According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, just 17.4 percent of the total 56.3 million tonnes of abandoned e-waste goods created in 2019 were officially collected and repurposed. The remainder is disposed of in landfills, scrap trade markets, or recycled through informal marketplaces.
After China and the United States (US), India is the third greatest contributor to this vast trash wall, with a massive 1,014,961.21 tonnes created in 2019-2020, only 22.7 percent of which was collected, recycled, or disposed of. Trash Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is a lifeline for the 12.9 million women who work in the informal waste industry because it includes precious recyclable metals, despite the negative consequences it can have on health and the environment.
Inequalities are particularly prominent across the value chain in this mostly gender-neutral sector, which is exacerbated by hurdles in decision-making roles. Recent statistics show that an estimated 0.1 percent of garbage pickers account for India’s urban labour, with women occupying the bottom layers of this economy as collectors and crude separators at disposal sites. Men, predictably, dominate all skilled occupations, including managers, machinery operators, truck drivers, junk merchants, repair workers, and recycling traders.
Workers in the “grey sector” are among the most marginalised, poor, illiterate, and vulnerable people with no social or financial protection. They are routinely sexually abused at their professions and have minimal negotiating power while selling their wares. As cities attempt to formalise the waste sector in order to efficiently regulate wasted items, all of these forces operate upon their exclusion.
Open incineration and acid leeching, which are frequently employed by informal labourers, have a direct environmental effect and pose major health hazards, particularly to infant and maternal health, fertility, lungs, kidneys, and overall well-being. In India, many of these untrained labourers from vulnerable and marginalised communities are unaware that what they call “black plastics” pose serious occupational health risks, particularly when burnt to extract copper and other precious metals for market value.
This ‘tsunami of e-waste rolling out of the planet,’ as stated in an international forum on chemical treaties, creates various health risks for women working in this industry, since they are exposed to residual toxics components primarily in their own homes and frequently in the company of children. Every year, a startling 18 million children, some as young as five, work alongside their families at e-waste dumpsites in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new WHO report. Heavy metals like lead, as well as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like dioxins and flame retardants (PBDEs), have contributed to air, soil, and water contamination.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) highlighted e-waste categorization, extended producer responsibility (EPR), collection objectives, and limitations on imports of hazardous e-waste. The updated Electronic Waste Management Draft Rules 2022, which are set to go into force early next year, have also emphasised the need of improving end-of-life waste across the circular economy. However, these progressive policies lack clear instructions on the role of informal recyclers and have notably overlooked the role of women, leaving a gap in fair growth.
It is worth noting that the Beijing Platform of Action clearly states that a well constructed e-waste processing system may satisfy both economic and environmental goals in order to improve women’s standing in the informal sector. Creating this template in a diverse social and cultural context may allow us to study best practises and success stories from throughout the world. Supply chain ownership: The societal stigma linked to this industry gradually appears in discrimination and loss of dignity. Women do not have ownership at the end of the value chain as material processing unit owners, nor do they have access to financing to establish new businesses.
Educating the uneducated requires more than just building training modules; skill development and raising awareness about e-waste should be designed to function at ground zero, where workers may operate without disturbing their everyday work routines. To create an inclusive e-waste management system, all of these variables, along with a significant absence of gender-disaggregated data, demand allocated gender budgeting.
The notion of the 3Rs, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, as anticipated by Mission LiFE, would require investing in women as drivers of a responsible waste management economy, recognising their vital role in reducing the quantity of waste with the ultimate goal of zero waste.