At the World Sustainable Development Summit on February 10, the European Union launched the second phase of its Resource Efficiency Initiative in India. This new phase promises to build India’s capacity for resource efficiency to international standards by investing in a comprehensive training programme for the government, private sector and non-governmental organisations. But if the EU and the Indian government want to make the project a real success, they would do well to include the local community experts who drive electronic waste management across the country.

If you want to dispose of a laptop in any city in India, you will probably call your neighbourhood scrap dealer, who will route it to the e-waste processing community. A community member will purchase the laptop from the scrap trader and shepherd it through the next stage of its life cycle. If possible, the device will be repaired and sold to dealers in the second-hand market. If not, it will be disassembled and its parts distributed. Printed circuit boards, for instance, will find their way to specialists who will extract their copper. Glass waste will become bangles or televisions, plastic will become voltage stabilizers, and so on.

These economies are self-sustaining, highly specialised and true to their cultural roots. They have played a critical role in providing schools and low-income households with second-hand electronics, thus boosting India’s educational infrastructure and bridging our digital divide. In a world where consumers demand devices that are lighter, sleeker and ever more difficult to pick apart, this network of specialists offers what could be the most sustainable solution on the market. But India, while adopting EU blueprints, often ends up sacrificing generations of in-house expertise.

Recognition Needed

Supporters of factory-style processing of electronic waste argue that the so-called “informal economy” fails to dispose of certain toxic chemicals. In other words, they claim that informal e-waste processors lack the scientific knowledge and resources to dispose of toxic chemicals safely. In reality, “formal” facilities have their own toxic practices and in India, they often rely on local community systems to keep their operations afloat. Contrary to sceptics’ claims, the community e-waste systems have demonstrated an ability to develop sophisticated refurbishing and metal recovery methods to create value from increasingly complex forms of waste. Their obstacle is not internal knowledge, but external recognition. Until the government grants these processors industry status, they cannot apply for business loans to acquire safer tools and equipment.

India could gain much by acknowledging the effectiveness of local e-waste systems and offering them legal avenues to develop their infrastructure. Instituting policies that support locally managed, decentralised recycling parks would play to the strengths of homegrown systems and preserve generations of traditional knowledge. By providing legal rights to community-based processors, the Indian government could employ thousands of people in low-income communities, collect taxes, and create partnerships to scale environmental solutions across the country. On the other hand, asking these communities to piggyback on formal systems would create friction and inefficiencies in an attempt to fix what isn’t broken.

India has a habit of adopting European Union’s policies to position itself as a global player, but not all of them are universally applicable. In 2011, it introduced E-waste Management and Handling Rules that follow the blueprint of EU’s Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines. EPR guidelines mandate that producers be responsible for the entire product lifecycle, including collection, recycling and safe disposal. Effective as these policies may be in Europe and the US, they are ill-suited to India’s context. They were designed for markets with greater financial resources and lack India’s local knowledge and infrastructure. By adopting policies like EPR and dismissing community-based processors as “informal economies”, India is getting in the way of readily available sustainability solutions.

Global Leader

India’s “informal” e-waste economy is built on generations of elaborate, sustainable waste disposal systems. Before laptops, there was telecom equipment, and before telecom, there were gold-coated watches, and before watches, there were mill tailings from gold mines. The city of Moradabad, India’s hub for e-waste processing, traces its e-waste expertise back to the internationally renowned metal crafts industry that has been existing from 17th century. The e-waste processing economy persists in Moradabad not because its people are poor, but because their knowledge is rich.

India’s local e-waste processors already have a global impact, attracting foreign precious metal refiners who value the clean segregation of materials that distinguishes these systems. These processors not only offer sustainability solutions, but also financial incentives for foreign businesses. Entrepreneurs in India’s informal economy are savvy, specialised and deeply invested in the success of their systems. Their knowledge of the local market and tight networks enable them to succeed where “formal” industry experts have failed. By investing in their success, India can optimise its human capital and become a global leader, rather than a global follower.

The writer is an expert in India’s e-waste processing systems. He is a former faculty member of the Indian Institute of Management Nagpur. He is currently writing a book based on his PhD thesis, Understanding E-Waste Reverse Supply Chain and Formalization of Informal E-Waste Processors: A Qualitative Case Study, in Production and Operations Management, at IIM Bangalore. His research was supported by the PhD fellowship from IIM Bangalore.