Waste : Livelihoods: E-Waste: India
Next stop: India, where over 90 percent of India’s e-scrap enters the informal sector. In Seelampur and Mustafabad, India’s most concentrated centers of electronics dismantling and recycling on the outskirts of Delhi, an estimated 25,000 informal workers toil. Similar processing clusters exist throughout India, the world’s second-most-populous country with a population of 1.32 billion.
Though the informal sector has proven its ability to collect huge tonnages of material generated within India and around the world, it also has a dark side. Because unregistered outlets dominate the process, oversight and due diligence are rarely part of the picture. There is also no systematic tracking of where material goes as it changes hands. As a result, lower-value material at times gets dumped or ends up in crude processing sites that put workers and the environment at risk.
Increased media scrutiny of these realities has helped push Indian policymakers and other stakeholders to try to formalize the sector. In 2016, an extended producer responsibility system went into effect, mandating electronics producers to help manage a nationwide e-scrap system.
That has all led to a unique e-scrap dichotomy. On one side is a well-established, if problematic, informal structure that brings reliable incomes to huge numbers of workers. On the other is a nascent formal sector that must meet lofty health and safety aspirations but which finds itself struggling to compete with unregistered players who can offer better prices and leverage market connections that often run back generations.
Can the two arms find a way to work together? India is trying to find out. And with materials tonnages in India’s end-of-life stream projected to surge, the stakes and complications are only growing.
The formal sector needs the informal collectors, whose unmatched reach to unearth obsolete material at the individual level renders them indispensable to the entire collection system. For enforcement efforts to succeed in permanently shutting down operations that employ harmful recycling practices, enough supply must consistently go to recyclers with safe end-of-life processing operations. Ironically, the most efficient way to garner that supply would be to use the individuals who are already the lifeblood of the informal infrastructure.
Excerpted from Informal but Integral, Escrap Sept 2017.