Page last updated at 15:36 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Hazardous conditions for India's e-waste workers

A man walks past a pile of computer keyboards
20-50 million tonnes of electronic waste - or e-waste - is produced every year

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

In Mustafa Bad, a remote part of east Delhi, a narrow street is home to tiny workshops filled with hard workers.

Inside, dozens of people, many of them children, spend tiring hours picking through the remains of old computers and mobile phones - hoping to find reusable parts to sell on for a tiny fee.

According to the United Nations, 20-50 million tonnes of electronic waste - or e-waste - is produced every year. A large amount of it goes to recycling plants like this.

I think manufacturers must own up this responsibility to deal with the kind of products they bring into the market.
Satish Sinha

"This is our livelihood," says, Mohammad, one of the workers.

"For this one computer piece that we've opened up and dismantled, that's five rupees. Yes, we only get five or ten rupees for each one."

It's very dangerous work. For little more than $3 (US) per day, these people are subjecting themselves to constant cuts and scrapes - and exposure to toxic chemicals.

"I personally have met people who have very visual impact on their body," says Satish Sinha, from India-based NGO, Toxics Link.

"Broken skin on the fingers, cut marks, abrasions, eyes are watering, complaining of headaches."

"They work long hours. They work in small, cramped rooms, squatting on the floor. They're sitting in one position."

Without these workers, however, much of the world's e-waste would go un-recycled.

"But is this the right way of doing it?" asks Mr Sinha.

"I think manufacturers must own up this responsibility to deal with the kind of products they bring into the market."

Take Back

Nokia is a manufacturer trying to do just that. Through their new scheme, Take Back, they have encouraged India's mobile users to return their old mobiles to the store so it can be recycled.

A woman unscrews a computer case
The work leaves people exposed to toxic chemicals

"We managed to get more than three tonnes of material back from consumers," said Ambrish Bakaya, director of corporate affairs at Nokia India.

"Out of these there were about ten thousand phones and 68 thousand pieces of other equipment.

"For each of the phones which were returned, we actually ended up planting a tree, and we've planted a little more than ten thousand trees already as part of this particular campaign."

Such schemes may be a step in the right direction, but according to a recent study by consulting firm Deloitte, it's merely a drop in the ocean: mobile phone waste is estimated to be growing by 9% every year.

Free upgrade!

While companies like Nokia are running schemes to reduce the environmental impact of their products, some say the sheer number of new models is to blame for the consumer's desire to upgrade to new models at every opportunity.

Mr Bakaya says Nokia is just keeping up.

"You had single-band phones, then dual-band phones and now tri-band phones because as technology advances the ability for your phone to do much more increases exponentially."

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He maintains that while many users change their model often, the old phones still have years of life left in them.

"The phones are built to last. There will be somebody who will then find the phone acceptable to use a couple of years later.

"In India, our assessment is that a phone will continue to be used, either by a second person or a third person, for at least six years."

This poses a dilemma for techies the world over, says Mr Sinha from Toxics Link. If the e-waste mountain is ever to shrink, then a choice has to be made between technological progress or natural resources.

"We're talking about sustainable development.

"How much can we consume, how much can we throw?

"The complete life-cycle of a product must be assessed at the drawing board when we come out with products."

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