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Explained: Why addressing invisible e-waste is important

Invisible e-waste, including unused cables, vapes, and electronic toys, accounts for 9 billion kilograms of all e-waste globally

Invisible e-waste such as unused cables accounts for one-sixth of all e-waste worldwide.
Invisible e-waste such as unused cables accounts for one-sixth of all e-waste worldwide. (Pexels)

The focus of this year’s International E-waste Day, held on 14 October, was invisible electronic waste (e-waste), a growing problem across the world. 

Currently, unused cables, electronic toys, power tools, vaping devices, and countless other consumer items often not recognised by people as e-waste, amount to 9 billion kilograms of e-waste or one-sixth of all e-waste worldwide, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) forum.

Every year, the WEEE Forum organises International E-Waste Day and commissioned the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) to calculate the annual quantities of “invisible” e-waste items. This year marks its sixth edition. 

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The results show that toys such as electric train sets and talking dolls accounted for the most e-waste with 3,234 kgs, followed by household monitoring control equipment such as alarms, heat, and smoke screens, and household tools such as drills and cleaners (1,047 kgs).

Furthermore, small IT devices, such as computer mice, generated 763 kgs of e-waste and personal care equipment such as toothbrushes and razors accounted for 391 kgs, the study reveals. Notably, 844 million vaping devices are estimated to add to the mountain of e-waste every year – that's the weight of six Eiffel Towers.

“Sadly, invisible e-waste often falls under the recycling radar of those disposing of them because they are not seen as e-waste. We need to change that and raising awareness is a large part of the answer,” Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE Forum said in a press statement.

E-waste is a rapidly growing problem worldwide. India currently ranks as the world’s third-largest e-waste generator, following only China and the US, as according to the United Nations' Global E-Waste Monitor 2020. According to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, between 2021-2022, India is estimated to have generated 1.601 million tonnes of e-waste, a significant increase from about 700,000 tonnes in 2017-18. However, only about 0.52 million tonnes were collected and processed.

E-waste management is currently heavily dependent on the informal sector in India. A report by the Indian Cellular and Electronics Association, titled Pathways to Circular Economy in Indian Electronics Sector, said that “roughly 90% of collection and 70% of the recycling are managed by a very competitive informal sector.”

Beyond waste management, e-waste, which often includes elements like lead and mercury, also poses health when released into the environment. As a way to address this problem, India introduced the new E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022, which supersede the previous regulations established in 2016. In November 2022, the Ministry of Environment and Forests notified a new set of e-waste rules, which came into effect on 1 April this year.

One of the key focuses of the rules is a reduction in the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing electrical and electronic equipment which can be harmful to the people and environment. “The rules mandate to reduce the use of lead, mercury, cadmium among others in the manufacturing of electronic equipment that have an adverse impact on human health and the environment," the government said in a notification in November 2022, according to a Mint report.

It also said that manufacturers will use technology or methods that can make the end product recyclable and any component or part made by different manufacturers should be compatible with each other to reduce the amount of e-waste. Furthermore, the manufacturer has to collect e-waste generated during the manufacturing process and ensure its recycling or disposal. Also, to ensure efficiency, the recycler’s activities must be recorded in the system and authorities should keep a note of the amount of e-waste that went into recycling.

However, a big problem that still remains is a lack of awareness among consumers on how to dispose of e-waste or what constitutes e-waste.

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