Swelling e-waste threatens health, environment in Bangladesh

Rashad Ahamad | Published: 23:59, Jan 30,2020 | Updated: 20:57, Jan 31,2020


Bangladesh generates 29.5 lakh tonnes of e-waste annually and it is time that an efficient waste management framework is put in place.— Sony Ramany

E-waste is rapidly swelling in Bangladesh as the use of electronic products has seen an unprecedented rise. While it raises an alarm in a country where waste management has always been inadequate as well as ill-devised, posing serious health and environmental hazards, there is scope for monetising the hazardous but precious wastes through proper administration.  

Green activists are of the opinion that though the mismanagement of the electronic wastes spreading toxicity in the environment and endangering public health, proper management could easily profit businesses and create employment opportunities for many.

The Department of Environment study report estimated that four lakh tonnes electronic and electrical wastes were generated in Bangladesh in 2018 and it was increasing by 20 per cent per year.

The waste would be 46.2 lakh tonnes in 2035, according to the study conducted by the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Three per cent of the generated e-wastes penetrate the market for recycling and the rest 97 per cent go to the landfill, mixed with municipal solid wastes which is very harmful for environment.

Environment and Social Development Organisation, a green organisation campaigning for management of e-waste, differ with the estimation and said that the quantity of waste was higher.

ESDO estimated that 29.5 lakh tonnes of e-waste was generated in the country annually. Less than 10 per cent of the waste was recycled in informal sector which was also hazardous.

Globally 49.8 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2014 alone and it was the fastest growing global waste stream with an annual growth rate of 4-5 per cent.

Shahriar Hossain, secretary general of ESDO, said that for the indifference of the government a huge quantity of e-waste was getting mixed with the soil, water and air which eventually affecting the human body causing deadly diseases.

E-waste is a term used to describe old, end-of-life electronic  appliances and devices, including computers, mobile phones, batteries, TV sets, coffee machines, fridges, air conditioners, photo copiers, ATM machines, monitors, fax machines and copiers, television sets, LCD monitors, laptop, electronic thermometers, lamps or light bulbs, calculators, light switches, audio and video equipment, personal digital assistants and fridges.

All the electronic appliances are thrown away after use as none of the city corporation and municipality of the country were able to develop any mechanism of the waste management.

Popular global brands that enjoy high sales in Bangladesh are Samsung, Apple, Dell, Asus, Lenovo, Microsoft, LG, Sony, Philips, Symphony, Hitachi, Sharp, General, Panasonic, Toshiba, Haier, Mitsubishi, Kelvinator, Midea and Whirlpool.

Bangladeshi electronics brands include Singer, Walton, Jamuna Electronics, Marcel, Eco PLus, Vision, Vigo My One, National, and Minister.

Experts said that haphazard dumping of e-wastes increased serious health and environmental hazards as they contained at least 40 types of metals, including some heavy metals like lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium.

They said that the effects of mercury were brain disorders, kidney, renal and neurological damage, leading to even death, the effects of lead were disabilities, mental retardation, behavioural problems, hearing impairment and the effects of cadmium were lung damage, fragility of bones, high blood pressure, nerve and brain damage, kidney and liver diseases.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University hepatology professor Mamun Al Mahtab said that hazardous heavy metals in e-waste might cause kidney damage, cancer, asthma, nervous breakdown, early hair fall and other serious diseases.

Permissible level of mercury in human body was 1ppm while a CFL bulb contained 20 to 25 milligram mercury, a study unveiled.

DoE report found that only a meagre 3 per cent of the waste was being recycled in informal sector of the country manually in a hazardous way.

But a structured approach to recycling of the waste could turn it into wealth as e-waste contained different precious metals like gold, silver, copper, iron and steel.

DoE director Mirza Shawkat Ali said that the BUET Centre for Environmental and Resource Management conducted a report titled ‘Assessment of Generation of e-waste: its Impact on Environment and Resource Recovery Potential in Bangladesh’, which estimated that gold worth of $22,000 from one tonne e-waste of RAMs and printer circuits.

BUET professor and director of the CERM Rowshan Mamtaz said that some recyclers are collecting e-waste from informal chain, separating valuable parts before exporting them to China, Japan, South Korea and Sri Lanka.

She said that the recycling factories were operating in an unsafe way endangering the life of their staff and environment.

