The Indian city of Bangalore produces some 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, according to a report by Assocham, the Association of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India. This figure is rising at a rate of 20% per year and the report’s authors forecast the amount of computer waste across the country could increase by nearly 500% by 2020.
With a population of 8 million people, Bangalore has emerged as a global telecommuncations and technology hub shouldering 40% of India’s IT industry. Since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, major international firms such as Infosys, Intel and Microsoft have opened bases there along with nearly 3,000 software firms, 35 hardware manufacturers and hundreds of other small scale businesses – turning this once lush farmland into India’s Silicon Valley.
More than 500 Bangalore-based companies generate an annual revenue of over $17bn (£10.5bn) – a healthy portion of India’s $85bn total tech-based export that started life as outsourcing and backoffice centres. Have you ever phoned your mobile phone company and been put through someone in India? They may well have been in Bangalore.
The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) set up a formal recycling system for e-waste to deal with Bangalore’s growing tech dump. But awareness of the e-waste management and handling rules is poor.
Up to 90% of this waste is still handled through the informal sector – by firms who employ low-paid workers to process and incinerate e-waste. The people who do this are unaware of safety measures needed for the work. They release lead, mercury and other toxins into the air and use acids to extract precious metals from hardware. What can’t be got out is unceremoniously dumped – letting pollutants seep into groundwater.
Hal Watts, a designer who trained at the Royal College of Art’s sustainability wing, SustainRCA, has devised a bicycle-powered machine that separates valuable copper from electronics. Copper is used in all circuit boards and within most wires. Its ubiquity is what makes it a valuable commodity for people who scavenge through piles of e-waste and sell the copper on.
“All recycling technologies have been designed with large western recycling plants in mind,” says Watts. “There is almost no equipment that is affordable enough for the informal recycling sector because no single recycler deals with enough waste to afford these large machines.
“The informal recycler breaks up waste, sells the copper to one guy, the plastic to another, the circuit boards to another etc. These guys amass their material and sell it to an exporter who then flogs it to a recycling plant often located in a developed country.”
Countries such as Singapore, Belgium and Japan have smelting units that extract precious metals the human eye can’t see.
Further up the recycling chain are startups like Karma Recycling. Based in New Delhi with a nationwide expansion plan to open a hub in Bangalore, Karma targets end users and consumers.
Most Indians have access to basic technologies like mobile telephones, televisions and radios. A rapidly expanding middle class also has access to personal computers and other comforts. If you can’t sell your old gadget on to someone else, Karma provides a system where you can get an online quote for it. They buy it from you, refurbish or dismantle it and then sell those components on. They also have logistics solutions to handle larger hauls of rejected or broken electronics.
“Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world,” says Akshat Ghiya, Karma Recycling’s co-founder. “If it’s not recycled scientifically, it leads to a waste of diminishing natural resources, causes irreparable damage to the environment and to the health of the people working in the industry.
“Companies design new and improved gadgets every day, flooding the markets month after month, year after year. What happens with these devices when we’re done with them? It is time for us as a society to realise that what has gone around (and has been used), must come around (and be reused).”
There is legislation that governs the disposal of used and defunct electronics, requring e-waste to be collected, transported and safely disposed. Sale of some electronic scrap to un-authorised or unlicensed dealers and vendors, large or small-scale, is illegal. But that doesn’t stop the murkier side of the industry from operating.
The informal recycling industry often employs children to dismantle electronic waste. Assocham’s report strongly advocates legislation to prevent a child’s entry into this labour market. The report also reveals that less than 5% of India’s e-waste is recycled.
Consumerism works much the same around the world – something new and shiny comes out and those that can afford it try to get it.
“Objects are not currently designed to be recycled,” says Watts. “A change in design practices won’t occur without stricter legislation or until materials become so expensive that there is real interest from companies to design with recycling in mind.”
When it comes to the reduction of e-waste, the onus is on both the consumer and the producer. In Bangalore, and elsewhere, individuals and companies have to see the fiscal benefits in upgrading without disposing what they had before. The secret life of machines is one where they are always reincarnated.
This article was first published in The Guardian, 11 October 2013.