Management of medical, electronic waste involves no easy solutions

New rules notified by the environment ministry for the management of electronic waste (e-waste) and biomedical waste, though markedly better than the earlier norms, seem to fall short on some key issues. The most critical among these is that, despite easing of goals, their execution may be difficult. Both electronic and medical waste are highly hazardous for human health as well as the environment and, therefore, need to be disposed of in a safe and scientifically sound manner. But existing capacity and expertise in this field are limited. A sizeable amount of this waste either remains untreated or is handled by the unorganised sector in the most clumsy and crude manner.


In the case of e-waste management, the government has relaxed targets set in the extended producer responsibility to collect and dismantle their age-expired products. The manufacturers, importers and other suppliers of electronic goods are now obliged to get back for proper disposal just 10 per cent of their refuse in the first year (2017-18) and raise this level by 10 per cent every year until 2023. After 2023, the annual target for retrieval and disposal will be 70 per cent. Though the industry has welcomed the new goals, the overall objective of mitigating health and environmental risks will be served only partly. The unprocessed trash will keep accumulating with individual and small-scale users of these items whose count runs into millions. The informal sector will have to be involved in a big way in this task. The need is to encourage the emergence of private waste treatment enterprises and also to launch a massive programme of training waste-pickers in the safe handling of discarded electronic devices.


The case of biomedical trash, which can be more harmful to human and animal health than e-waste, is no different. The government has, in the new policy, given such waste generators more time to phase out the use of chlorinated plastic bags, gloves and blood bags and for setting up facilities for on-site pre-treatment (disinfection and sterilisation) of medical waste as prescribed by the World Health Organisation. Hospitals, veterinary clinics and other healthcare outlets have also been given one year’s time to set up facilities for bar-coding and global positioning systems (GPS) to track the movement of their medical litter in accordance with guidelines issued by the Central Pollution Control Board. The idea is to allow the medical sector to be prepared for implementing the new garbage disposal guidelines without any interruption in their services.


However, it is doubtful whether they will be able to do so within the given timeframe. Many in the health industry are of the view that there is no suitable alternative to chlorinated plastic bags, which emit toxic gases on incineration. Bar-coding and GPS tracking may also be difficult for most medical facilities, barring big government and private hospitals. Besides, the absence of Internet services in remote places may pose another formidable hurdle. In any case, small-scale healthcare facilities may need liberal government assistance, both technical and financial, for this purpose. Nevertheless, the task has to be undertaken to prevent infectious medical waste from being mixed with general garbage and ending up in landfill sites. That would be perilous.

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