Mechanized E-Waste Recycling is Not the Answer

Each time we visited a recycler in one of the neglected Delhi neighborhoods Chintan Organizer, Binod, was greeted with warm hugs and news about weddings, births and other family matters before settling down to chat about their recycling business. This trust between the Chintan staff and the informal recyclers living and working in cramped nooks in the forgotten parts of Delhi is as apparent in real-life as it is in the footage taken by filmmaker, Arjun Bhagat. On film, the recyclers openly show Arjun’s camera their illegal operations, talk about their dreams for improving the lives of their family, and their fears for their health (I don’t want to give too much away about the film until it is finished).

Later, in Arjun’s cool modern office I felt like I was in Hollywood among the attractive young hipsters running the place. Removed from the intense life in the recycling Gali (or lane), Arjun reflected on how much he learned about recycling while shooting the film and how much he realized that he already knew. He said when he lived in the Massachusetts for several years that he was amazed at what a big deal was made of recycling in the US. He was also amazed at the effort it took to get people to place their recyclables in separate bins. “In India the people are so poor they recover every little bit of value from the computer,” commented Arjun. “Everyone wants work. Everybody here seems to have a need to do something. So even the poorest people will l try to collect something or will clean something or sell something for a few rupees. And without a good municipal solid waste collection system the informal recyclers really run Delhi’s waste collection and recycling.”

Currently there are only one or two formal e-waste recycling facilities in all of India. After viewing the footage and talking with recyclers it became clear to Chintan and SVTC staff that replacing the informal sector with mechanized e-waste recycling (with big crushers and shredders) is not the answer. Since entering the e-waste recycling field more than 10 years ago, I’ve felt strongly that each country needs the capacity to handle its own hazardous e-waste (including the US). Mechanical crushers used in the US (due to high labor cost) are not the answer for Delhi. Up to 20 percent of the metals can be lost in a crusher. That value is captured by the highly organized Indian informal dismantlers who strip every bit of value from the computer. However, the informal workers damage their health and lose valuable materials in the dangerous chemical processes they use to recover precious metal.

So, how will India build a safe sustainable infrastructure that (handles their own e-waste) that includes the informal recyclers who are currently responsible for recycling up to 95% of the e-waste in India. What role does the electronic manufactures play in supporting recycling of their products? And what type of incentives is needed to eliminate the dangerous toxic chemicals used to recover the small amounts of precious metals?

Chintan staff, Sabir (non-staff), a dismantler and SVTC will travel to the southern city of Bangalore (known as Silicon Valley of India), to see how the informal e-waste recyclers in that city are vying not to be an important part of the solution.

– Sheila Davis (Executive Director, SVTC)

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