sector is very adept at."

For an effective and long-term solution, Mahesh says, India needs to train and integrate informal recyclers and scrap collectors like Ahmed and kumar into the official system. Until then, as Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network says, "The global problem of toxic e-waste production will get worse before it gets better."