Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 30, 2022 Updated 26 Days ago
Mission LiFE has the potential to empower women in the informal e-waste management sector as it aims to adopt sustainable waste reduction measures
Mission LiFE and women's E-waste side story The mad rush to acquire the latest tech accessories is adding to a mountain of e-debris with redundant gadgets. E-waste includes gadgets for everyday use such as plugs, smartphones, and LED televisions that have been discarded after their use. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, out of the total 56.3 million tonnes of discarded e-waste products generated in 2019, only 17.4 percent was officially recorded as being collected and recycled. The rest end up in landfills, in scrap trade markets or are recycled by the informal markets. India is the third largest contributor to this great wall of waste after China and the United States (US) with a whopping 1,014,961.21 tonnes generated in 2019-2020, out of which only 22.7 percent was collected, recycled or disposed of. For the 12.9 million women working in the informal waste sector, Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE’s) are lifelines as it contain valuable recyclable metals notwithstanding the detrimental effects it can have on health and the environment.

Open incineration and acid leeching often used by informal workers are directly impacting the environment and posing serious health risks

These informal recyclers who collect, sort, dismantle, and refurbish the mounting amount of e-waste in our cities expose the gender and waste nexus, reinforcing the underlying inequalities prevalent throughout our societies. This is very much the raison d’etre that waste management situates itself prominently within the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and underpins its linkages with gender and poverty for the creation of an equitable waste sector. With G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration acknowledging the need to enhance environmentally sound waste management, e-waste handling is also likely to feature in the deliberations of the upcoming G20 Delhi Summit promoting India’s flagship initiative of Mission LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) giving this sector an opportunity to reform and to invest in women’s workforce to unleash its full potential.

E-waste burdens women disproportionately

Informal workers often referred to as ‘waste pickers’ are the invisible voices from the street equally affected by global challenges with limited access to healthcare, food security, disparity in pay, the dignity of work, and resource management. Inequalities are particularly pronounced in this largely gender-neutral sector across the value chain which is heightened by the barriers in decision-making roles. With reliable data hard to come by from this sector recent reports indicate that an estimated 0.1 percent of waste pickers account for India’s urban workforce with women populating the lower tiers in this economy as collectors and crude separators at landfill sites. Men unsurprisingly dominate the entire spectrum of skilled positions as managers, machinery operators, truck drivers, scrap dealers, repair workers and recycling traders. Workers in this ‘grey sector’ are some of the most marginalised, poverty-stricken, uneducated people from vulnerable backgrounds with little social or financial security. They remain unprotected at their workplaces, and often are victims of sexual abuse with no bargaining power in selling their goods. All of these factors then act upon their exclusion as cities begin to formalise the waste sector to effectively control discarded goods.

E-waste and health implications

Open incineration and acid leeching often used by informal workers are directly impacting the environment and posing serious health risks, especially to child and maternal health, fertility, lungs, kidney and overall well-being. In India, many of these unskilled workers who come from vulnerable and marginalised are oblivious to the fact that that what they know as ‘black plastics’ have far reaching occupational health hazards especially when incinerated to extract copper and other precious metals for their market value. This ‘tsunami of e-waste rolling out of the world’, as described in an international forum on chemical treaties, poses several health hazards for women in this sector as they are left exposed to residual toxics elements mostly in their own households and often the presence of children. According to a recent WHO report, a staggering 18 million children, some as young as five, often work alongside their families at e-waste dumpsites every year in low- and middle-income countries. Heavy metals such as lead, as well as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like dioxins, and flame retardants (PBDEs) released into the environment, have also added to air, soil, and water pollution. The COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns profoundly affected the frequency of collection of e-waste with an increase in retrenchment among workers in this sector. It was also hit with the surmountable task of handling discarded healthcare waste e.g. PPE’s (Personal Protection Equipment) alongside general waste unaware of its devastating health implications.

