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Global Development Institute

Understanding e-Waste Management in Developing Countries: Building Sustainability in the Indian ICT Sector

Richard Heeks, Logakanthi Subramanian, Carys Jones

Abstract

Management of e-waste is a growing problem for developing countries; one that may undermine the sustainability of ICT use if not addressed. In this paper, we focus on a somewhat under-emphasised group that contributes significantly to developing country e-waste: local organisational consumers of ICT. Although thought to create the majority of e-waste, the factors shaping the e-waste decisions of this group are not well understood.

This paper therefore builds a model of e-waste strategies and e-waste strategy determinants from the environmental management literature. It applies this model to a key e-waste producer – the ICT services sector in India – drawing qualitative fieldwork-based case studies from a mix of very large and small/medium firms.

While the former have been proactive in their e-waste strategy, the SMEs are characterised as indifferent to e-waste; a divergence explained by the very different strengths of determining factors to which they are subject. In turn, those factors relate to the size of these ICT consumers and the nature of value chains into which they are placed. Understanding these determinants can help us plan better e-waste interventions; a point illustrated through critique of recently-introduced legislation.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What is e-waste and why is it seen as a problem for developing countries?  [Section A]
  2. How can we characterise e-waste strategies and e-waste strategy determinants?  [Section B]
  3. In what ways do e-waste strategies differ between very large organisations and SMEs in the Indian ICT services sector?  [Section D]
  4. In what ways do e-waste strategy determinants differ between very large organisations and SMEs in the Indian ICT services sector?  [Section D]
  5. Why do very large organisations and SMEs in the Indian ICT services sector differ in their e-waste strategies?  [Section E]
  6. What should be done to improve e-waste management in the Indian ICT services sector?  [Section E]

Development questions

  1. Why has the narrative on e-waste in developing countries been dominated by stories about international trade in e-waste, and about informal sector processing of e-waste?
  2. Is the environmental management literature an appropriate starting point for conceptualising e-waste management?  Are there other literatures that could or should be used instead?
  3. What other research methods could have been used to investigate e-waste management in developing countries?
  4. Do the findings described here depend too heavily on believing that what interviewees say about e-waste is true?
  5. If you were running an environmental NGO in India that was concerned about e-waste, how would you use the findings from this paper to inform your actions?
  6. What other key questions do we need answered about e-waste in developing countries?