Experts call for immediate steps to regulate e-waste treatment to avoid consequences
As Bangladesh goes through a tech revolution with growing focus on the ICT sector, there looms the danger of improperly treated e-waste, which is projected to rise exponentially and become a potential threat to the environment and those handling the wastes.
According to a 2018 Department of Environment (DoE) projection, e-wastes are increasing at a rate of 20% every year and by 2035 the total amount is likely to add up to around 4.62 million tons.
At the moment Bangladesh produces 0.3 million tons of e-waste every year. Of them, only three percent reach the giant informal market across the country for reusing and recycling while the rest make their way to landfills and open spaces.
Gone are the days when electronic products were used by a couple of generations of the same family. Tech companies now produce products focused on high efficiency rather than durability, leading to waste generated by electronic appliances and devices becoming a global concern.
A Centre for Environmental and Resource Management (CERM) of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) found that regular electronic devices such as television sets, fridges, laptops and computers are top of the e-waste list in Bangladesh every year.
In fact, scrap collection, which used to be and is still done to a great extent manually now has an online presence.
Many pages and groups exist on the social media platform Facebook, where pages call for people to sell their broken air-conditioners or household appliances.
Meanwhile, an Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO) study claims that the ship breaking industry is the biggest producer of e-waste.
However, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel, as people are becoming slowly aware of the issue.
Swap, an e-commerce platform, buys unused or wrecked electronic gadgets and products from people online and sells them to others after refurbishing.
At the moment, the firm is only aggregating the products on its platform and each month receives around 600 pieces of completely unusable electronic products, which amount to up to 370 kg of e-waste, says the company’s Business Development Manager Ahnaf Mohsin.
Despite many options being there for responsible treatment and collection of e-waste, the sector remains largely untapped and unregulated.
No laws to manage e-waste
Regardless of which sector is the biggest producer of e-waste, people familiar with the matter are of the view that one of the reasons behind the exponential rise is the absence of any concrete laws for waste management in Bangladesh.
Although the Hazardous Waste (e-waste) Management Rules, 2021 was published this year under the Bangladesh Environmental Protection Act, 1995, the government is yet to publish a gazette notification in this regard.
Matuail Landfill Project Director Shafiullah Siddique Bhuiyan says that Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) does not have any separate rules to manage electronic wastes.
He said that although the amount of e-waste dumped at Matuail is quite insignificant, it comes mixed with household and biodegradable wastes.
The official said an action plan, "Integrated Solid Waste Management", funded by JICA was awaiting cabinet clearance and that specific regulations to treat these hazardous wastes would be enacted.
Concerns with e-waste
According to the development platform Eco-Social Development Organization (ESDO), the recycling sector, a largely informal one, employs nearly 50,000 children to collect and process wastes.
Among them, 83% are exposed to toxic materials and 15% die due to the exposure.
What sets electronic wastes apart and makes them dangerous is that unlike other perishable waste, electrical and electronic equipment contain up to a thousand toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, etc., putting those handling the wastes at risk.
The improper treatment of e-wastes has an adverse effect on the environment as well, as they are dumped in the open air and there exists a good chance of leaching and emission of toxic chemicals by rain and wind.
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Burning wires to recover copper in some prominent recycled zones of the capital also cause air pollution by generating toxic chemicals like dioxin and furan.
Buet Civil Engineering Department Professor Rowshon Mamtaz said that a separate system was required for the effective treatment of e-waste.
“Tech is an unavoidable sector for investment in a country's economy like Bangladesh,” she said.
“We are now going through a tech revolution period but very soon we'll start witnessing the dark side of it if e-wastes are not disposed of properly,” she added.
Properly treated e-wastes are a great resource for producing secondary raw materials. For instance, all manufactured mobile phones and computers consume a considerable amount of gold, silver and palladium.
According to the US-based non-profit organisation Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries data, the amount of gold recovered from one ton of e-waste from personal computers is more than that recovered from 17 ton of gold ore.
However, these resources are highly untapped and unregulated as the country has only nine registered recyclers, according to the DoE.
Swap Business Development says that there is a scarcity of environment friendly and efficient e-waste recyclers.
“One of the biggest challenges we face in operating our business is a responsible recycler. Right now, we are amassing the products by ourselves, but we are looking for local and foreign partnerships to recycle the obsolete electronic products,” he said.
The company recently received a seed funding of 1.25 million dollars and is looking to expand its services to home appliances and vehicles section.
Buet Professor Momtaz said that if the DoE regulation was implemented the government could have an official record of these wastes and an effective and eco-friendly recovery of raw materials was plausible.
She said that in European countries, the manufacturers had to bear the responsibility of the created waste from their products.
“They can either do it themselves or have to hire a third party,” she said, adding that Bangladesh should also bring the local producers and importers under such regulations.
Experts say that for a country like Bangladesh, which is making rapid technological progress, it is imperative to take steps to regulate the treatment of e-wastes, which has already become a global concern.