No risk management despite rise in e-waste

The government has no specific updated data on how much e-waste is produced, destroyed and mixed with soil in Bangladesh every year.File photo

Fifty-two-year-old Kamrul Islam runs a scrap shop in Chunkutia of Dhaka’s Keraniganj. Right now, there are about 20 damaged mobile phones, seven old refrigerators and 13 televisions at his shop. Yet, he has no knowledge of e-waste.

Kamrul Islam told Prothom Alo he himself sorts out the batteries, circuits, plastic casing, etc. from the electronic equipment. He melts some of these in fire and he sells this. He has never used protective gear during his 18 years of business. He has now developed lung problems. His hands itch and have become discoloured.

Huge amounts of old electronic equipment including mobile phones, computers, laptops, televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners and photostat machines are disposed of every year. But there is no environment-friendly or official management system for this electronic equipment. They often end up in the dumpster with household waste.

People and experts say electronic equipment contains chemicals including lead, silicon, tin, cadmium, mercury, zinc, chromium and nitrous oxide. These chemicals contaminate the soil and water. They enter into human body in various ways, posing as a risk of various diseases, especially harmful to expectant mothers and children.

Professor Iffat Ara Shamsad, head of the paediatrics department at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, told Prothom Alo e-waste can cause premature birth, underweight infants or even stillbirth. Lead from e-waste causes severe nerve damage to newborn babies. Children suffer from serious respiratory, thyroid and heart diseases as well as cancer because of such contamination, she added.

Amount of e-waste

The government has no updated records on how much e-waste is produced, destroyed and mixed with the soil in Bangladesh every year. The environment department prepared a report in 2018. It said 400,000 tonnes of electrical and electronics waste was created in 2018. Only three per cent of it was recycled with the remaining 97 per cent was dumped. The report said e-waste increases by 20 per cent a year and will rise to 4.6 million (46 lakh) tonnes by 2035.

E-waste has become a big concern globally. According to Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), global e-waste increases by 21 per cent in five year. There were 53.6 billion (5,360 crore) kg of e-waste in 2019 with 17.4 per cent of it being recycled. More e-waste is being produced in low and middle-income countries.

The World Health Organization, on 15 June, released a report titled “Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health”.

Effective and binding action is urgently required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is jeopardised by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices, the UN agency said.

“With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting “tsunami of e-waste”, putting lives and health at risk.” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. "In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource –the health of our children – from the growing threat of e-waste.”

As many as 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk. Meanwhile more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as 5 years of age, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a sub-sector.

WHO said children are often engaged by parents or caregivers in e-waste recycling because their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults. Other children live, go to school and play near e-waste recycling centres where high levels of toxic chemicals, mostly lead and mercury, can damage their intellectual abilities.

There is a great lack of awareness on e-waste among people. Many don’t know about its detrimental effect. Anusree Chakma from the capital’s Adabar said there are four old and damaged mobile phones at her house. “One day in the morning, I found the battery of a mobile phone melting. It was oozing foul-smelling liquid. The liquid fell on my hand and I developed a boil,” she added.

What the government is doing

Discussion on the risk of e-waste started 10-15 years ago. Meantime, the Department of Environment formulated a set of rules titled “Risky waste (e-waste) management” under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995. A gazette was published on 10 June.

It said from now on, manufacturing and assembling companies will have to take back the e-waste produced from electrical and electronic products. The consumers will get paid in return of any damaged electrical and electronic products ranging from mobile phone to laptop. A target has been set stating companies will collect 50 per cent of the e-waste in next five years.

The rules sets threshold limits for use of hazardous substances in 71 electrical and electronic household appliances and medical equipment in five categories. It, however, contains no certain provisions on the transportation of e-waste. Only the section no. 18 states environment-friendly method will be followed for transportation of e-waste.

Mirza Shawkat Ali, director (climate change and international convention) of the environment department, was involved in the formulation of the e-waste rule. He told Prothom Alo the rule is formulated to ensure proper management of e-waste. An initiative would be taken to inform the people involved in the sector about the new rule. A workshop will be organised for the people from importing, manufacturing and assembling companies, he added.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has taken initiative to formulate a guideline on e-waste management and re-cycling in telecommunication sector. The BTRC released a draft guideline on its website and sought public opinion.

The BTRC in a press release on its website said huge import and manufacture of telecommunication products is creating huge e-waste. Environment and bio-diversity of the country faces damage every day because of e-waste. To face this adverse environment, an initiative has been taken to formulate that guideline.

The director of Center for Atmospheric Pollution Studies (CAPS) at Stamford University, professor Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder said Bangladesh has turned into a garbage dump of e-waste. People frequently change various devices including televisions and smartphones here. Since there is no government initiative, most of the old equipment isn’t recycled. This damages environment and health, he added.

He further said the rule formulated by the environment department doesn’t mention anything about what should be done to reduce the risk of e-waste, distribution of the work to be carried out by the responsible organisations and agencies, which authority will claim compensation, testing of imported electrical and electrical products and what should be done on e-waste management related to laboratories. Besides, health and safety issues of the people involved in e-waste transportation and destruction remains out of the purview of the rule, he added.

What do manufacturers say?

There has long been a discussion on the return of used electronic products. Fair Electronics Limited, a local electronic product manufacturer, said they had taken several initiatives on e-waste management. It included collecting old and ineffective mobile phones and returning those to the respective companies listed in the commerce ministry. Mobile phone manufacturing and assembling companies are reusing them.

Chief marketing officer of Fair Electronics Limited Meshbah Uddin said, “We had collected old mobile phone from households. A campaign was run too. Later those were delivered to the phone companies.”

An initiative was planned to fix a specific location at malls for e-waste management. It had been stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic, he added.

Profitable business

Several local companies now collect various parts from e-waste and recycle them. Some companies export too. Azizul Recycling and E-Waste Company, based in Fatulla of Narayanganj, has been recycling various electronic appliances including computers, televisions and mobile phones since 2013. The company processes three to four tonnes of waste daily at its factory.

Chairman of the company Abul Kalam Azad said people are increasingly depending on various devices including computers and laptops, resulting in rise of e-waste. Processing of e-waste can be a profitable business, he added.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna