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Informal but integral

India is looking for ways to ensure used electronics are safely and cost-effectively managed. To do so, policymakers must leverage the hundreds of thousands of people who are already engaged in unregistered collection and recycling activities.

Updated: September 18, 2017
Posted: September 18, 2017

by Verena Radulovic


Off a narrow, sun-bleached alley, where the early summer heat stuns by mid-morning, Sakib Malik sits behind a desk in near darkness. Beside him, stacks of plastic casings from old CRT televisions arch toward the ceiling. He’s on the phone, amid another deal.

A handsome man in his mid-20s, Malik has run e-plastics aggregator Adash Traders for five years. He says he only handles CRT plastics and gathers material from “lots of places, from ragpickers to offices,” before reselling them in bulk to recyclers. After paying wages and clearing other overhead expenses, he earns the equivalent of about $5 for each metric ton of material. To make more money, Malik wants to hoist himself to the next lucrative rung in the e-scrap value chain by learning how to melt and recycle the plastics himself.

Malik’s operation exemplifies the complexities of e-scrap management in India today. Adash Traders is methodically run and leverages its expertise in a very specific area of electronics recovery to ensure profits and diversion of material from the waste stream. At the same time, the business is unregistered, or “informal,” and thus not approved by the government to collect, dismantle or recycle used electronics.

Over 90 percent of India’s e-scrap enters the informal sector for processing by people like Malik, according to a national assessment and follow-up studies by nonprofit groups and academic institutions. In fact, the Seelampur slum Malik calls home has become one of India’s most concentrated centers of electronics dismantling and recycling, with an estimated 25,000 informal workers. Similar processing clusters exist throughout India, the world’s second-most-populous country with a population of 1.32 billion.

Though the informal sector has proven its ability to gobble up huge tonnages of material generated within India and around the world, it also has a dark side. Because unregistered outlets dominate the process, oversight and due diligence are rarely part of the picture. In the case of Malik and Adash Traders, for instance, there’s also no systematic tracking of where material goes once it leaves his shop. As a result, lower-value material at times gets dumped or ends up in crude processing sites that put workers and the environment at risk.

Increased international media scrutiny of these realities has helped push Indian policymakers and other stakeholders to try to formalize the sector. In 2016, an extended producer responsibility system went into effect, mandating electronics producers to help manage a nationwide e-scrap system.

That has all led to a unique e-scrap dichotomy. On one side is a well-established, if problematic, informal structure that brings reliable incomes to huge numbers of workers. On the other is a nascent formal sector that must meet lofty health and safety aspirations but which finds itself struggling to compete with unregistered players who can offer better prices and leverage market connections that often run back generations.

Can the two arms find a way to work together? India is trying to find out. And with materials tonnages in India’s end-of-life stream projected to surge, the stakes and complications are only growing.

Sakib Malik is owner of Adash Traders, which specializes in trading CRT plastics. He is one of many unregistered operators in India's sprawling e-scrap management sector. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

To understand how deep the scrap trade runs for some communities in India, we could turn to the city of Moradabad, which has nearly half a million residents and is located around 100 miles east of New Delhi. It was once known as Brass City, and for decades, workers were involved in brassworks production. However, due to the global recession in the past decade, international and local demand for brass decreased in favor of other metals, such as aluminum, which are cheaper to produce. Given their knowledge of metallurgy, many workers transitioned to extract gold from printed circuit boards (PCBs) as more obsolete electronics began pouring into and circulating within India.

Moradabad’s district administration officials estimate that up to 150,000 informal workers are now directly or indirectly involved in the business, handling tasks such as collection and purchasing of recovered metals and making new products. In some cases, however, individuals extracting gold from PCBs will bathe them in open acid baths to release trace amounts of the precious metal.

Similar health concerns arise from the way CRT glass is sometimes handled within the informal network. Broken CRT glass, lacking demand in international markets due to its lead content, ends up mixed in with other glass in the recycling ovens in the eastern outskirts of New Delhi. This reconfigured, mixed glass is then repurposed into cheap bangles that dangle from the wrists of many Indian women.

Mohammed Javd owns a repair shop in the Seelampur district of New Delhi. The slum is one of India's most concentrated centers of informal processing, containing an estimated 25,000 workers. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

India’s nascent formal e-scrap sector finds itself struggling to compete with unregistered players who can offer better prices and leverage market connections that often run back generations.

