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"What is needed at this time is more enforcement and competence building to create waste systems"

In conversation with Sustainability Outlook, Pranshu Singhal, founder of Karo Sambhav, sheds light on factors that drive e-waste management amongst consumers as well as the importance of enforcement of existing e-waste rules in order to see long-term behavioral shift.

An important aspect of e-waste management is about intervening the supply and enabling behavioral change within a company. In your experience what are the main factors to consider when managing e-waste?

E-waste management essentially has three different parts to it. The first part is how does one create a collection system and network. Awareness is an enabling element to this collection channel. Those channels have to be suited to the type of consumers that are in the market. So for individuals there can be a drop off point or a pick-up service from their homes. For a bulk consumer it will be a very different sort of collection mechanism and repair shops also have their own collection channel. It really depends on the audience to whom the collection mechanism is catering. There are multiple formats of collection mechanism; we [Karo Sambhav] have a program for bulk consumers, individuals, repair shops, waste pickers and aggregators. These mechanisms have to be attuned to the kind of audience we are talking to. While collection is being discussed I include awareness into it. Second part is the recycling component. There is a big disruption that needs to happened in India because the number of recyclers we have is too small and not all are competent to recycle multiple varieties of waste. The third element is what happens to the materials once they are recycled. It is important to consider where does the hazardous materials go once the product is recycled. Figuring out the secondary value chain is also very critical. Once the product is recycled are they going back to the material value chain? So I look at e-waste management in three aspects the collection point, the recycling and utilization of materials that come out of the recycling process.

The informal sector plays a large role in managing e-waste and treating e-waste.  How important was it to have a socially inclusive economic model in tackling the issue of e-waste management?

Without it, it is not possible. Overall, about 99% of the e-waste is handled by the informal sector in one form or the other. Informal sector as a term is very large, it includes people who are rag picking very small-scale waste and buyers who are going door-to-door or shop-to-shop to aggregators who are employing waste collectors to large scale aggregators to mega aggregators. It is a very vast value chain. Beyond just the collection there is also the informal waste dismantlers and recyclers. In our system we have created a very deep distinction between informal waste collectors and informal waste dismantlers or recyclers. Our focus has been to include informal waste collectors in our system and encourage informal waste dismantlers to move out of dismantling and just focus on collection and sell their waste to us.

Has top down legislation so far been effective in promoting and implementing EPR? Going forward are their state-wide or nation-wide legislation that be enacted to effectively address lack of e-waste management?

There is a regulation called ‘Implementation of e-waste rules’ which came up earlier in 2011, they were modified in 2016 and then again in 2017. So, the regulatory framework is there. It can be made better but that statement will remain true all the time. What is critical is enforcement. A very significant amount of work has happened from an e-waste perspective in the last two years. They happened because targets were aligned to the regulation and there was a whole space that was created for the regulation to become active. What is needed at this time is more enforcement and competence building to create waste systems. This will also help in developing a whole ecosystem for implementation of the regulation. Having a policy without enforcement does not work and enforcement without an ecosystem does not work, ecosystem without infrastructure will not work. Hence it is very critical to look the multiple aspects which are required to make regulation successful. I don’t think we need to reform at this time. Yes, one can refine it and make it sharper but what is required is building deeper competence and a proper ecosystem.

How vital are grassroots level awareness programs in promoting e-waste management?

People today are basically aware of waste issue, what is missing is are they inspired to take the next step and therein lies the difference. Everyone is aware that there are issues pertaining to air and water in Delhi but the action is missing and action is more of an engagement and inspiration rather than awareness.  We run these programs because we want to see a long-term behavioral shift. Another challenge that we face today is that as a society the willingness to give away old products is very low. We do not consider it our responsibility to go the extra mile to dispose of our e-waste. Everyone wants to trade in but after a certain point in time you cannot trade in your products. At that point you cannot derive any value from that waste. A lot of e-waste is getting piled up in people’s homes with the expectation that someday they may sell it. Consumers ultimately give away a bulk of their e-waste to a waste picker or an aggregator. The idea of these programs is to make people realize that it is their responsibility for this to work. E-waste management cannot work without citizen participation. So, objective of any engagement program that we run is to derive action where people recognize and know that there is potential that exists in their cities. The broad objective here is to initiate action.

Pranshu Singhal is the founder of Karo Sambhav an organization that is working countrywide with producers and globally trusted brands like Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo and HMD to implement their Extended Producer Responsibility(EPR), helping close their material loop. 

Author: Sustainability Outlook Desk