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OP-ED: Digital waste threatens public health

  • Published at 03:57 am July 20th, 2021

The lack of regulation in e-waste management puts millions at risk


In Bangladesh, a lack of policy, awareness, and enforcement of e-waste management threatens human health and the environment.

E-waste, or electronic waste, is created from affordable digital technology, home appliances, and also refrigerators and air-conditioners, which are no longer deemed as luxury goods.

The quality of products is deliberately compromised to keep the price competitive. The compromise in the quality of products, mostly from Chinese sources to meet the demand of the new generation’s consumers, has dramatically increased the sale of electronic products, which have engulfed both urban and rural life like an octopus. Digital life has penetrated deep among both rich and poor communities and cut across all professions.

Technology has shown unprecedented growth in application in the social and economic landscape -- like delivering trade and public services, harnessing financial inclusion and e-commerce, and supporting marginalized groups and communities.

According to Bangladesh Electronic Machinery Marketing Association (BEMMA), the country consumes around 3.2 million tonnes of electronic products each year.

Dr Shahriar Hossain, General Secretary of the Environmental and Social Development Organization (ESDO) says that every year, 2.8 million metric tons of e-waste is generated in Bangladesh. An estimated 20% to 30% is recycled and the rest is dumped as obsolete in open places, which is hazardous to human health and the environment.

The major challenge is the management of e-waste, which contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, copper, cadmium, beryllium, barium, and others. It threatens public health and the environment. E-waste also contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) during the recycling of e-waste.

Bangladesh has opened up imports of cheap digital devices to complement its political vision of Digital Bangladesh by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The vision demands that the vicious cycle of the digital divide be broken. Simultaneously, it wants to enhance its potential in key development sectors like education, health, communication, and other areas.

The plan envisages to ensure transparency and accountability to strengthen democracy and keep corruption in check. Apparently, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel in enabling zero-tolerance in corruption.

The vision inspired private and public agencies to promote mass utilization of digital devices, which has also increased the volume of e-waste from 2.81 million tons in 2009 to 12 million tons in 2019.

The informal sector of e-waste collection is from the consumer’s end. Some reusable metals are crudely extracted and the rest are dumped into landfills, farmlands, and open water bodies. Unregulated by government agencies, informal e-waste recycling has created jobs for 30 million children and women, who are exposed to hazardous substances.

Despite Bangladesh being a signatory to the Basel Convention on Trans-Boundary Movements of Hazardous Waste, there is no specific environmental policy, law, or guideline to regulate e-waste management. A draft regulation on “E-Waste Management Rules” was developed and amended in 2011 and 2017 respectively under the Environment Conservation Act, 1995, but regrettably no progress is visible.

Sadly, there is no mention in the rules to trade-off e-waste and its management.

Ahmed Swapan Mahmud, executive director of Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE), compared e-waste to “slow poison” and said that the damage to the environment and public health is permanent.

The environmental consequence, as well as the emission factors of millions of tons of e-waste, is largely unknown by government agencies. 

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.