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Electronic Waste and Sustainable Development Goals: What it means for Businesses in India

Management of e-waste becomes complex, and potentially damaging to economy, society and environment if not done properly, because of presence of many valuable, rare earth, and toxic metals

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We all use different types of electrical and electronic appliances (EEA) like mobile phones, computers, air conditioners etc. at our homes and work places. Worldwide consumption of such EEA lately has been fueled by factors like growth of internet, technological advances, continued growth of services sector, rising disposable incomes, changing consumer preferences and decreasing lifespan of consumer electronic goods. Although it is a sign of happy consumption in a materialistic world order, the flip-side of it has brought along some negative externalities in the form of pile-up of electronic waste (e-waste). Annual global generation of e-waste are soon expected to touch 50 million tons mark and the corresponding figure for India has now crossed 1.5 million tons. 

Management of e-waste becomes complex, and potentially damaging to economy, society and environment if not done properly, because of presence of many valuable, rare earth, and toxic metals. The e-waste management rules in India, introduced first in 2011 and later amended in 2016, make businesses responsible for managing e-waste. Though the main responsibility has been placed on producers of EEA, but other responsibilities have also been placed bulk consumers (which use EEA in large quantities, e.g. companies, offices and establishments etc.).

Global concerns on climate change and current unsustainable growth patterns led United Nations to announce introduction of seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) in October 2015 wherein accountability has been put on businesses, governments, and civil society to pursue a more sustainable path. After the introduction of SDGs, businesses world over, including technology giants like Dell, GE, Google, and Microsoft are in the process of strategizing to align their businesses to focus on one or more SDGs. Given these two contexts of e-waste and SDGs, it is worthwhile to explore if large Indian firms, who are also bulk consumers of electronic products, are displaying an integrated approach towards electronic waste management and sustainability, and is there really a business case for aligning e-waste management with sustainable development goals (SDGs)?

In a recent analysis carried out by us, we find that some SDGs have a direct bearing with e-waste management in India. SDG number 6 on clean water and sanitation aims at improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping & minimizing exposure to hazardous chemicals and materials to protect and restore water related ecosystems, and istherefore relevant for firms looking at safe handling of e-waste. Another SDG meant for responsible consumption and production (SDG number 12) aims at sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, environmentally sound management of chemicals and control of all wastes through their life cycle and even this has importantrepercussions for the firms looking holistically at the e-waste management. Other aspects of this SDG like reduction of waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse is directly related with business sustainability which is also a clear business case. So are firms in India displaying an integrated approach towards e-waste?

Our recent study on the Sensex 30 firms indicates many of these firms have not integrated their e-waste management with sustainability policies and strategies and hence a long road towards interlinking the same needs to be travelled by them. Another analysis to understand the business case for aligning e-waste management with sustainable development goals reveals some interesting facts. Based purely on the environmental policy perspective, extending responsibility of waste management to the firms by using instruments like EPR can motivate them to integrate waste disposal costs at product design stage itself. This is in line with the sustainable development goal number 12 emphasizing on responsible consumption and production. Based on the development school of thought in macromarketing, it makes sense for the firms to discuss EPR as a vital part of solution to the problems of environmental degradation due to their business actions. In fact following such actions by the firms that touches upon almost their entire value chain leads ultimately to the sustainable way of doing the business.

Indian firms could take a leaf from global giants like Google and Intel in having an integrated sustainability strategy aligned with SDGs. For example, Google has identified four SDGs, SDG 4(ensure education), SDG 8(promote economic growth and decent work), SDG 9 (build infrastructure and foster innovation), and SDG 17(strengthen means of implementation) as key focus areas; while Intel has identified three SDGs, SDG 4, SDG 8, and SDG 12 as aligned with its strategy. So instead of seeing strategies for e-waste management and SDGs as two separate and non-connected strategies, Indian firms can adopt an holistic and integrated approach towards the two and reap multiple benefits in years to come.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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E-Waste Management Rules e-waste

Kalyan Bhaskar

Kalyan is a faculty in the Strategic Management Area at XLRI- Xavier School of Management Jamshedpur. He teaches courses on business sustainability and public policy and his current research interests include e-waste management and renewable energy

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Bipul Kumar

Bipul is a faculty in the Marketing Area at Indian Institute of Management Indore. His research interests include business-to-business marketing and the interface of sustainability and marketing management

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