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Take back time: Indian brands lead in green initiatives

Posted: 16 Sep 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:electronic waste  green engineering  e-waste management 

The rapid and continued growth of India's information and communication technology (ICT) market has brought with it the equally growing problem of electronic waste (e-waste) in the country. India generated 3.8 lakh tonnes of waste from discarded computers, televisions and mobile phones in 2007 alone, according to a report by the Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology (MAIT).

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The problem is escalating fast and concerned groups have launched initiatives in an effort to address it. In March of this year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued its guidelines on e-waste management, which includes a clause on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) referring to the electronics manufacturer's role in ensuring a more eco-friendly life cycle for their products. Greenpeace India recently released a study on the e-waste take back practices of major electronics brands, identifying only three out of twenty as having fully operational take back services. Acer is reportedly the only international brand running a good programme on e-waste management in the country, while the other two companies—HCL Infosystems and Wipro Personal Computing—are Indian brands that not only do take back, but have comprehensive "green" policies as well.

Threats of e-waste

In the e-waste management guidelines proposed by the MoEF, e-waste is defined as "wastes generated from used electronic devices and household appliances which are not fit for their original intended use and are destined for recovery, recycling or disposal." Also referred to as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), such waste include a range of end-of-life products like computers, mobile phones, personal electronics, and large household appliances.

Over a thousand toxic substances are contained in e-waste, posing a serious threat to human health and the environment if not managed in an environmentally sound manner. Long-term exposure to such substances like lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) can cause damage to the kidneys and bones, as well as the nervous, reproductive and endocrine systems. Some of these substances are also carcinogenic and neurotoxic.

The MAIT study revealed that India generates a total of 3.3 lakh metric tonnes of e-waste annually. In addition, approximately fifty thousand metric tonnes of e-waste are illegally imported in the form of charity equipment for reuse, which eventually end up in informal recycling yards and landfills. Currently, more than 95 per cent of the waste is recycled in the informal sector, contributing significantly to pollution due to poor processes that include incineration and use of chemicals. The MAIT report estimates e-waste in India to reach 4.7 lakh tonnes by 2011.

Producer responsibility

The principle of EPR included in the MoEF guidelines on e-waste management is explained as an "environment protection strategy that makes the producer responsible for the entire life cycle of the product, especially for take back, recycle and final disposal." The MoEF document further states that EPR should be made mandatory in the legislative framework associated with the manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment. Concerned groups such as MAIT and Greenpeace advocate the same.

Table 1: HCL, Wipro and Acer make up the short list of companies that have fully operational take back services in India.

The rationale for mandating producer responsibility, according to Greenpeace, is that by making the manufacturers shoulder their products' end-of-life costs, they become more aware of designing out these costs, "e.g. by making the product less toxic and more amenable to material recycling."

In the Greenpeace report, local brands HCL and Wipro top the list for having the most comprehensive e-waste take back programmes. HCL offers the service to customers for free through online registration, and even accepts non-HCL-branded equipment. Wipro, meanwhile, has a fully operational and extensive take back service across India, with a network that includes sixteen pick-up centres. In addition, both companies have dedicated micro-websites providing information on their policies on e-waste, energy conservation, green engineering, and ROHS compliance.

Beyond take back

In the present context, perhaps even more critical than having an e-waste take back programme is the implementation of environment-aware policies at the product engineering and manufacturing levels. HCL has its "eSafe" programme that includes designing their products with the following in mind: power consumption; easy dismantling, recycling and reuse; upgradeability and extended product lifetime; and compliance with the company's chemical policy for sub assemblies.

Table 2: Among the companies that offer the service, HCL and Wipro provide the easiest access to information to consumers regarding e-waste take back.

Wipro, similarly, has a "360 degree green-compliant product manufacturing process, which includes compliance of all vendors across the chain, from sourcing of components to disposal of e-waste at the end of product life," according to Ashok Tripathy, business head of Wipro Personal Computing. "Wipro works closely with its vendors and partners in adopting products and components, which are 'green,' at pre-manufacture phase. Our manufacturing facilities in hardware and other lines of business are also tuned to be in line with green policies," he adds.

Both manufacturers are implementing voluntary compliance to the EU mandate on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (ROHS), even without such legislation in India. Wipro claims to have an overall product range that is 99.9 per cent ROHS-compliant, and targets to achieve 100 per cent compliance by the end of 2008. The company also has a chemical precautionary policy focused on identifying components that contain BFR, PVC, Phthalates, Antimony, and Beryllium, and eliminating their usage by 2010.

"Wipro works closely with its partners and stake holders in identifying and eliminating not only the chemicals rated toxic and hazardous, but goes one step beyond to identify chemicals that may pose a threat in the future to the safety of its employees and the environment at large," says Tripathy.

When asked about whether Wipro's green initiatives have had any impact on customer loyalty to its products, Tripathy said, "While the effort is not from a brand augmentation perspective, it may have a positive induction. Though it's too early to gauge large-scale impact of our initiatives at consumer levels, we draw appreciation from our customers towards our ecological sustainability initiatives. Customers do feel comfortable dealing with responsible organisations and more so if the organisations are socially responsible."

- Jewel Regal
EE Times-India

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