NEW DELHI — Far from the gleaming high-tech parks of Bangalore and Hyderabad, 25-year-old Mohammed Zayeed hunches over a raised concrete slab in the slums of New Delhi. With surgical precision, he disassembles the backbone of India‘s booming information technology industry for 12 hours a day: Removing cream-colored plastic casings from old desktop computers, separating hard drives from circuit boards, and stripping PVC coating off copper wires. He tosses the detritus into towering piles destined for the next link in a long chain of recyclers.
In New Delhi alone, about 10,000 people, some young children, recycle old computers and other tech equipment — known in India as “e-waste” — searching for gold, copper, palladium, and anything else that can be turned into cash.
“We know that it’s harmful,” said Mr. Zayeed, whose monthly income of $75 supports a wife and two children. “But we are poor, so anything that can be recycled is money for us.”
E-waste recycling is a booming business in India. A recent study by Toxics Link, an advocacy group in New Delhi, found that metals from 183 defunct computers could yield as much as $24,000. India currently produces about 150,000 tons of e-waste a year and illegally imports at least that amount from the West, says the group’s associate director, Satish Sinha.
Currently, India has only 22 computers for every 1,000 persons, but in the next five years that number is projected to increase to 120.
The government has been slow to regulate the recycling industry. Although it bars importing any used electronics equipment for scrap recycling, that prohibition is easy to circumvent, insiders say, by simply labeling the stuff as “mixed scrap metal.”
And there are no guidelines for domestic e-waste. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, the country’s top regulatory agency for overseeing hazardous waste, is drafting a set of regulations, but B.P. Nilratna, a top ministry official, declined to say when they will be ready.
India is unlikely to impose any type of taxation or fee to cover recycling costs, as is done in other countries. An estimated 40 percent of all computers sold for home use are sold in informal marketplaces that are difficult to monitor. And the more formal PC market is afraid that if costs rise because of a recycling tax it will lose even more market share.
New regulations promise a switch to cleaner, safer recycling, but that may only address part of the problem.
Recycling scrap electronics is only profitable when it comes to computers and cell phones, said Vinnie Mehta, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology. Other e-waste that doesn’t contain metals currently fetching high prices on global commodities markets, such as florescent lights, are more costly to recycle. So are air conditioners, refrigerators and microwaves.
“Here in India the disposer of any waste gets paid for it,” Mr. Mehta said. “It’s like cherry picking — what about the rest?”
Government regulations can’t come quickly enough for Ravi Agarwal, the director of Toxics Link. He laments that even China “has been much more progressive” on the recycling front.
China, the world’s other dumping ground for defunct electronics, now has legislation regulating e-waste recycling.
Mr. Agarwal said that European firms keen on opening recycling centers in India have been put off by the lack of a regulatory structure. “Legislation is not just regulation but enabling,” he said. “It is essential for getting action on the ground in a coordinated fashion.”
But a few Indian companies aren’t waiting for government legislation.
In mid-May, Ramky, India’s largest waste-management company, signed a deal with Singapore’s Cimelia to build a $12 million, 200,000-square-foot e-waste recycling facility in Hyderabad — the first of its kind in India. Construction is scheduled to begin this month, and the plant is expected to open by the end of the year.
“As long as legislation is not there, the flow [of e-waste] will go to the informal sector,” said Yogesh Gupta, Ramky’s general manager for e-waste recycling.
That certainly is the case for the computer owner at home, but 70 percent of India’s e-waste comes from the corporate sector. Ramky hopes that once government guidelines are issued, they will require Indian businesses to send their e-waste to its facility or others like it.
There are only two such government-recognized e-waste recycling facilities in India now, in Madras and Bangalore, and together they recycle less than 1,000 tons, or under 1 percent, of India’s total e-waste. Furthermore, they recycle less than half of the metal and plastic of the e-waste they take in. Plants such as Cimelia’s in Singapore and Belgium’s Umicore, industry leaders, recycle over 90 percent.
Efficiency like that will go a long way in cleaning up India. But it might also leave people like Mr. Zayeed without a way to feed his family.