Indian NGO Chintan wins UN award for its work to improve e-waste recycling among urban waste pickers

A child handling hazardous e-waste (Image by Greenpeace/Hatvalne)

A child handling hazardous e-waste (Image by Greenpeace/Hatvalne)

COP 21 participants have been talking about waste and how to tackle it and ensure it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. In general, this is a great idea, because poorly handled waste has become a crisis. But examine the details and a lot of questions emerge.

The easiest question to ask is related to electronic or e-waste, because we have all become so dependent on technology such as phone and electronic devices.

Unwanted appliances and electronics contain highly toxic heavy metals that pollute the earth if not disposed of and recycled properly. The metals they are made of will be lost and raw materials will have to be mined again. As the world learns to move to the digital-age, what will it mean for the planet?

A growing mountain of e-waste is dumped on Africa, and in India it is still recycled in acid vats and cyanide, posing serious health and environmental hazards.

If the COP thinking around sustainability is to make a dent on this landscape, e-waste should be in the minds of the manufacturers of electronics. Big brands must commit to making e-waste recycling safe. We need two actions from them. First, to phase out toxic materials used in electronics so that it is easier and safer to recycle.Second, to design products that last longer and are easier to repair.

In India, companies should partner with the informal sector –which is responsible for recycling about 20% of waste in Indian cities. Despite the laws, most e-waste from households and small establishments doesn’t reach an authorized recycler. Typically, large recyclers find it unprofitable to pick up chargers from a residential area. Luckily, the informal sector can easily offer this last mile collection.

Indian NGO Chintan has been working with the informal sector to train them to pick up e-waste and sent it to authorized recyclers. Most of the 2,000 plus wastepickers and itinerant buyers we have trained say they didn’t know about the issue before. There’s not enough e-waste generated for many people to make a daily living from it. Most find it augments their income, which they value.

An exception is a woman from the Bhalsawa landfill in Delhi, who occupies the unique niche of an e-waste aggregator, with support from Chintan. We understand that additional income opportunities such as this help the urban poor earn a living in an increasingly difficult environment. Yet, along with school children and active citizens, they have managed to divert over 24 tonnes of e-waste in India over the last three years. Surely this is an urban eco-system service?

We realise this is a drop in the ocean. But the challenge is to scale up and to mainstream the recycling of e-waste. This requires money, commitment and policy– pretty much what the rest of the climate change battle needs. In the case of e-waste, brands need to wake up and take the lead. The informal sector is their most efficient ally in this battle. It is also amongst the poorest section of urban India.

As Chintan receives its UNFCCC Momentum of Change Award at Paris for its work on e-waste, the one message it hopes to share is this: waste is truly wasted if it can’t be used to fight poverty.

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