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India’s Poor Recycle World’s E-Waste into Wealth

India West/ New America Media, News Feature , Sunita Sohrabji Posted: Mar 20, 2010

DHARAVI, Mumbai -- Sitabai’s workshop is the first point of entry into Sanola compound, a vast recycling vortex here in the midst of one of Asia’s largest slums.

Her tiny kohli is reached by crossing over a garbage ditch. An open sewer snakes its way past the entrance to her home.

The mother of three girls and grandmother to two more squats on her haunches amidst floor-to-ceiling piles of large gunny sacks filled with all manner of waste, including plastic cups, broken toys, music cassettes, computer keyboards, old modems and cell phones, brought to her by wastepickers – known as kabadiwallahs – who scour India’s cities looking for materials that can be reused.

Like many Dharavi residents, Sitabai is a migrant. She came to Mumbai from Karnataka as a young bride, captivated by the idea of living in what is often called the “city of dreams.” Her husband was a mill worker, but passed away several years ago, leaving Sitabai as the sole provider for her family. Her tiny salary of $63 a month, meager by even local standards, has nevertheless bankrolled the weddings of her three daughters.

Electronic waste boyYoung Boy Against Mountain of E-Waste
Photo credit: Kainaz Amaria
Dharavi, the slum immortalized in director Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” is home to an estimated 800,000 people who live in an area of less than one square mile, in the center of Mumbai’s wealthy suburbs.

Open sewers and garbage heaps are common sights in Dharavi, as are the slew of tiny, concrete-walled and vividly-painted factories. These provide Mumbaikers with gold jewelry, leather goods, hand-embroidered saris, and the popular snacks known as farsaan. The crude factories often double as storage spaces and sleeping quarters for their workers.

“Dharavi is a true and living microcosm of India, where the mandates of daily survival dictate the strength and spirit of individual enterprise,” said Mumbai writer Murzban Shroff, who accompanied India-West on a recent visit to Dharavi.

“Dharavi is the alchemy of diligence that transforms waste into wealth,” said Shroff, who spent several years there while researching his collection of stories, “Breathless in Bombay,” shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Prize.

Dharavi is also home to one of the largest electronic waste recycling hubs in India, and similar facilities exist throughout the country, employing an estimated 80,000 workers in what is known as the “informal sector” — the poor — who dismantle and reprocess roughly half a million tons of e-waste each year. The work is done largely by hand and without protective gear to guard against the known toxins in old electronics.

Older women do much of the segregating and cleaning of waste, while children are often on the periphery, transporting materials by bicycle or foot, and sorting through mounds of tiny components gleaned from circuit boards.

E-waste includes computers, monitors, printers, printer and ink cartridges, cell phones and old television sets. In the developing world, old electronics are mined for precious metals, such as gold, silver and copper. Recovery rates for such materials are about 40 percent, low because of the crude refining facilities.

The United Nations Environmental Program released a report in February warning developing countries that — unless they acted quickly — they would be deluged with huge mountains of e-waste. India currently produces 300,000 tons of e-waste annually and that figure is expected to jump 500 percent by the year 2020, according to the UNEP report.

The United States — which generates three million tons of e-waste annually, the largest amount in the world — sends an estimated 50,000 tons of e-waste to India, about one-tenth of all the waste the country either receives or produces itself.

India is technically barred from accepting U.S. waste by the 1989 Basel Convention Treaty, which bans the export of hazardous waste for any reason from rich to poorer countries.

But the United States is the only developed country that has not ratified the treaty and thus permits the export of most e-waste without restriction. In 2008, the General Accounting Office released a report chiding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its lax oversight of e-waste exports, and recommended that the United States sign the Basel treaty.

This April, the Indian government will consider new legislation regulating electronic waste, including dismantling and recycling processes.

Interviews by India-West with more than 30 recyclers in the slum areas of Dharavi and Sakinaka in Mumbai, and Seelampur and Mandoli near Delhi, netted a trove of stories about poor working conditions, entire families sustained on wages of $2 a day, and tremendously long working hours of repetitive work.

None of the recyclers knew they were working with known toxins, or of the health risks associated with their trade. Questions about worksite-related illnesses were largely shrugged off.

E wate factoryYoung Boys Dismantle Cathode Ray Tubes
Photo credit: Som Sharma
Thousands of toxins exist in old equipment, including lead, lead oxide and cadmium in circuit boards, cathode ray tubes and batteries; mercury in switches and flat screen monitors; and brominated flame retardants.