It’s those types of issues that explain why Indian stakeholders have recognized a need to try to regulate the country’s sprawling network of electronics recovery enterprises. In recent years, the government started issuing registrations for “formal” recyclers to foster a robust recycling infrastructure with safety mechanisms and accountability in place. Stakeholders, including international aid organizations, have also funded pilot programs to try to harness the informal sector’s strengths in collection and dismantling and divert material to designated recyclers equipped to safely process it.

The government has also attempted to engage electronics manufacturers. In 2011, the government issued regulations to improve collection and recycling rates, but producers only haphazardly complied, citing lack of clarity. Last year, policymakers tried again, instituting legislation known as the 2016 E-Waste Rules that lay out specific collection targets for producers over the coming years. Though the rules acknowledge the informal sector’s role, they do not specify how producers should engage informal workers.

That lack of clear guidance exists for a reason – no one has figured out how to integrate the Indian informal side in a successful manner.

Results of the pilot initiatives that have taken place over the last five years indicate the heart of the challenge is economics, and the issue was quantified in a study published last year by the U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which worked alongside Indian environmental organization Toxics Link. The researchers found that in 2013, informal recyclers offered, on average, around $7 for a recovered CPU, whereas formal recyclers could only offer around $1.50.

Informal recyclers are able to pay aggregators and dismantlers higher prices due to limited overhead, avoided registration costs, lack of investment in costly safety measures, and a fluid and fluctuating work force. Though some pilot initiatives subsidized the formal sector to woo informal collectors to work with registered recyclers, relying on subsidies is neither economically sustainable nor scalable across India.

But simply using heavy-handed policy and enforcement to shut down unregistered operators and force material into formal channels is an incomplete solution. As a visitor to any processing workshop in India will learn quickly, informal workers maintain relationships and access to material that are far too developed to just be willed away.

India's informal e-scrap workers operate in cramped, dusty spaces, but their knowledge of markets is precise. Photo by Verena Radulovic.
Shadav, who would not disclose his last name, specializes in aggregating computer keyboards for recycling. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

Back in Seelampur, down another alleyway not far from Malik’s shop, mountains of amber-hued strings surround workers seated on the floor as they peel and sort through wiring. Concrete rooms, some no more than 10 feet wide, brim with plastic mobile phone casings, aluminum plates, bales of copper, stacks of plastic computer casings, PCBs and computer hard drives.

Each dismantler has their own specialty, like one worker named Shadav, who only sells old computer keyboards. Stacked from floor to ceiling in his 80-square-foot shop, all keyboards go to plastics recyclers. Material moves quickly and will be sold within two days, says Shadav, who would not disclose his last name.

Meanwhile, Farook Ahmed makes most of his income from selling iron components and copper wiring from used motors out of his small space. His neighbor, Mohammed Salman Malik, specializes in dismantling mobile phones, and using a screwdriver, he takes apart up to 1,000 phones per day.

These traders may work in cramped, dusty rooms, but their understanding of material and pricing is precise. They store dismantled components in their homes or work spaces until the markets signal the right time to sell. For ferrous and non-ferrous items, they track the London Metals Exchange. For plastics, it’s more word of mouth. All workers know the grade, quality and value of their materials – by feel, by experience and by market knowledge.

Informal workers sort and aggregate used printed circuit boards in Seelampur. PCBs collected in this way are often sold to informal recyclers who utilize crude, unsafe metals extraction processes. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

Familial and other social ties bind workers together, and the scrap trading business flows through these personal connections.

But they are also reliant on another, equally focused segment of the informal sphere: the kabadiwalas, collectors who go door to door paying households and businesses for anything that may hold value. For example, kabadiwalas pay Mohammed Javd, who owns a small computer repair shop in Seelampur, the equivalent of $10 to $11 for each used CRT monitor that he is looking to move downstream.

That CRT sum may seem high, but in the Indian market, the economics work out. Kabadiwalas bank on their ability to to resell CRTs to those who will use the components to repair color TVs (demand for CRT TVs still exists in poorer countries). Since kabadiwalas only keep valuable material and are unaccountable if they choose to dump the rest, they’re able to offer shop owners like Javd a comparatively high price.

Clearly, integrating all these different informal players into a formal system is no easy task. Most dismantlers and traders interviewed for this article were first exposed to the work from friends and family, and most are committed to remaining independent entrepreneurs. Farook Ahmed, the iron and wiring expert, has been dismantling electronics for 15 years, and he hopes to pass his business to his toddler son.

