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Managing e-waste

At a time when the commodity prices for valuable metals recovered from computers and electronic equipment have risen sharply, it is not difficult to see the ingredients for a successful electronic waste industry in India. Corporations are taking note, report HT Correspondents. See video on Youtube

business Updated: Jun 16, 2008 18:27 IST

In a narrow alley in Shastri Park where computers are delivered to be dismantled and processed, children play near piles of scrap metal and machine parts. Nearby, men sort through parts of printers and keyboards and tangles of wire, their hands stained with ink from the printer toners littering the entrance to their homes. See video on Youtube

This scene is common among the small-scale “backyard” operations characteristic of the e-waste industry’s unorganised sector. And this informal sector which practices methods such as acid-washing and burning – is responsible for processing the majority of India’s e-waste.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. At the Eco-Recycling Ltd. facility in Mumbai, computers are put on a conveyer belt after minimal manual dismantling, shredded by machines and sent through various separators.

A small beginning seems to have been made here. Formal recyclers account for only five per cent of the business, according to a study conducted last year.

In an enterprise that can only grow with the rapidly increasing production of computers, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, it’s hoped the formal sector would take over the entire trade. Some day.

But that may not quite mean the death of the informal sector, which has a sizeable expertise on the matter. Experts say if the informal sector workers, with their knack for locating and buying obsolete electronic materials combined with the formal sector with its safe practices and environmentally sound methodologies, it represents an industry with limitless potential.

“Why can’t they be linked?” asked Amit Jain, the managing director of IRG Systems South Asia Ltd. who has been tracking the e-waste industry since 2003. “Informal sector workers will be an asset.”

KSM Rao, a director at Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, agrees. “The strength in the informal sector is in buying waste,” he said. But when it comes to retrieving the metals, there is a more effective and safer way. “The informal sector uses rudimentary methods,” he said, and added, “Workers in the informal sector aren’t capable to take out everything that’s valuable.”

At a time when the commodity prices for valuable metals recovered from computers and electronic equipment have risen sharply and the e-waste being generated is growing by the day, it is not difficult to see the ingredients for a successful electronic waste industry are there in India. Corporations are taking note.

Ramky, which is currently partnering with Singapore’s Cimelia Resource Recovery to build an e-waste processing facility in Bangalore, is one of the companies entering into the formal sector. “There is a set of clients that will give their

equipment only to companies they know are conscious of the environment,” said Rao. “We come into that niche.”

Eco Recycling Limited, which began in 2005 with a focus on the reuse and refurbishment of electronic equipment, expanded the scope of its business just this year to include e-waste recycling. It’s a quantity-driven industry, says Chairman B.K. Soni, and as long as there is volume, there will be profit. Soni is in it for the long run. “Our company is here to stay,” he said.

Then again, such companies are capital-intensive, said Rao. Being compliant with environmentally safe standards while employing educated employees and experts is costly. But with the right business models and marketing strategies, Rao believes it can be a profitable endeavour. After all, he said, no business is done for charity.

Vinnie Mehta, executive director of Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology, believes even as the formal sector takes shape, there is still a place for the informal sector. “They should be encouraged to collect waste,” he said. “We cannot take away jobs from them.”

For integration to happen, however, Mehta believes there should be incentives — for both sectors. Tax breaks and land grants would assist the formal sector in building facilities while the informal sector could be compensated for the collected waste.

Rao suggests the government recognise companies as e-waste recyclers like it does for other type of recyclers.

As for the workers in the informal sector, it doesn’t seem to matter whether their workplace is a scrapyard or a formal company, as long as they can make a living. “It depends on the salary,” said Rakesh Kumar, 25, a worker at a Mayapuri scrapyard. “If I get more there, I'll go there. Every person in life wants to go up.”