Legislations on E-waste

Despite the threat posed by e-waste, many countries still lack legislative measures to regulate it. A significant amount of banned e-waste imports are still making their way into the informal sector as there is a lack of clarity on the differentiation between e-waste and and exportation of permissible second hand electronic goods. International treaties such as the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions which were framed to regulate the movement of hazardous goods between nations have had little success in the prevention of illegal shipping and dumping of e-waste as they often end as ‘second-hand equipment’ in recipient countries.

A significant amount of banned e-waste imports are still making their way into the informal sector as there is a lack of clarity on the differentiation between e-waste and and exportation of permissible second hand electronic goods.

India’s E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) flagged e-waste classification, extended producer responsibility (EPR), collection targets, and restrictions on imports of e-wastes containing hazardous substances. Acknowledging the contribution of the informal economy to cleaner cities and their inclusion in waste management, the legislation intertwines with India’s Swach Bharat (Clean Indian Mission), Smart Cities, and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) along with the use of technology and PPP models. The amended Electronic Waste Management Draft Rules 2022, expected to come into effect by early next year has also emphasised on improving end-of-life waste throughout the circular economy. These progressive measures, however, lack clear guidelines on the role of informal recyclers and have particularly blind sighted the role of women creating a lacuna in equitable growth. It is worth mentioning that The Beijing Platform of Action clearly maintains that a properly designed e-waste processing system can meet both economic and environmental goals to improve the status of women in the informal economy. Sculpting this blueprint in a variegated social and cultural milieu can perhaps play out to examine best practices and success stories around the world.

Measures to make e-waste sector more gender inclusive

A comprehensive gender responsive e-waste management sector will have to primarily seek out the specific needs and challenges of women at ground zero to make a proper headstart. A deeply rooted and complex web of gender inequalities work across the e-waste system. The gendered division of labour is well-structured within these family run livelihoods, where women and children work as collectors and segregators, while the men hold control of the transportation and negotiation of materials and ultimately the finances as well. The social stigma attached to this sector progressively manifests in discrimination and loss of dignity. Women lack ownership at the end of the value chain as business owners of material processing units nor have access to capital for starting business ventures. Educating the un-educated takes more than simply designing training modules, skill development and generating awareness about e-waste should be tailored to run at ground-zero where workers operate without disrupting their daily work schedules. All of these factors compounded by the severe lack of gender-disaggregated data necessitate earmarked gender budgeting to shape an inclusive e-waste management system.

As the development circular economy takes a centre stage under the aegis of Mission LiFE, its success will perhaps depend on capturing and building upon women’s lived realities to facilitate their participation in a self-fulfilling production stream.

As the development circular economy takes a centre stage under the aegis of Mission LiFE, its success will perhaps depend on capturing and building upon women’s lived realities to facilitate their participation in a self-fulfilling production stream. Fortunately, India over the years, has witnessed a lot of activism by civil society to improve the working conditions of women waste pickers. Some of them have also successfully integrated initiatives that draw in research, policy interventions, allow capacity building, and consumer and producer responsibility awareness campaigns to make the cross-over to sustainable waste management systems. Some of these success stories could offer city municipalities, producers and consumers and other stakeholders to collaborate, engage in effectively managing the e-waste collection supply chain, pilot technology interventions, close the gap between present recycling and collection facilities and proffer green jobs. The concept of the 3R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle as envisaged under Mission LiFE will have to invest in women as drivers of a responsible waste management economy, recognising their critical role to minimise the quantum of waste with the ultimate objective of zero waste. This could serve as an opportunity to provide women e-waste pickers with a tactical lifecycle approach and forge pathways to participate on an equal footing in India’s effort to craft a restorative, regenerative, and resilient e-waste management story.    
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Author

Arundhatie Biswas

Arundhatie Biswas

Arundhatie Biswas, Ph.D is Senior Fellow at ORF. Her research traverses through multi-disciplinary research in international development with strong emphasis on the transformative approaches to ...

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