‘If this pandemic and lockdown can change people’s attitude towards recycling, it will be a big achievement for the e-waste management sector’

Picture Credit: Victorgrigas, India Victor Grigas 2011-13, CC BY-SA 3.0

Following an extended lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, waste collection in various streams considered ‘non-essential’ has taken a hit. Only Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and Biomedical Waste (BMW) are being collected and treated by waste management agencies across the country.

According to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, India generates about 2 million tonnes (MT) of electronic waste annually and ranks fifth among e-waste producing countries, after the US, China, Japan, and Germany. In 2016-17, India treated only 0.036 MT of its e-waste.

About 95 percent of India’s e-waste is recycled crudely in the informal sector. Waste pickers and aggregators are mostly migrants who have returned to their hometowns following the lockdown. Those who have stayed back, are unable to function. The last three months have seen a complete breakdown in the e-waste management value chain.

We spoke with Pranshu Singhal, Founder of Karo Sambhav, a leading Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) involved in e-waste management, on the lockdown’s impact on the e-waste sector.

Pranshu Singhal
Founder, Karo Sambhav

What has been the impact of the lockdown on Karo Sambhav’s e-waste collection activities?

In India, e-waste collection is done by the informal sector. While our organization has made significant progress in formalising the e-waste management chain, the waste pickers, aggregators and recyclers are informal workers and mostly migrants who have returned to their villages. The few who remain in Delhi are unable to commute due to the lockdown and have barely done any collection.

But then, this is true for several other types of waste collection – be it electronic or plastic, etc – all other types of ‘non-essential’ waste collection has stopped. The lockdown has put a halt to all recycling activities and the entire waste management chain is affected.

What changes do you anticipate once the lockdown is lifted?

Frankly, there are too many unknowns at this point in time but one thing is clear: The future of e-waste management will be very different in a post-COVID world and we all need to reflect and re-strategize.

Even if things open up, this sector will take at least three to six months to become active. Since workers have gone back to their villagers, they may not return anytime soon. Also, waste collection systems will have to be modified. For instance, there will surely be a behavioural change and people won’t allow e-waste collectors into their homes and offices.

So right now, at Karo Sambhav, we are focusing on creating systems that can help manage e-waste in this changed post-COVID scenario. We are using this lockdown period to focus and think about how to resume our operations. I anticipate that once the lockdown is lifted, it won’t be a very easy landing, but things won’t be that tough – at least in this sector.

E-waste collectors in Delhi. (Picture Credit: The original uploader was Thousandways at German Wikipedia.
(Original text: Matthias Feilhauer (Benutzer: thousandways)), Ewaste-delhi, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

In your view, what are the long-term implications of the pandemic on the e-waste sector?

All types of waste collection are dependent on the movement of people which is why the human cost of this pandemic is so severe. The people’s livelihoods and their health is badly affected. We have been in touch with a lot of people and it appears that many will not resume work for a long time. The only solace is that e-waste will not disappear. People can collect and store their e-waste and we can manage it later.

Do you see an e-waste crisis looming in the long run as people buy more gadgets for e-learning and as Work From Home becomes popular?

I feel the purchase of new electronics will be limited to a very small segment of the population in India that can afford it. A majority will delay buying gadgets because of financial constraints due to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Some people will buy – but many won’t. Likewise, certain categories of electronics like learning devices may see an increased demand but productivity devices may not be bought in large quantities. So, overall, there will be counterbalancing forces and it will be a very varied impact.

This pandemic is taking a severe toll on waste workers’ livelihoods. What are your observations after speaking with people in your network? 

E-waste collection is an urban phenomenon and migrant workers who have returned to their hometowns will not find similar employment back home in rural areas. The lockdown has a serious livelihood impact on these people in the long and short run, and it is unlikely they will return to the cities unless, for instance, a vaccine is available. That will be a long drawn process.

As we are all aware, migrant workers are not on anyone’s priority list. I often wonder what will happen to these people. It’s a very difficult system to navigate and I don’t feel very optimistic about their livelihood options back in the villages. The entire system will take a long time to heal itself.

There will surely be a behavioural change and people won’t allow e-waste collectors into their homes and offices.

Last words…

Our biggest challenge in the e-waste sector is that people don’t want to give their electronics for recycling. I hope the lockdown and pandemic will have a positive impact on attitudes and thinking patterns. It is time for everyone to look at the e-waste that is lying in their homes.

If this happens, the post-COVID world will be very different – and good for our society. Fortunately, I hear a lot of people discussing this issue during the lockdown – which is a great sign.

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