Our perception has come to include a very narrow definition of air pollution. Whenever a discussion ensues on it, carbon emissions through either electricity generation or transportation take centre stage. While carbon is indeed a grave threat to our world, it is not the only threat. Our environment is home to some other toxic gases as well which may not be a part of the discourse but are equally hazardous.
While the focus on renewable energy is essential given that carbon is the major cause of global warming, there is also a pressing need to address the problem other toxic gases pose. And unlike carbon, which necessitates the need for large-scale renewables, this problem is a tad easier to solve. The problem is ewaste, caused by discarded electronic items.
The problem has multiple layers to it in a growing economy like India. The use of electronics in our nation is only going to rise over the coming years, which will lead to increasing ewaste as well. Recycling is a simple solution but the infrastructure for that is seriously inadequate. Awareness about its ill-effects is insufficient. And as ewaste rises, the threat posed by chemicals like lead, nickel, zinc, barium, and chromium is only going to grow.
As they leak into the atmosphere, the effects extend much beyond human health. Apart from affecting our blood, kidneys, and nervous system, ewaste is also a source of global warming. Methane emissions from ewaste are 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Add that to the fact that almost 95% of the e-waste produced in India is either dumped in landfill or burned. The effect of ewaste on global warming is thus quite clear.
Currently, unrecycled ewaste contributes to about 4.25% of the greenhouse emissions. Not a significant share at all but a share nonetheless – especially when we are aiming for zero emissions. Therefore, focus needs to be directed towards its proper disposal as well.
E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 (enacted since October 1, 2017) were a great step in the direction. E-waste (Management) Amended Rules added further strength to India’s march against ewaste. They mandated electrical equipment producers to collect back at least 10% of the ewaste they generated in 2016-17. This target will progressively go up to 70% in the seventh year.
Although a great starting step, much more needs to be done to catch up with the ewaste already present out there. Be it through policy or budget allocation but recycling needs to take off in India. The advantages of tackling this problem extend much beyond just reducing the burden on landfills. It can also boost the economy by creating new jobs as well as saving costs of sourcing raw materials for new products.
Making ewaste a part of the air pollution conversation can provide our nation with the infrastructure it needs to address the issue. Since we already have the solution, spreading awareness can help kickstart the process to implement it on a large scale. Unless and until this issue is resolved, a sustainable future will remain beyond our reach because as long as there is ewaste, there will be air pollution.
Author: Radhika Kalia, Managing Director, Reverse Logistics Group.