I am delighted to address the gathering participating in the event “The beginning” organized by ATTERO Recycling, New Delhi. My greetings to the organizers, industrialists, e-waste technologists and management experts and distinguished guests participating in this function. Today when I am in the midst of this audience, I would like to talk on the topic “Comprehensive approach for e-waste management”.
As I was preparing for this lecture, I came across some references in internet and some blogs. I saw interactions among some young friends from different countries with enthusiasm to do specialized research in this area. A comprehensive approach for managing e-waste includes assessment of the extent of the problem, awareness, realistic opportunities for economic advantages, application of green technologies in design, manufacture and disposal, right sizing of plants for centralized and decentralized applications, employment opportunities, safe operations, legal stipulations, media interactions, funding modes, incentives, monitoring mechanisms and consumer awareness.

Modern disposal system

ATTERO initiative is commendable to start an organized, safe and viable e-waste recycling plant in India with an annual capacity for recycling nearly 36,000 tonnes of e-waste. Efforts like this could lead the way for India becoming a global player in e-waste recycling systems within the next decade. I am sure that this facility will address the disposal of each and every component of the e-waste collected instead of creating land fills as is done by the traditional system.
Electronic waste (e-waste) comprises waste electronics and electrical goods that are not fit for their originally intended use or have reached their end of life. This may include items like computers and their peripherals, consumer durable electronics and mobiles. E-waste contains valuable materials such as copper, silver, gold and platinum which could be processed for their recovery and reuse.

E-waste scenario

The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with more than 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. Globally, electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but it is much more hazardous. This figure is expected to go up in the near future and Greenpeace estimates that the total number of computers would reach 716 million in 2010 and the average lifespan of a computer would reduce from 6 years to less than 2 years in this decade. They further estimate that as much as 1000 tonnes of a brominated flame retardant, a chemical linked to neurotoxicity, was used to manufacture 674 million mobile phones in 2004. Similarly, the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in monitors sold worldwide contains more than 10,000 tonnes of lead which can lead to intellectual impairment in children.

Developing countries like India have also been a target of E-waste destination from many developed countries. Reports suggest that India ends up importing more than 50,000 tonnes of E-Waste every year. A large fraction of this is in violation of the Basel Convention. Greenpeace reports that, inspections of 18 European seaports found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the US, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way. Besides this, India is generating approximately 3.8 lakhs tonnes of e-waste every year. Even within India, we have to guard against villages loaded with e-waste from metropolitan and bigger cities.

 Cost benefit of using e-waste for metal production

With metal prices on the rise, e-waste is quickly becoming the new frontier in the so-called “Urban Mining” – a modern-day prospecting for such treasures as iridium and gold. Ecofriend says that many e-salvage establishments like Eco-System Recycling are already on the hunt for these metals, since a “tonne of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams (0.18 ounce) of gold on average, whereas a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield 150 grams (5.3 ounce) or more.”
However we should remember that seeing real booty from urban mining will also require scavenging through tons of e-waste. More importantly, we should bear in mind that in addition to precious gems, old electronics may contain hazardous substances like lead, barium and even strontium (SR-90) – a radioactive fission material.

Hazards of e-waste

E-waste may not be hazardous per se. However, the hazardous constituents present in the e-waste render it dangerous when such wastes are dismantled and processed, since it is only at this stage that they pose hazard to health and environment. Electronics and electrical equipment seem efficient and environmentally friendly, but there are hidden dangers associated with them once these become e-waste. The harmful materials contained in electronics products, coupled with the fast rate at which we?re replacing outdated units, pose a real danger to human health if electronics products are not properly processed prior to disposal. For example, printed circuit boards containing lead and cadmium can injure the nervous system, if not properly disposed. Similarly, computer batteries having cadmium may cause damage to kidney and liver. I am only trying to tell you that the system of e-waste disposal has to be robust so that it handles all the problems which may emerge during the disposal process. It has to be ensured that neither the employees working in the process equipment and the people in neighbouring areas are affected by the process effluent. It is not only important to have a state of the art plant fully certified from the beginning but should be certified periodically by a third party for its continued safe functioning.

E-waste generating scenario in the country

Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab are the top ten e-waste producing states in the country. The highest being 23 thousand tonnes and the lowest 7 thousand tonnes. Out of this waste, only 5% of the e-waste has been recycled by urban slums which employs over 25 thousand workers and are exposed to the hazards of traditional recycling process. When we create organized modern institutions for e-waste disposal, we have to formulate a scheme by which this displaced labor force is retrained and re-employed in overall value chain of the industry. One method of employing them could be by training and engaging them as e-waste collectors and transporters. Out of the 30 million installed computers in India, 80% are desktops which soon become obsolete due to the invasion of inexpensive laptops and net-tops. India has 500 million mobile phones in operations out of which about 50% will be replaced in another 2-3 years? time. This means that more than 250 million mobile sets will become e-waste in the country. CRT monitors will also flood the waste market, as more than 50% of them are replaced by flat screens and LCDs. A viable method is needed to contain the problem and ensure that in the future, e-waste does not become a health issue for the nation. In that respect, I appreciate the Attero?s “The beginning” programme.