It’s also important to note that the formal sector needs the kabadiwalas, whose unmatched reach to unearth obsolete material at the individual level renders them indispensable to the entire collection system. For enforcement efforts to succeed in permanently shutting down operations that employ harmful recycling practices, enough supply must consistently go to recyclers with safe end-of-life processing operations. Ironically, the most efficient way to garner that supply would be to use the individuals who are already the lifeblood of the informal infrastructure.

Stakeholders, including academics, NGOs and electronics producers, also quietly note that the formal sector sometimes leaks material back to the informal sector to generate revenue, especially if a formal recycler lacks storage space or cannot wait several weeks or months for payment from overseas firms in Europe and Asia to whom they export material for processing.

Finally, as policymakers and producers seek to engage the informal sector for its collection and dismantling prowess, they must account for the tightly knit social dynamics that govern relationships throughout the existing e-scrap value chain. For example, Seelampur is predominantly Muslim and contains many Bangladeshi immigrants. Familial and other social ties bind workers together, and the scrap trading business flows through these personal connections. It’s unreasonable to expect these individuals to upend these relationships, absent any guaranteed economic rewards, and instead make all their decisions based on demands from a government or stewardship group.

To try to redirect tonnages into formal hands, stakeholders are starting by targeting large aggregators, since these traders often hold the most sway in communities.

A kabadiwala, or waste collector, hauls material through Seelampur. Any formal system would likely need to leverage the vast kabadiwala network. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

Bearing in mind all the complexities and skills baked into India’s informal e-scrap sector, what concrete steps can stakeholders take to help develop a system that contains more accountability and structure?

One useful move would be putting all potential players on a level playing field. India’s Central Pollution Control Board lists 178 registered recyclers (as of the most recent list, published in December 2016). But according to some stakeholders, not all recyclers’ processing capabilities match those reflected in the paperwork, a discrepancy that local experts say is tied to lack of knowledge among regulators coupled with corruption in how registrations are distributed at the state level.

Conversely, informal practices sometimes mirror formal ones, especially in the realm of dismantling. Informal businesses might simply be missing the right paperwork. According to T.S. Krishnan, a Bangalore-based e-waste researcher who studied the impacts of the formalization process on local recyclers, “many informal workers didn’t know they were ‘informal’ until the regulations told them so.”

The creation of funding efforts targeted toward independent operators could also help promote safer processing and could build relationships between informal entities and backers of a formal system. When asked what they needed most to improve their businesses, workers such as Mohammed Arif, a wire aggregator in a neighborhood adjacent to Seelampur, point to loans that would allow them to upgrade equipment and rent larger spaces to store their wares. These small changes could potentially enable them to cross the chasm from informal to formal after registering with the Pollution Control Board.

But not all dismantlers and traders are interested in being a part of a revamped system laid out by policymakers. Many informal workers are hesitant to engage in any regulatory compliance program, given previous harassment by authorities. Some workers, such as Malik of Adash Traders, become visibly uncomfortable when discussing options to work with formal recyclers, despite the fact that a more robust formal effort could potentially create greater economic opportunity.

To be sure, since the 2016 E-Waste Rules took effect, stakeholders have been trying out new ideas. Producer responsibility organizations, designed to manage recycling services on behalf of producers, have emerged and one is currently experimenting with using mobile technology platforms to track material among informal collectors. Municipalities, such as Bhubaneswar in the state of Orissa, are exploring ways to develop shared, open workspaces that enable informal dismantlers to become more transparent and to help aggregators store material. And NGO, academic and government stakeholders are brainstorming ways to hold producers accountable to collect and recycle their share of electronics transparently and responsibly.

Those efforts could help push the overall system forward and benefit informal and formal players alike. And such energy and ingenuity will need to continue as material continues to enter the system.

Just look into the alleyways and workshops of Seelampur. There, on any given mid-week afternoon, commerce winds down as traders take a break, chatting with their neighbors over cups of chai. At the same time, trucks spill piles of wiring, PCBs and other metal components harvested from used industrial products. Off to the side, CRTs from old TVs line the edge of the dusty street, a few feet from the open dump, waiting to be assessed.

An unassuming residential building contains a workspace where plastics and metals are sorted in Mustafabad, a slum outside New Delhi. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

Verena Radulovic is an independent photographer who has been working on an exploration of electronics reuse and recycling in different countries. Previously in E-Scrap News she published a photo essay of electronics processing in Peru.

Posted in News, Top stories | Tagged Asia

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