Going Full Circle

SVTC in India, at the Gali 2 Neighborhood meeting in Delhi
( September 2008 )

Lauren with Bharati (speaking) at the Gali 2 Neighborhood meeting
( September 2008 )

Participating in the recyclers meeting held in the Gali 2 neighborhood of Delhi was one of the most hope-filled experiences of my career.

I started working on e-waste issues in Oakland and San Francisco hoping that low income communities could financially benefit from recycling computers. That was almost 12 years ago. At the time, Labor cost, real estate cost and toxics in the electronic products made it cost prohibitive for low income Bay Area entrepreneurs to safely get into the e-waste recycling business.

In Delhi it’s different. The poorest residents, and not big waste companies, are the backbone of the city’s recycling infrastructure.

The more than 200 e-waste recyclers that gathered beneath the large tent (set up by Chintan in the middle of the street) came to organize and have their voices heard.

The string of recyclers spoke of starting an association or union of informal recyclers. They spoke of legalizing their operations and creating a licensing system so that they could operate without being harassed. They talked about getting space to operate safely and they demanded running water, electricity and medical care so that they could protect their health and improve the health of their families.

Unlike the US, the Indians have created a system where waste of all kinds have value. The stark differences in the US and Indian systems re-enforced the notion that each country needs to find its own ways to safely handle e-waste. And in Delhi the poor and low income communities should not be cut out of this process.

The meeting ran late and most of the predominately Islamic audience was observing Ramadan, the month in which many Muslims do not eat or drink anything from dawn until sunset. Despite the lateness in the day, the audience patiently listened as Lauren and I showed pictures of San Jose based ECS recyclers (a pledge signer) and pointed out the safety features and equipment (mask, goggles, shoes, ear plugs) used by responsible US recyclers.

After the meeting, several recyclers expressed interest in the precious metals extraction processes and the safety equipment used by the dismantlers. However, most of the recyclers concluded that if they had the warehouse space and the proper safety equipment they could be more efficient at manually dismantling the electronics as the big crushing machines used in the US and European Union.

I left the recyclers feeling very hopeful that India’s informal sector will upgrade their operations and continue to be the backbone of India’s recycling infrastructure. In the meantime I am also very hopeful that the US will stop dumping US e-waste in India (please encourage your representative to support the congressional resolution) and encourage manufacturers to invest in e-waste systems that enable US to handle its own hazardous waste and acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to global e-waste recycling. True environmental sustainability is about investing in people and places where the products are made, used and recycled as well as “greening” the products.

– Sheila Davis (Executive Director, SVTC)

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