 Actions to be taken by electronic industry to reduce the occurrence of e-waste

Number of scientific establishments has resorted to GRID computing for large scale computation using the existing systems in their establishments. Another area which is fast catching up is cloud computing which is going to be the key deciding factor for mobile computing, desktop computing and internet oriented businesses. This is not just connecting computers around the world but it is a technology where one needs to deal with the problem of connecting heterogeneous systems & connecting them at high speed so that they break the barrier of distance, and most importantly dealing with all-important security in the present connected world. I would suggest the large organizations and corporate should move to cloud computing and Grid computing, so that the rate of obsolescence and quantum of new large computers invading the organizations can get substantially reduced.

Another suggestion I would like to make to computer and mobile system designers to have an open architecture of configuration which will permit change of minimum hardware to bring the system to state of the art hardware performance and prolong the life of the core-architecture leading to massive reduction in electronic e-waste.
Some of the computer hardware producing companies have a system of taking the old hardware and replacing with the new. This practice encourages re-use of some of the components and packaging system of the old computer which reduces the quantum of e-waste created. I would suggest the electronic hardware producers to consider adoption of such methods which will go a long way in reducing the production of electronic waste.

Application of Nanotechnology

Another area for development is that of Nanotechnology. Our understanding of structures and materials at this scale and the associated measurement capabilities, point out to the fact that we will have large volumes of data and computations of highly complex man made systems. Similar are the requirements if we need to understand complex biological systems through computer simulations. The problem of climate change, large volumes of text, voice and video data and their intelligent analysis and the analysis sub-centimeter resolution imagery from the multitude of satellites all are newer candidate applications not known to mankind a few years ago. Added to these, today the man made systems such as the transportation systems and the cell phone networks are also becoming more complex, and almost as complicated as the natural systems. The interface between biology and engineering is becoming so porous that most engineering systems are looking more and more like biological systems and the biological systems are becoming engineered. This is a huge paradigm shift from the supercomputer era where the supercomputers are the back bone of national defence and were needed mainly to design fighter jets, missiles and aircraft.
In this world the demand for supercomputing is huge and every increasing, often faster than what the technology can meet. For making such systems, application of nanotechnology and bio-inspired materials will play a major role in producing future electronic components and circuit boards. This would reduce the e-waste being generated in four different ways. Firstly, with added computational power the number of computers required for any operation would go down. Secondly, nano-technology by itself would reduce the size of each individual computer. Third, with more powerful computers at unit level, the need for networking would reduce thus further reducing the e-waste being generated. And finally, the nano-computers themselves may become bio-degradable.

Research areas

Combating the generation, handling, transportation and disposal of e-waste has become a subject of paramount importance to the nation today. For building adequate capacity of modern cost effective disposal systems will need continuous research by the recyclers, electronic systems manufacturing and user groups as a whole. The research areas include are:
a) Design for environment.
b) Design for longer life
c) Modularity to enable replacement of specific parts
d) Recycling processes and systems
e) Eco labeling
f) Dis-assembly
g) Greening supply chains
h) Life cycle assessment
i) Bio-inspired material

These tasks can be taken by a central agency created for this purpose by the electronic manufacturers and ICT companies of India and abroad with notional funding based on their turn over. The government on its part must provide incentives for such research missions.

Conclusion

It is time India has a comprehensive policy framework for e-waste management supported by Legislative framework and technological guidelines for implementing the recycling process. An e-governance system has to be evolved in which every electronic manufacturer should be able to track the product from its first sale to the eco-friendly disposal. To offset the environment degradation caused by the overall value chain of the electronic product, there should be an offsetting mechanism in place by plantation of adequate number of trees. Companies should develop mechanism for vertical integration of products with their proper disposal. For this, customers should be encouraged and incentivized to be an active partner in ensuring that electronic products no longer needed are taken back by the companies to proper disposal. E-waste value chain is rather complex as it involves multiple players ? producers, distributors, retailers, end-consumers, collection systems and recyclers. The public and municipal organizations have their own stakes in this. Recovery of non-ferrous metals and re-processed used oil are the only two major activities in hazardous waste recycling whereas e-waste recycling involves refurbishment for re-use, dismantling and precious metal recovery. I am sure, the all the stakeholders can understand the complexity and work for managing the mission collectively for the benefit of the industry, employees, people and the nation. Hence simultaneous evolution of appropriate practical legislation is an important need.

My best wishes to all the participants of this unique programme “The beginning” organized by ATTERO Recycling.
May God Bless you.

By, Dr. APJ Abdulkalam

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