The informal sector engaged in handling e-waste operates as a well-oiled machine, with an extensive reach for such waste. It handles almost 90 per cent of the total waste generated in the country, recovering materials and refurbishing products. There are pockets in some of the cities which have been documented for recycling of e-waste, with clusters specializing in particular processes such as dismantling of computers or mobile phones, segregation of parts, refurbishments of old products and recovery of metals. There is a well-established hierarchy of material flows and networks between diverse actors for smooth functioning of all players engaged in such activities.
The recyclers, however, continue to use rudimentary processes and practices such as open burning, acid baths and heating of circuit boards, resulting in emissions and release of toxic elements into the environment. These clusters have been operational for many years and have been handling extensively large volumes of e-waste without any pollution-control devices or measures to capture the pollutants being released into land and water sources in and around the area. The spent acid with residual metals is discharged into open land and finally absorbed by soil and surface water.
Currently there is very little or negligible data generated from such recycling sites in India to understand the relationship between such activities and its impacts on the environment and human health. This study is an effort to develop a correlation between such recycling activities undertaken by the informal sector and its impact on its surroundings and environmental mediums such as soil and water. While sincere efforts were made to study the impact in the medium of air too, this could not be undertaken due to the challenges inherent in such a study where the recycling community perceives such studies as a threat to their livelihoods.
The findings of the study could be indicative due to the limited sample size, but they can open up many opportunities for further research and data that can be useful in the decision-making process for safeguarding the environment and human health.
In India, the bulk of e-waste is processed in the informal sector. Since e-waste is a relatively new issue, little has been done to ascertain the vulnerability of the informal recycling sector to the hazards presented in this toxic waste stream. Though there have been some studies to look at the dismantling processes and some of the acid bath or burning processes in the informal sector, very little attention has been paid to the final recycling and recovery of material and the hazards or emissions in that process. Also, there has been no attempt to assess the issue of cross contamination. Brominated flame retardants in plastic, or leaded glass are issues of concern because if they are not treated separately or decontaminated, they can contaminate the whole material chain. In this particular study, we look at the leaded glass from cathode ray tubes (CRT) and understand if this glass is being mixed with other glass to form new products. The study intents to assess the downstream flow of waste CRT in India.