03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dismantling India's E-Waste: Potential for Green Jobs?

An abiding image of contemporary India is the high-tech call center. A less known one is the wire-strewn electronic waste recycling yard.

India's 300 million-strong middle class is buying more and more electronic goods; televisions are no longer a novelty and computers are de rigueur for children. Cell phones have broken the middle class barrier and are marching towards the incredible 500 million sales mark, penetrating the poorest regions and generating an entire sub-culture of zero cost 'missed calls.' But where does all of this electronic gadgetry end up when it's lived its life?

Typically, in one of India's many tiny recycling enterprises.

Most of these enterprises are unlicensed, run by the other of the middle classes-the poor, just above or just below the poverty line. Using their bare hands and the most basic equipment, these recyclers have trained themselves to take a desktop computer apart in less than 5 minutes. Where they work, motherboards lie in green heaps, and glassy monitors in precarious hillocks. Almost 80% of what is taken apart will be reused, become a part of some other piece of equipment. In India, such dismantling is the first step in electronics waste recycling.

At least 50,000 tons of this waste is from other countries, uncaringly dumped in India. Almost every time an e-waste dismantler has shown me around his premises, he has pointed out imported waste. Big global brand names sit like surreal ads among these heaps.

Surprisingly, dismantling workshops are not hard to see. Delhi-the Indian capital and home to 16 million, is one of the country's largest recycling centers, employing nearly 25000 persons. Mumbai and Bangalore have similar cottage industries. Instead of being housed in a slick building in an industrial zone like the call centers, e-waste factories are broken up into thousands of tiny establishments, in residential areas.

The scale is astounding. One estimate is that at Indians generated at least 383979 metric tons of e-waste in 2007. And by 2011, it will have climbed to over 400,000 tons.

If it all ended at dismantling, the operations would be no cause for real worry. But recycling precious metals from old printed circuit boards and motherboards is commonplace and highly toxic. When I first began learning about the issue 2 years ago, copper prices were still very high. On the outskirts of Delhi, me and my colleagues from Chintan, the non-profit I work with, would be led to crude copper extraction units. Young boys and poor women would dip the mother board into dilute acid, wash the strips, char the boards and extract the copper by hand. In the many units we visited, the process was identical, and horribly pungent. Scientists warn about dioxins and heavy metals in such factories. The owners we met would be active participants, cursing the acidic fumes even as they inhaled them. We met other recyclers-those that extracted minute quantities of gold by a polluting alchemic process that forced them to use cyanide. A single desktop contains no more than 250 parts per million of gold by weight, a calculator only 50 parts per million. This crude process yields no more than 20% of this tiny amount, and poisons the worker." I know this is really toxic," one of them chillingly told us on film." It might kill me, I know that. But what shall I do about feeding my children?"

What indeed, can we all do about this kind of mess? Exactly a year ago, with the help of GTZ-AZEM, the German Bilateral Agency for Sustainable Development in India, we helped set up an association of dismantlers. Their dream was to be able to be work legally, earn legitimately. As I write this, they are working furiously to set up a safe, legal dismantling factory in Delhi. If they succeed, it'll be the capital's first.

It's heartening, but it's not enough. Surprisingly, the Indian government is also doing something unusual -- it's making sound, new rules in a transparent manner. These rules make it mandatory for anyone whose products will end up as e-waste to be responsible for their end collection and recycling. When it comes into force, it will also apply to all the big manufacturers we know globally.

Such rules change the game considerably. Often, manufacturers shudder at such state-imposed obligations. But it's also a historic opportunity for them to clean up high-tech toxics.

The core of such change making lies in creating strategic partnerships. Collecting all the e-waste is the weakest link, but also the most important. If the informal systems continue, they will always be cheaper than any formal system and the rules will be hard to implement. The trick lies in working with today's informal workers -- the ones who currently take apart our old cell phones. They can be organized, registered and helped into safe workplaces. By working with existing collectors and dismantlers -- such as those who came together to create 4R- manufactures can innovatively reinvent in the developing world context, the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility. They can ensure they are part of the solution. Indeed, without their participation, the rules will be reduced to so much paper. Further on in the chain, the Indian government is already planning to extend fiscal help to recyclers, so they can stop their workplace from being thick with pungent acid fumes.

In India, where some 800 million people earn less than two dollars a day, the gold extractor's tragic dilemma rings true. That's why, cleaning up poisons from the middle classes' detritus is the daily task of thousands of urban poor. Happily, the proposed rules and the large manufacturers could change some of that. Their action and innovation could, at last, ensure that e-waste handlers are employed in truly green jobs.