Mamtaz said that management of e-waste requires the involvement of all stakeholders, including producers, importers, users and waste management authority.

‘There should be some specific rules on e-waste management as it was very unlike the general waste,’ she said.

In 2011, the DoE initiated e-waste management rules under the Environment Conservation Act 1995 for safe disposal of hazardous and valuable waste but the rules are yet to applied.

Bangladesh still doesn’t have a guideline to ensure proper e-waste management while Bangladesh’s neighbours, including India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have guidelines for e-waste management, besides the developed countries,.

DoE director Mirza Shawkat Ali said that the rules were waiting for formal publication in a government gazette even after eight long years.

According to the proposed new rules, the government is planning to introduce a cash-back policy for those who return used electronics to the manufacturers and distributors of the products.

The objective of the regulation is to reduce the increasing quantities of electronic waste being disposed of in nature by making consumers return used products to the manufacturers for recycling and reuse.

‘We included extended producers responsibility policy to ensure collection of used electric items by the sellers from users through a competitive price,’ he told New Age.

The rules obliged producers to re-collect 50 per cent of their products within four years.

Green activists said that the problem became widespread due to users leaving the wastes generated by increased use of electronic and electrical appliances in open spaces.

City corporations and municipal authorities are not even aware about the massive electronic and electrical wastes being left in open spaces in the capital and elsewhere in the country every day.

The civic authorities, however, don’t feel worried about the need to allocate resources or develop the manpower for safer disposal of abandoned harmful wastes thinking that they were being recycled in Bangladesh.

But they know that abandoning out-of-order electronic and electrical appliances, or their parts, and leaving them in open spaces increased at a rapid pace in Bangladesh like just other countries.

Officials of Dhaka South City Corporation and Dhaka North City Corporation told New Age that they attached no priority to disposal of electronic and electrical wastes as with their existing manpower and resources they could not even collect and dispose of half of the capital’s domestic wastes.

Bangladesh has a mandate for e-waste management as a signatory of two conventions on hazardous chemicals and wastes.

The conventions are Basel Convention in July 2008 on the control of Trans-boundary Movement of hazardous waste and its disposal and Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants.

According to Global Partnership on Waste Management, e-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in developed as well as in developing countries as the lifespan of the devices shrinks in response to demand for the newest and best choices of the consumers.

Waste Concern executive director AH Maqsood Sinha said that e-waste might become more severe in Bangladesh in the near future as the number of users of electrical and electronic appliances was rising very rapidly but neither the government nor the producers were yet to take any initiatives for their safe disposal.

A very small amount of used electrical goods are recycled in our country by the informal sector and the rest is released into landfills, rivers, ponds, drains, lakes, channels and open spaces.

Improper recycling and recovery methods may have major impacts on the environment. Crude forms of dismantling may often lead to toxic emissions, which pollute the environment, thereby also expose the workers and the public to the harmful materials.

In the capital, slum children are seen collecting e-wastes for recycling at cottage factories in small rooms, New Age visited many of these recycling factories at  Nimtali, Kamrangirchr, Islampur, Dholaikhal, Jinjira, Mohmmadpur, Mirpur and other areas in the capital.

Recycle factory workers said that 20 to 30 per cent of e-wastes were recycled and the rest was dumped in landfills, rivers, drains, lakes, canals and open spaces.

According ESDO report at least 50,000 child workers are involved in e-waste collection and with the recycling process and over 15 per cent of them die during recycling and its aftereffects and over 83 per cent of them fall sick due to exposure to toxics substances.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Experts, developed countries dump millions of tonnes of electronic items in developing countries every year violating ‘The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal,’ adopted in 1989.

Experts said that ‘Import policy Order 2015-2018’ puts an embargo on import of the reconditioned or second-hand items but a number of syndicates in co-operation with government officials continue to import them.

Once, the UN Environment Programme research warned that the involvement of transnational criminal gangs would increase due to the use of such electronics items.

Green activists asked the government to strictly monitor lifespan of e-products, which should not be less than five years, to reduce waste quantity which would also benefit customers.

DoE study also found that to put out cheap products in the market, the producers used low-cost raw materials leading to reduced lifetime and there existed an unwilling on the part of the recyclers to recycle them.

So far 10,504 metric tonnes e-waste was generated by only cell phones as its use was increasing by 100 per cent while laptop use was increased by 50 per cent annually.

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