E-waste: The trauma of backyard recycling

By : |March 1, 2009 0

BANGALORE, INDIA: E-waste recycling has grown into a huge industry in no time. A major part of it belongs to the unorganised sector, known as backyard recyclers.

Many such units have mushroomed in major cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and especially Delhi, which has the highest number of such recycling units. Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) that are illegally imported into India are routed to these units.

Owing to the informal nature of the backyard recycling in India, much of the statistics available are scarce. Experts claim that as many as 5 million people work, including several children, often with minimal protection for a meager earning, whereas the middlemen involved reap the profit staking the lives of the others.

“Authorised recyclers get hold of only 1-2 percent of the total e-waste generated in India. Rest is leaked out of the system and lands up in illegal or backyard recycling units,” the sources aver.

Moreover, even if these scraps land up with authorised dealers or recycling units, it’s of no use because, “Authorised recyclers in India are engaged only in dismantling and pre-processing e-waste. Whereas, for the final metal recovery and disposal of toxic chemicals, these organisation pass on the buck to either international smelters such as Umicore or Norenda; or it is routed to backyard recyclers," the sources added.

How does this unorganised segment handle the huge heap of scraps, when the organised sector itself lacks proper infrastructure? Well, the toxic elements are dealt with in the most uncouth and unscientific manner one can imagine, with less regard for health and environment.  

The e-wastes are either burnt in open fires, releasing several toxins into the atmosphere, or given acid baths and most often dismantling activities takes place with bare hands with no protection at all. Thus jeopardising the health of the people involved as well as that of the neighbouring community. Moreover, it is giving rise to major environmental and aquatic issues too.

The raw materials in a computer, such as copper coils, aluminium, and other materials fetch lots of money. But to extract these the motherboards are basically cooked, releasing arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxins which can cause serious harm to health and environment.

Shredder light fraction is disposed of in landfill sites or sometimes incinerated (expensive), CFCs are treated thermally, PCB is incinerated or disposed of in underground storages, Hg is often recycled or disposed of in underground landfill sites.

How do they affect us
Inhaling or regular handling of  toxins such as lead cadmium, chromium, flame retardants and others can result in the damage of brain, nervous system, lungs and kidneys and can in turn cause cancer, which can be even fatal. Most cases are unreported and the affected workers not willing to come forward for documentation because of social stigma and loss of job. But scientific evidence is very strong on this, the sources aver.

There are even instances where children residing in cities were tested positive for high levels of lead in their blood that causes brain damage and restricts their ability to learn. 

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