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Tackling the Electronic Waste Challenge in Emerging Economies

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - E-Waste Challenge (Tackling the Electronic Waste Challenge in Emerging Economies)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2021-03-31

Electronic waste (E-waste) is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world today. It is a complex waste category comprising of both hazardous chemicals and valuable metal components. While the presence of precious metals provides incentives for lucrative E-waste recycling businesses in emerging economies and developing countries, the hazardous chemical components of E-waste pose serious threats to the environment and human health if not meticulously managed. In many countries in the Global South, people in the so-called ‘informal sector’ recover metals from E-waste with primitive methods that are damaging to their health and the environment alike. Involvement of women and children in informal E-waste recycling further aggravates the E-waste management concerns. Therefore, a major challenge for the current research community is to find effective (policy) solutions towards ensuring sustainable management of E-waste, particularly in the emerging economies. It is because of the fact that these countries today represent some of the world’s largest economies and are experiencing a faster growth rate as compared to many developed countries. With considerable volumes of E-waste generated, effective management of this toxic waste stream in these countries will contribute in successful handling of the overall global E-waste management crisis. Further, effective E-waste governance is a crucial element of creating a circular economy. However, knowledge gaps on how to achieve this goal persist. Accordingly, it is essential to focus on responsible E-waste management and policy responses. During my Marie Skłodowska Curie postdoctoral fellowship, I analysed why emerging economies adopt E-waste policies that seem inadequate and ineffective in their local contexts. I explained and evaluated the design, adoption, and implementation of E-waste policies in emerging economies. India and South Africa were considered as representative of the emerging economies. The research paid particular attention to relevant factors such as the informal sector, consumer behaviour, socio-economic culture, government capacity etc. Essentially, experts and consumers were considered as actors central to effective E-waste governance.
My Marie Skłodowska Curie postdoctoral project began with a literature review to identify the relevance and subsequent gaps in the policy literature towards development of an analytical framework. Two set of actors – experts and consumers – were considered as both are central to any efficacious E-waste management and policy initiatives. While concepts such as policy transfer and policy effectiveness aided in evaluating the E-waste governance approaches, ideas like conspicuous consumption, disposable/throwaway society etc. helped me analyse the consumers’ purchase behaviour of electronics, disposal behaviour of E-waste and associated awareness. I performed a comprehensive literature review on E-waste policy responses in the emerging economies particularly focusing on India and South Africa. The review was subsequently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
An ethical clearance was granted by the Sociaal-Maatschappelijke Ethische Commissie (SMEC) - Social and Societal Ethics Committee at KU Leuven before commencing my field research both in India and South Africa. Semi-structured expert interviews were carried out with E-waste experts in India while a detailed consumer survey with more than 1000 respondents was carried out with purposively selected respondents in the city of New Delhi. All the respondents were provided an informed consent form and a participant information sheet. Only with their consent, the study was carried out. Prior to that, I conducted a pilot study in New Delhi for a month in order to assess the feasibility of the study and as a pre-survey measure to finalize and validate the designed questionnaire. The study in India resulted in three research papers. The pilot study was published in the journal, Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Another two papers are under consideration for publication.
The field research in South Africa was unfortunately highly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. After completing all the required formalities such as ethical clearance, I and my supervisor, Prof. Katja Biedenkopf, finalized a detailed plan for field research in South Africa and had scheduled interviews with E-waste experts in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. We also planned to carry out a survey on consumers’ E-waste disposal behaviour and awareness. We started our field trip at Pretoria in March 2020. However, after a few days, we had to stop our trip and come back on advice of KU Leuven and the Belgian Embassy in Pretoria. We could conduct a few expert interviews in the country and almost completed our expert interview schedule via Skype in the subsequent months. We are currently working on a paper on our South African experience which will lead to a comparative paper between Indian and South African E-waste governance scenario. Unfortunately, the consumer survey in the country could not be conducted remotely.
The results of my project have been disseminated through various platforms such as academic conferences, public talks, opinion articles, blog post etc. I have presented my work in five conferences/workshop. A few of the conferences supposed to be held in 2020 had been postponed to 2021. Accordingly, I am expected to present my work in another seven conferences in the coming months. Public talks were a crucial element of my knowledge transfer mechanism during the project. I believe that it is essential to transfer the knowledge both within and beyond the academic audience. I gave a total of eleven public talks over the course of my project. Similar to the public talks, I wrote seven articles on various aspects of E-waste in newspapers, magazines and as blog post. Not restricting myself only to English, I wrote two articles in my native language, Assamese. The purpose was to create wider awareness and greater access to knowledge on an ever-increasing waste stream. Further, I had written a white paper for a think tank named Global Foundation based in New Delhi, India on E-waste management and governance in the country.
A major societal implication of my project has been awareness creation on E-waste concerns. Academic conferences and public talks have been the main medium to transfer my newly acquired knowledge to receptive and associated stakeholders. Moreover, opinion articles and blog posts also have been a part of the knowledge transfer plan. Public talks were given not only in institutes based in major cities, but also in relatively remote places, particularly in India, in order to create widespread awareness. Further, not confining myself to English, I wrote two newspaper articles on E-waste in my native language, Assamese so that the message on the intensity of the E-waste crisis reaches a broader audience. I have taken an endeavour to particularly write a few popular articles on the occasion of International E-waste Day held on 14th October 2020.