A Refreshing "Victimless, Villainless" Assessment of E-Waste in Chennai India: Naveed Ahmed Sekar

Mobile Consumption and Disposal in Chennai Metropolitan Region India (2017 Naveed Ahmed, Brandenburg University of Technology, Germany)

This short analysis of "e-waste" phones in the rapidly emerging market of Chennai (Tamil Nadu), India, is the kind of abstract approach that could make a good model for other products and other cities.  

Once again, it shows the "circular economy" is heliocentric, and does not revolve around Europe.  Telephones sold to families in India (4 phones average per household in Chennai) are not thrown into the sea.  The secondary market is not "competing against" the legitimate scrap market.

Instead, Naveed shows the issue is reluctance to let go of devices. When people remember the purchase as a great sacrifice, they hesitate to believe it is eventually worth only the sum of its raw materials.  This leads to the same "hoarding" documented by Massachusetts DEP in the 1990s.





That's a very different thing from being "quickly discarded in landfills".  As I said on the panel in Salzburg, in my experience, poor people are less likely to throw copper away than rich people.  EU may lose the copper to China after it comes out of the drawers in Chennai, but reuse in India is not the same as throwing the cell phone in the ocean, or an American dumpster.



Naveed's study of mobile phone use and retention in India fits patterns observed in Ghana and Massachusetts (2000 JTR Research on CRT Infrastructure).  It's difficult to estimate years of life of used goods from date of import to date of discard.  

What is less difficult is to use census data showing household teledensity - use of internet, mobile phones, television and radio broadcast, etc.  What led to the establishment of Fair Trade Recycling was the realization that teledensity in 3B3K nations was increasing at a rate far greater than new device sales in those nations could possibly explain. In that paradigm, the teledensity in Asia, Africa, or Latin America is predicted not by sales of new goods in those countries, but rather by "elective upgrade" in rich countries.   Read that whole paragraph, and notice there's no "waste" or "externalization of pollution".  It's externalisation of value.

Depreciation in poor countries occurs differently than depreciation in wealthy places.

Human consumers tend to believe, rationally or not, that a past purchase retains more value than it does.  So it's not hard to identify that a VCR being scrapped in Agbogbloshie was imported 30 years earlier, but difficult to say for how many of those years it was actually in use.  I would hope that researchers find Naveed's experience and approach to Chennai, India, as refreshingly absent of certainty about such a question.  The research displays no bias or "angle", no victim or villain.  It is just the facts about Chennai as an urban mine.  

There is a big German grant to Ghana to build a "state of the art" e-waste plant there, and nothing has started yet.  The investors might find that they would need Naveed's research skills to assess the domestic Ghana "urban mine" market.


Naveedh Ahmed,
Masters in Environmental and Resource Management,
Brandenburg University of Technology,
Germany.

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