Lead exposure causes brain damage in children and has already been banned from many consumer products. Mercury is toxic in very low doses, causing brain and kidney damage. Cadmium accumulates in the human body and poisons the kidneys, while brominated flame retardants may seriously affect hormonal functions critical in normal development.

Printed circuit boards, which are burned over open flames after their precious metals are extracted, release brominated flame retardants, mercury and isocyanates from the varnish, which are completely invisible and without smell, so that workers have no way of knowing they have been exposed.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences recently conducted a study of e-waste recyclers’ exposure to lead. The study was inconclusive.

“Health impacts are very difficult to assess in the urban poor,” Ravi Agarwal, director of New Delhi-based Toxics Link, told India-West. “Methodologically, it becomes impossible to isolate exposure.”

The urban poor do have higher rates of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, as well as cancer, which often goes undetected, he said, adding, “Just putting a face mask on would cut down on respiratory diseases about 45 percent,” said Agarwal.

Accidents happen frequently in metal processing factories, said D.R. Dhaman, who with his brother M.K. Sharma, owns Master Industries in Shadra, near Delhi, and buys recycled copper and plastic to manufacture PVC cables for the Delhi municipality.

“We see accidents at least once a month, but they are often concealed,” he noted, adding that factory managers were often lax about the safety and health of their workers. Asked if buyers of such materials could intervene, Dhaman shrugged. “If the factory owners don’t care, why should we?” he said.

Much of the U.S. e-waste that ends up in India is collected through municipal e-waste recycling drives, and then sold to brokers, who buy the waste from cash-strapped towns and cities, and then sell it overseas. Many shipments also arrive as donations for schools. These are sold to dealers for recycling or reselling. 

Shipments from the United States can change ownership while on the sea, with the port of origin on the paperwork subsequently becoming Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong or Singapore. Such a practice makes it difficult to track U.S. shipments, explained Agarwal.

In a tiny workshop down a narrow alley in Seelampur, Delhi, Gulfam processes cathode ray tubes, from old monitors and television sets, collected throughout Delhi by kabadiwallahs. The tubes are then refurbished into new televisions that are sold to the poor for about $50, a fraction of the price for a new TV set.

“We can stick any label you like on it: Sony, Toshiba, whatever you want,” said an ebullient Gulfam, noting that a “new” set can be made in as little as five days. About 70 percent of the CRTs he receives can be refurbished, said Gulfam, adding that he throws the rest away in an undisclosed spot.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the export of CRTs, which contain an average of 1.5 lbs of lead. But the CRT rule is often circumvented, noted the GAO in its 2008 report, In an investigation in which its agents posed as foreign buyers, the GAO found 43 U.S. companies willing to export CRTs in violation of the EPA’s rules.

Lead has already been banned from most consumer products. CRTs are banned from U.S. landfills, due to concerns about possible lead leaching into the soil.

In several factories in Mandoli, workers melt down copper and aluminum into bars and rods that will be used elsewhere.

This reporter’s throat immediately seized up upon entering one such facility, where a gaping hole in the roof serves as the only ventilation. The young Suraj, tending one of three fires, laughed when asked whether he was affected by the smoky, sooty environment.

“You are new, so it is bothering you, but we are not bothered, we are healthy,” he told India-West, noting that he had worked there for more than five years. Only one worker, Rohit, who looked no more than 17, used a scarf over his face as he stoked the fires.

The lone woman at that factory, Lalitha, is the mother of three, who said she worked at the refinery during each of her pregnancies.

Wandering around Mandoli’s factories required wading through large pools of standing water – later discovered to be the remains of acid baths used to leach precious metals from printed circuit boards. Large piles of gray ash, the remnants of burned circuit boards, were also seen lying on the ground outside several brick-walled factories.

Journalist Kalpana Sharma, author of the seminal book “Rediscovering Dharavi,” said she is awed by the entrepreneurial spirit here.

“They actually manage very well without any help from the state. You have to admire that spirit and also wonder about what more they would be able to do if they did have access to resources,” she said.

India-West staff reporter Sunita Sohrabji received a fellowship from the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists to report this story. A longer version of this article appears in the print edition of India-West.

Related Articles:

EPA Lax on E-Waste Exports: GAO Report

Silicon Valley Group Spurs China to Ban E-waste Imports From U.S.

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