Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India



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The vast majority of e-waste in India is processed by hand.
Miles Parl, Author provided

Miles Park, UNSW

Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India

The world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, according to a recent UN report, but only 20% is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing nations.




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India generates more than two million tonnes of e-waste annually, and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries from around the world – including Australia.

We visited India to examine these conditions ourselves, and reveal some of the devastating effects e-waste recycling has on workers’ health and the environment.

Obsolete computer electronics equipment lie stacked along the roads in Seelampur.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

Indian e-waste

More than 95% of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers. They are often referred to as “kabadiwalas” or “raddiwalas” who collect, dismantle and recycle it and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organisational system. Little has changed since India introduced e-waste management legislation in 2016.

We visited e-waste dismantlers on Delhi’s outskirts. Along the narrow and congested alleyways in Seelampur we encountered hundreds of people, including children, handling different types of electronic waste including discarded televisions, air-conditioners, computers, phones and batteries.

Open fires create toxic smoke, and locals reported high rates of respiratory problems.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

Squatting outside shop units they were busy dismantling these products and sorting circuit boards, capacitors, metals and other components (without proper tools, gloves, face masks or suitable footwear) to be sold on to other traders for further recycling.

Local people said the waste comes here from all over India. “You should have come here early morning, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” a trolley driver told us.

Seelampur is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India. Each day e-waste is dumped by the truckload for thousands of workers using crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium. The process involves acid burning and open incineration, creating toxic gases with severe health and environmental consequences.




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Workers come to Seelampur desperate for work. We learned that workers can earn between 200 and 800 rupees (A$4-16) per day. Women and children are paid the least; men who are involved with the extraction of metals and acid-leeching are paid more.

Income is linked to how much workers dismantle and the quality of what is extracted. They work 8-10 hours per day, without any apparent regard for their own well-being. We were told by a local government representative that respiratory problems are reportedly common among those working in these filthy smoke-filled conditions.

Residential areas adjoining Seelampur Drain.
Alankrita Soni

Delhi has significant air and water pollution problems that authorities struggle to mitigate. We were surprised to learn that the recycling community does not like to discuss “pollution”, so as not to raise concerns that could result in a police raid. When we asked about the burning of e-waste, they denied it takes place. Locals were reluctant to talk to us in any detail. They live in fear that their trade will be shut down during one of the regular police patrols in an attempt to curb Delhi’s critical air and water problems.




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As a result of this fear, e-waste burning and acid washing are often hidden from view in the outskirts of Delhi and the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or done at night when there is less risk of a police raid.

Incidentally, while moving around Seelampur we were shocked to see children playing in drains clogged with dumped waste. During the drier months drains can catch fire, often deliberately lit to reduce waste accumulation.

Young boys searching for valuable metal components they can sell in Seelampur.
Author provided

After our tour of Seelampur we visited Mandoli, a region near Delhi where we were told e-waste burning takes place. When we arrived and asked about e-waste recycling we were initially met with denials that such places exist. But after some persistence we were directed along narrow, rutted laneways to an industrial area flanked by fortified buildings with large locked metal doors and peephole slots not dissimilar to a prison.

We arranged entry to one of these units. Among the swirling clouds of thick, acrid smoke, four or so women were burning electrical cables over a coal fire to extract copper and other metals. They were reluctant to talk and very cautious with their replies, but they did tell us they were somewhat aware of the health and environmental implications of the work.

We could not stay more than a few minutes in these filthy conditions. As we left we asked an elderly gentleman if people here suffer from asthma or similar conditions. He claimed that deaths due to respiratory problems are common. We also learned that most of these units are illegal and operate at night to avoid detection. Pollution levels are often worse at night and affect the surrounding residential areas and even the prisoners at the nearby Mandoli Jail.

Women extracting copper from electrical wires, in a highly polluting process.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

We had the luxury of being able to leave after our visit. It is devastating to think of the residents, workers and their children who spend their lives living among this toxic waste and breathing poisonous air.

Field trips such as this help illustrate a tragic paradox of e-waste recycling in developed versus developing nations. In Australia and many other advanced industrialised economies, e-waste collection is low and little is recycled. In India, e-waste collection and recycling rates are remarkably high.

This is all due to informal recyclers, the kabadiwalas or raddiwalas. They are resourceful enough to extract value at every stage of the recycling process, but this comes with a heavy toll to their health and the environment.


This article was co-written by Ms. Alankrita Soni, UNSW Alumni & practising Environmental Architect from India.The Conversation

Miles Park, Senior Lecturer, Industrial Design, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics



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Joyce Njeri, 8, walks amidst garbage and plastic bags in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Anastasia Telesetsky, University of Idaho

Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa.
NJR ZA/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few measures – notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law – impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to US$38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Estimated number of new regulations on single-use plastics entering into force at the national level worldwide.
UNEP, CC BY

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the extraordinary history of the Montreal Protocol.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, U.S. companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

Malaysian customs officials display smuggled tusks seized at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Demand for ivory continues to fuel poaching and illegal trade despite an international ban on sales of elephant parts.
AP Photo/Vincent Thian

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the U.N. General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.The Conversation

Anastasia Telesetsky, Professor of International Environmental Law , University of Idaho

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.