Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tackling the E-Monster

This is truly the ‘e-age’. Everyone talks about e-mail, e-ticketing, e-banking, e-books and even e-zone. But you don’t hear much about a term called e-waste. But this term may become the most talked about e-term if nothing is done to control this silent threat to the environment. E-waste comprises old electronic goods ranging from personal computers and peripherals like DVDs to various household appliances such as TV’s, refrigerators, cell phones, wires, batteries, and CFLs. Each of these products contains a plethora of substances and chemicals, many of which are toxic and likely to create serious problems to the environment and human health if not addressed appropriately. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold.

Take for instance the dry-cell batteries so commonly used and disposed along with regular waste. Everyday thousands of batteries are disposed of in Bangalore itself. About 55% of these batteries include the zinc-carbon and zinc- chloride batteries which are known to contain heavy metals and mercury. Another 25% of batteries used are button cell batteries which again have mercury content. The relatively safe alkaline batteries which do not contain mercury currently make up just 10% of the market. It is the same with the widely promoted CFLs which contain mercury and should therefore be collected and recycled rather than be disposed along with regular household waste.

So how and where is this e-waste disposed?

Land filling of e-waste, one of the most widely used methods of disposal, is prone to hazards because of leachate which often contaminates ground water resources. Older landfill sites and uncontrolled dumps pose a much greater danger of releasing hazardous emissions. Mercury, Cadmium and Lead are among the most toxic leachates. Mercury, for example, will leach when certain electronic devices such as circuit breakers are destroyed. Lead has been found to leach from broken lead-containing glass, such as the cone glass of cathode ray tubes from TVs and monitors. When brominated flame retarded plastics or plastics containing cadmium are landfilled, both PBDE (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and cadmium may leach into soil and groundwater. In addition, landfills are also prone to uncontrolled fires which can release toxic fumes.

In India we also have scrap yards where the young, the old and everyone in between dismantle e-waste to extract small quantities of various metals. Laborers smash and unhinge devices, spraying toxic shrapnel all over the ground, where people with no shoes walk. Then workers employ a variety of methods to track down and remove the metals from objects like circuit boards, semiconductors and wires. The methods used for retrieval of valuable components are terribly harmful to the environment and human health. Mother boards are regularly burnt for retrieval of copper. Gold extraction is seen to take place is small rooms with no ventilation. Here chips from printed circuit boards containing tiny specs of gold are heated with nitric acid. The final retrieval uses cyanide - this cyanide is finally flushed into the open drain outside the unit. Inhaling or handling such substances and being in contact with them on a regular basis can damage the brain, nervous system, lungs, kidneys and the reproductive system.

Harmful effects of e-waste chemicals
• Arsenic may disrupt cell communication and interfere with the triggers that cause cells to grow, possibly contributing to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes if someone is exposed in chronic, low doses.
• Cadmium affects your body's ability to metabolize calcium, leading to bone pain and severely weakened, fragile bones.
• Chromium can cause skin irritation and rashes and is potentially carcinogenic.
• Copper can irritate the throat and lungs and affect the liver, kidneys and other body systems.
• Lead poisoning can cause a whole slew of health problems including the impairment of cognitive and verbal activity. Eventually, lead exposure can cause paralysis, coma and death.
• Nickel is carcinogenic in large doses.

Scientific disposal of e-waste.

So what can we concerned (if you have become concerned by now!) citizens do, to avoid this mess our fancy gadgets create at the end of their life cycle? This is where an NGO called Saahas comes in. They have taken initiatives to reduce uncontrolled dumping of e-waste in Bangalore and in the long run hope to eliminate it all together.

Saahas has also setup nine public collection points for CDs, DVDs and batteries.
• Safina Plaza, Commercial Street
• Landmark store in Forum Mall, Koramangala
• G K Vale Photo at M G Road, Indiranagar and Jayanagar
• Fab Malls at Indiranagar and Bannerghatta Road
• Fitness One at Koramangala and Jayanagar

Saahas office address:
#431, 8th Cross, 1st Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore
Tel: 41689889, response AT saahas.org

To set up a collection bin in an apartment complex, an initial amount of Rs.3500 must be paid to Saahas, after that there are no other fees required ever for the timely collection or for any other promotional programme. After paying this amount, a bin is set up in the common area of the apartment complex (usually near the security room). Collection is done once in two months and Saahas collectors take it to their office.

At the Saahas office, the e-waste is further segregated into batteries, CDs and floppies. The lot is then sent to e-Parisara, which is an authorised company for recycling e-waste located in Dobaspet industrial area, in the outskirts of the city. Other bigger items can be handed over directly to the Saahas office for safe disposal.

Recycling e-waste helps recover important natural resources for reuse and decreases the need for surface mining. Recycling is a better, environmentally friendly solution to finding these metals in existing products, rather than digging up the earth and impacting nearby forestry. Also the insatiable demand for all kinds of metal has fuelled gruesome gang and tribal wars in many parts of Africa. The following is an excerpt from a New York Times article.

Columns of men, bent double under 110-pound sacks of tin ore, emerged from the colonel's mine shaft. It had been carved hundreds of feet into the mountain with Iron Age tools powered by human sweat, muscle and bone. Porters carry the ore nearly 30 miles on their backs, a two-day trek through a mud-slicked maze to the nearest road and a world hungry for the laptops and other electronics that tin helps create, each man a link in a long global chain.

The proceeds of mines like this one, along with the illegal tributes collected on roads and border crossings controlled by rebel groups, militias and government soldiers, help bankroll virtually every armed group in the region.

So here you are the facts are out in the open and the decision is yours to be taken. It is time the educated class of India takes steps towards eliminating this growing hazard which they themselves created in the first place. Now you know how to give your old beloved PC the farewell it deserves!


  1. nice to know.
    will use the service someday..

  2. Danny ..since when have you been so environment friendly ?? I guess this is the IISc effect :P

  3. @ sahaj.. thanks.. n maybe u cud dpread d work around..
    @rajesh.. much b4 i came 2 iisc.. check my 1st environment blog.. its in may 2008.

  4. There was a very good article in the Economist a couple of issues back called "Talking Rubbish". Have u got inspired by that?!! anyway.. do read it!!

  5. The CBSE needs such articles for its class X MCB, "For the betterment of Mankind"

  6. Wow! Thats a hell lot of 'gyaan' for one post! Highly inspirational and educative. Thanks!

  7. @bloodrayne.. ws inspired by the meeting at saahas.

    @harish.. thanks fr d compliment.. if not X std then atleast in college..

    @psycho surd.. hope u try 2 practice it! :D