Two young women in Nagaland are leading a crusade against e-waste

By Sanskrita BharadwajonJan. 17, 2022in Economics and Technologies
The Sowete-u K. Letro and Bendangwala Walling claim that their e-waste collection centre is the first such facility in Nagaland. Photo by e-Circle.
  • Electronic waste (e-waste) is a rapidly growing waste management issue in India and every year thousands of tonnes of waste is left untreated.
  • In Nagaland, two young women, Sowete-u K. Letro and Bendangwala Walling, started the state’s first e-waste collection centre called ‘e-Circle’ in 2018. Since then, they have been sensitising people about the issue of electronic waste.
  • The duo, who were together in school and university, was inspired to take up waste management as a profession while working on a project in the university.

When Sowete-ü K. Letro was growing up in Dimapur, a town in the northeast Indian state of Nagaland, she had a habit of collecting things. The 27-year-old Letro recalls how she was obsessed with not throwing away any of her things including electronic waste (e-waste). Even when a few items would become useless, she would fondly keep them with herself believing she might use them again in the future. “I have been a hoarder all my life,” Letro said.

She is now channelising those habits into doing her bit to protect the environment. Letro and her school friend Bendangwala Walling have set up Nagaland’s first e-waste collection centre ‘e-Circle’.

The duo were also roommates during their university days in Punjab where they both used to bond over their shared love for the environment and Nagaland, their native state. At the university, Letro studied human rights and duties while Walling completed a master’s degree in social work.

Letro did her dissertation on plastic waste management in Chandigarh city and that was when she was introduced to the waste management system. “It was very interesting to learn how this is part of our daily life and how crucial it is for us to manage it,” Letro told Mongabay-India.

Their journey started from there. Both of them then went on to do their summer internship in Shillong with an international company that deals with solid and municipal waste. “We always wanted to do something together,” Walling said.

Both Letro and Walling, who are from Dimapur, came back home and started researching more on waste management. “It is a big term. Everything falls under it. So we decided to concentrate specifically on e-waste,” said Walling while recalling their journey in a conversation with Mongabay-India.

But why e-waste? “Solid waste is vast. It’s not easy to deal with. E-waste is specific as most of it comes from offices, schools, institutions and homes,” Walling explained.

It is estimated that the world produces 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year, according to a United Nations report, but only 20 percent is formally recycled. It observes that much of the waste ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing countries.

In India, the situation is no better. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, in 2018-19, India collected just 10 percent of the e-waste estimated to have been generated across the country while in 2017-18 the figure stood at 3.5 percent. The CPCB report said that India generated 708,445 tonnes of e-waste in 2017-18 and 771,215 tonnes in 2018-19.

E-waste management is crucial for a developing country such as India which has a rapidly growing electronics industry. In 2016, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had notified the E-Waste Management Rules, 2016 to ensure that e-waste is recycled in a proper manner.

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report emphasises that legislation in India has been a driver for the setting up of formal recycling facilities, and there are 312 authorised recyclers in India but formal recycling capacity remains underutilised, as the large majority of the waste is still handled by the informal sector. It, however, noted that “enforcing rules remains a challenge, as do other aspects, such as the lack of proper collection and logistics infrastructure, limited awareness of consumers on the hazards of improper disposal of e-waste, the lack of standards for the collection, dismantling of e-waste and treatment of it, and an inefficient and tedious reporting process.”

How ‘e-Circle’ collects e-waste?

The duo’s e-waste collection centre ‘e-Circle’ is authorised by the Nagaland Pollution Control Board. The entire process for Letro and Walling involves them visiting homes door to door, going to offices and schools and explaining to people about the negative impacts of not managing their e-waste.

“In Dimapur and Kohima, we noticed that people would keep their unused electronic items for days and when they want to get rid of them they will dump it wherever it is convenient for them,” Letro said.

Sowete-ü K. Letro conducting a workshop on e-waste management with the eco-club members of Sazolie College in Kohima, Nagaland. Photo by e-Circle.

When they began collecting e-waste in 2018, they made phone calls to repair shops, offices and institutions before paying a visit. “Sometimes, we just go directly to these places and introduce ourselves. If they allow us then we go check if they have any e-waste, if they do then either they donate it to us or we have to give them a small amount in lieu of the waste. We also provide e-waste donation certificates,” Letro added.

The collection is kept at Letro’s basement and once a substantial amount has been collected, it is transported by truck to Hulladek Recycling Private Limited in Kolkata, an e-waste management company under the state pollution control board that essentially collects e-waste from across the country and channels it for proper recycling.

“E-waste contains certain hazardous substances which if not disposed properly will cause a lot of environmental and health issues. So, there are guidelines as to how those hazardous substances should be removed and how they are supposed to be treated so that they don’t cause any harm to the environment or to the people who are dealing with them,” said Nandan Mall, the founder of Hulladek.

The company is currently active in 14 states and 18 cities of India. In Dimapur, Letro and Walling are the ones who are Hulladek’s partners in collecting e-waste. In northeast India, besides Dimapur, they also have one partner in Agartala in Tripura and another partner in Shillong, Meghalaya, but Mall said that these are still new and at a nascent stage.

Spreading awareness among people also on the agenda

In 2018, e-Circle was able to transport 20 tonnes of waste to Kolkata and they conducted 30 sensitisation programmes across Nagaland. In Dimapur, they have installed e-waste bins in several schools, shops and offices.

When they began, the duo explained that it was difficult for them because they started on their own and had no support from anywhere. They invested their own money and their earnings came from Hulladek who paid them a certain amount of money for the e-waste they were able to collect and send to Kolkata.

Bendangwala Walling (in yellow) after a pick-up drive for e-waste at a school. Photo by e-Circle

But “once they got a hold of things” then it became easier. Now the two of them want to expand to other districts in Nagaland and also collaborate with others from the northeastern region. “It’s a learning process, we are also trying to come up with other ideas,” Letro said.

In February, Letro and Walling were invited by some young students of an eco-club in Phevima village in the Dimapur district of Nagaland.

“They called us up and told us that they would like us to sensitise their village about e-waste. They went to each household and told people that we were visiting to collect their e-waste. Sometimes we are lucky when we come across people like that. But there are some people who require a lot of convincing. We have to say that we are doing something for the environment. We are not making any money out of this,” Walling said.

While the two haven’t been able to generate revenue as most of their earning goes back into managing e-Circle, but whatever money they get from Hulladek helps them in staying afloat without breaking the cycle. But Letro said, “if the COVID-19 pandemic goes on it will be difficult for us to sustain ourselves because after all collecting e-waste is also a means of livelihood for us.”

First published by Mongabay India on 14 Jun. 2021

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