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‘Key players junked, scope expanded’ — govt’s proposed e-waste rules worry industry insiders

Proposed changes published in May could exacerbate mismanagement of e-waste, putting it in hands of informal sector with brands no longer responsible for collection, say experts.

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New Delhi: The government’s proposed changes to the rules governing disposal and recycling of electronic waste (e-waste) in India could backfire, experts have warned.

Experts say the proposed changes published in May, such as doing away with key players and ramping up recycling targets for brands, threaten to upend an ecosystem of e-waste management that was slowly picking up pace. They warn that the changes could instead exacerbate the mismanagement of e-waste, putting it in the hands of the informal sector.

Apart from increasing the recycling target that brands must achieve, the draft proposal also suggests that the scope of the e-waste management rules be expanded to include more electronic products, from 21 covered in the current framework to 95 in total.

The proposals were published in a draft notification by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on 19 May. The draft amendment rules are open for public comments till Tuesday.

ThePrint reached officials in the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) via telephone and email and the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change via email for comment on the concerns raised by stakeholders over the proposed changes, but received no response. This report will be updated as and when a response is received.

India is the world’s third largest generator of e-waste after China and the US, according to the UN Global E-Waste Monitor Report. Between 2019 and 2020, Indians generated 10 lakh tonnes of e-waste, up from 7 lakh tonnes three years prior. 

In India, the e-waste management rules of 2016 had sought to formalise the collection and recycling of this waste – which is hazardous to human health and the environment – by holding brands responsible for its retrieval, and tasking state and central pollution control boards with monitoring the system.

However, while data shows that the amount of e-waste collected through the system has grown steadily, from 69,414 tonnes in 2017 to a little over 2 lakh tonnes in 2020, a large chunk of it is still processed by the informal sector. Disposal of e-waste by the informal sector is not recognised under the law.

Also Read: The world could have 75 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2030. Here’s how we can avoid it

What draft rules propose

Under the current framework, brands must take back a fraction of their products at the end-of-life stage and send it to authorised dismantlers and recyclers. To do this, they can employ a producer responsibility organisation (PRO) — a company that oversees the collection, dismantling, and recycling of their products, on the brand’s behalf.

The CPCB is in charge of approving PROs, and the state pollution boards (PCBs) are authorised to issue licences to other players in the recycling chain, like the dismantler (who strips the product into its various parts), and the recycler (who converts the item into its raw material form). 

The brand or the PRO it employs is responsible for informing customers what to do with their e-waste, and for setting up collection centres where the waste can be deposited.

The new draft rules propose doing away with PROs, dismantlers, and collection centres, and revising the definition of extended producer responsibility (EPR) to shift the burden away from brands.

Previously, EPR was defined as the “channelisation of e-waste to ensure environmentally sound management of such waste” by brands, which “may comprise implementing take back system or setting up of collection centres” apart from working with authorised dismantlers, recyclers, and PROs. 

However, the draft amendment now proposes that the definition of EPR be changed to: “Meeting recycling targets only through registered recyclers of e-waste to ensure environmentally sound management of such waste”.

Among the changes listed in the draft proposal is the introduction of fines that violators, from brands to recyclers, will have to pay if they fail to comply. It also suggests that recyclers and brands be asked to upload information on how much e-waste they have managed to recycle on an online portal.

In addition, the draft proposal suggests that a steering committee be set up — comprising members from the environment ministry, CPCB, state PCBs, and recycler and brand associations — to oversee the implementation of the revised e-waste management rules.

Problems with the current system

According to the CPCB’s website, there are 472 authorised dismantlers and recyclers in the country (of which dismantlers make up the majority), and 77 PROs.

Though India has had rules for e-waste collection since 2011 — the 2011 rules were superseded by new ones in 2016, followed by a further amendment in 2018 there is room for improvement, experts say. A 2020 report by the CPCB found that 95 per cent of e-waste was processed by the informal sector as of 2018. 

A study by researchers from Monash University Malaysia, published last month in the journal Minerals Engineering, found that India has limited numbers of formal recyclers, who have insufficient capacity to process the total e-waste generated in the country. 

“Moreover, there is limited information regarding the final waste management strategies implemented by these authorised recyclers to dispose of the waste generated (e.g. solid waste residues and acidic liquid effluents after recycling e-waste),” it said. 

The 2020 CPCB report also found that dismantlers and recyclers were flouting norms by claiming to process higher proportions of e-waste than they had space for. It also hinted that leakages into the informal sector likely occurred through recyclers and dismantlers, and that state PCBs were not conducting enough checks to plug these leakages. 

Speaking to ThePrint, Pranshu Singhal, founder of Gurugram-based PRO Karo Sambhav, said, “The e-waste management rules definitely needed to change because there are problems with monitoring and compliance. There is no mechanism to check the material balance of what the recycler receives and the output post processing, which needs to be strengthened. PROs and recyclers need to be audited.” 

An official from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) told ThePrint that the rules needed to change because lack of manpower was an issue. The state has 116 authorised dismantlers and recyclers.

“Our biggest concern is that dismantlers have been dropped, because we have more dismantlers than recyclers in the state. If they are removed, we need some alternative. We are also concerned about how the collection mechanism will work,” said the field officer, who did not wish to be named.

This view was echoed by officials in the Assam PCB, who spoke to ThePrint on condition of anonymity.

Why industry is anxious about new rules

Under the proposed definition of EPR, brands would no longer be responsible for the collection of e-waste, and can purchase certificates from recyclers to show they have met their targets under the rules.

“This totally goes against the spirit of EPR,” said Priti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator at Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental NGO involved with India’s e-waste policy for over a decade.

“The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility ties in with the idea of a circular economy. If brands are responsible for collecting their waste, they’re likely to try and design products that have a longer life or produce less waste,” she said.

With brands no longer responsible for a take-back system, Mahesh worries that collection will be the responsibility of recyclers, and that the concept of EPR has been “reduced to just purchasing certificates from recyclers”.

There are also worries that the rules will enable recyclers to engage further with the informal sector when it comes to collection and dismantling. 

Shobha Raghavan, chief operations officer for Saahas, a Bengaluru-based PRO, told ThePrint: “In the current framework, the PRO is held responsible for making sure the recycler is actually recycling and not just re-circulating the waste within the system. Now, that entire burden will be on the state pollution control boards, who don’t have the bandwidth.”

“There’s a lot of underhand paper trading that goes on, and once the certificates are issued, who will account for checks and balances? Brands can wash their hands of it if recyclers aren’t genuine, because it will be the government’s job to check,” said Deepali Khetriwal, co-founder at E[co]work and director at Sofies India, a firm that audits e-waste recyclers.

Both Khetriwal and Raghavan said the pricing and availability of the certificates, which are likely to be based on the recycler’s capacity, could lead to volatility in the market. 

The increase in product types that will have to be recycled could also pose a problem for the ecosystem’s capacity to process e-waste.

“This massive jump in product types and categories will only make recycling that much harder. With just 21 product types, collection and recycling was a challenge. Now the number of categories of products has gone up more than four times. This is a radical departure from the system, and not one we expected,” said Raghavan.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Repairing – not recycling – is the first step to tackling e-waste from smartphones


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