|Environment|

At Harm's length

Padmalatha Ravi

date Greenpeace, an international organisation fighting for the environment, recently launched the "Guide to Greener Electronics" campaign. As part of this campaign, it ranked 14 mobile phone and PC producers globally, based on the use of harmful chemicals in their products and recycling of e-waste or electronic waste. Nokia and Dell topped the ranking with their decision to phase out the use of harmful chemicals such as Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from their products and take-back policies. Motorola and Lenovo are at the bottom of the ranking for failing to do more of the same.

image These chemicals can cause enormous damage to both environment and human beings. America's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports show that repeated exposure to chemicals like lead used in batteries can damage the nervous system, particularly in children. The report also says that BFRs could affect memory, learning and behaviour and could even interfere with thyroid and oestrogen hormone systems.

Says Ramapati Kumar of Greenpeace: "These companies are so creative when it comes to their products but feign ignorance when it comes to finding viable alternatives to harmful chemicals they use."

He is however hopeful that the European Union's decision to adopt RoHS or Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which took effect in July 2006, should change the industry's approach. RoHS restricts the use of six hazardous materials - Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Hexavalent Chromium, Poly brominated biphenyls (PBB) and Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment. It is an initiative to solve the problem of toxic e-waste. This restriction applies to both products manufactured in the EU and imported goods. However batteries do not come within the scope of RoHS, therefore lead-acid and mercury batteries are permitted despite the use of restricted substances.

This decision by the EU has influenced other countries to take similar measures. China has similar restrictions, known as the 'China RoHs'. California has passed a law that prohibits the sale of products non-compliant with the EU-RoHS effective January 2007. Japan has started manufacturing electronic products that are lead-free to comply with the EU-RoHS and has enforced stringent recycling laws. But India, known as the IT destination of the 21st century, so far does not have a comprehensive plan of action to tackle the hazardous e-waste at the source. The chaos is most evident in India's "Silicon Valley" _ Bangalore.

From 13 software companies in 1991-92 to close to 1,850 IT companies, including hardware manufacturers and BPOs in 2004-05; Bangalore's growth as the IT capital of India has been both dramatic and phenomenal. The growing industry has provided employment to over 2 lakh people. And in the year 2005-06 software exports from Bangalore alone recorded Rs 37,600 crore accounting for 37.6 per cent of the country's overall IT exports. Juxtaposed against these glowing statistics is another figure _ the city produces nearly 8,000 tonnes of e-waste every year, most of which is either recycled unscientifically or just dumped along with domestic solid waste posing health and environmental risks. "Recycling is not the solution. We need to do away with these chemicals right from the start. If these companies can do it in the EU then why not in India?" asks Ramapati.

E-parisara, India's first scientific e-waste recycling unit is located in Bangalore and is one of the only two authorised recycling units in the country. Dr P Parthasarathy, founder of E-parisara, says "While chemical-free products are desirable, it is a gradual process.
According to Dr Parthasarathy, India has a better recycling mechanism than most developed countries. "Since the labour cost there is too high they just shred all the components without segregating the hazardous materials and then either dump it in a landfill or export it to less developed countries.

The question is, what does one do with the e-waste that is already piling up in the city?" Though the facility was started in August 2005, it gets only 250 tonnes of e-waste per year. That is just over three percent of the total e-waste that the city produces and the facility can process nearly two tonnes of e-waste per day.

The rest is either going to the informal sector or just being stored in the companies' storehouses. The informal sector uses Hydrochloric and nitric acid and mercury to extract precious metals such as gold and silver from the e-waste. These chemicals are then dumped into the drainage system which runs through the city. Not to mention the health hazards that people working with these chemicals have to risk. According to Dr Parthasarathy, India has a better recycling mechanism than most developed countries. "Since the labour cost there is too high they just shred all the components without segregating the hazardous materials and then either dump it in a landfill or export it to less developed countries. Here, we are able to separate hazardous materials and reuse most of the components," he adds.

A potential not fully explored by the IT industry here. Although it is not just the lack of government policy that gets the blame this time but the corporate apathy towards the cause too.

Wilma Rodrigues of Saahas, an NGO in Bangalore working on e-waste management, agrees with this. "We have been talking to several companies about e-waste management for many years now. Although everyone agrees this is urgent and important very few are ready to step up," she says. Saahas, along with E-parisara has been working with the informal recycling sector to educate them on scientific methods. "Since a majority of the e-waste ends up there, we need to equip them with knowledge to handle this better. We cannot completely do away with the informal sector," she says.

Few companies however have taken the cue and taken the initiative to address the issue of e-waste. Wipro was one of the first Indian companies to set up a take-back system for its products. Dell and HP too have similar initiatives. WeP Peripherals, one of the largest manufacturers of printers and printer consumables in the country, is another company that has joined the e-waste task force. Vishaka Das, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) officer at WeP Peripherals, says: "We as a company have decided to be more responsible with our products. We have put up bins across the city and ask people to drop e-waste in it. We then collect it all and either reuse it here itself or send to the authorised recycler. The response has been phenomenal."

In September this year, ELCIA, an umbrella organisation representing all the companies operating in Bangalore, organised a two-day event to introduce and adopt the "Clean E-waste channel". The two-day seminar was hosted at Infosys and attended by ELCIA members and members of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB). A 'Clean e-Waste Channel' is a convenient collection and disposal system for large and small consumers to return all their e-waste safely; a voluntary system for modern and concerned producers to care of their product beyond its useful life; and a financially secure system that makes environmentally and socially responsible e-waste recycling viable. "With over 150 companies and 60,000 employees committing to clean e-waste management, this is certainly a great start," says Wilma.

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India, known as the IT destination of the 21st century, so far does not have a comprehensive plan of action to tackle the hazardous e-waste at the source. The chaos is most evident in India's "Silicon Valley" _ Bangalore.


E-parisara, India's first scientific e-waste recycling unit is located in Bangalore and is one of the only two authorised recycling units in the country.


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