E-waste: The circular economy will cure many ills


By Ajai Chowdhry

The circular economy offers the right alternative to the prevalent linear economy of take-make-dispose. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration and regeneration and moves towards superior design of electronic products to enable a longer product life. The need for a sustainable ecosystem was emphasised by India at COP21 when the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi laying stress on Mission Circular Economy last year.

I believe circular economy action plans are being developed for 11 categories of waste by the Niti Aayog. For electronics, these include all the e-waste from electronic products, lithium- ion batteries, solar panels, etc. India is the third largest producer of e-waste after China and the US. More than 95% of this waste is handled by the informal sector. According to a Central Pollution Control Board report, in 2019-20, India generated 1,014,961.2 tonnes of e-waste for 21 types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). The e-waste stream contains diverse materials including hazardous substances such as lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), mercury, etc. and valuable substances such as iron, steel, copper, aluminium and plastics. These require special treatment and cannot be dumped in landfills.

Although most electronic manufacturers promise long-lasting products and mention ‘resistant to wear and tear’, it is expected that you replace these periodically, instead of going for upgrades that could lengthen the life-cycle of the product. These frequent and unnecessary re-purchases create e-waste and limit affordability. Most firms work on the concept of forced obsolescence. This can be implemented in many ways. For instance, if you use the latest version of the software, an Apple phone slows down. Europe fined Apple €25 mn for this. Printers have chips that prevent ink cartridges from being used after a certain threshold of use.

Therefore, there is a huge ‘Right to Repair’ movement happening all over the world. The foundation of such a movement lies on the fact that in the absence of competition, manufacturers charge excessive costs for repairs or third-party alternatives. Governments all over the world are now creating legislation for this. The European Parliament in November, 2021 passed a resolution mandating that certain products like TVs be freely repaired for a period of time. This is deeply connected to the environmental impact of e-waste and also aligned with EU’s policy goals to create a sustainable clean and competitive tech marketplace. However, this does not take care of the ‘tricks of the trade’ like planned obsolescence and ‘warranty void’ strategy.

There is an urgent need for a ‘Right to Repair’ policy in India. I do believe that MeitY is looking at it but it must be prioritised and introduced urgently. In a country like ours, there is absolutely no need for planned obsolescence. And extending the life of electronic products is essential for the circular economy. For a country like India, ‘Right to Repair’ would mean lower cost of ownership and creating massive job opportunities by having millions of small repair shops.

Jaideep Prabhu of the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge believes India can show the way to a circular economy. As per him, India developed three pillars of circularity – sharing resources, making goods yourself and re-using–recycling. India has a philosophical tradition of being able to live well without excessive goods. It can offer this worldview to the world.

The writer is co-founder, HCL