Transforming from a gadget to waste


Transforming from a gadget to waste


— TechWorldBD24

Bangladesh generates about 2.7 million tonnes of e-waste annually, which is expected to double by 2030. The rapid urbanisation and growing population, coupled with a high demand for e-products, make the country more susceptible to the adverse impacts of e-waste, writes Md Zahurul Al Mamun

IN OUR technology-driven world, electronic devices have become ubiquitous, driven by technological advancements, rising incomes and global accessibility. Innovation and trade have made electronics affordable and accessible in every corner of the planet. However, this convenience comes at a cost — electronic waste or e-waste. The exponential growth of e-waste generation globally is driven by rapid technological advancements, planned obsolescence, lack of repairability and reusability options and the insatiable demand for the latest gadgets. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, the world produced 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019, equivalent to the weight of 7,300 Eiffel Towers. It also predicts that the global e-waste generation will reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030 and about 120 million tonnes by 2050, making it the fastest-growing waste stream globally.

Bangladesh is not immune to the problem of e-waste. According to a study by the Department of Environment, Centre for Environmental and Resource Management and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Bangladesh generates about 2.7 million tonnes of e-waste annually, which is expected to double by 2030. The rapid urbanisation and growing population, coupled with a high demand for e-products, make the country more susceptible to the adverse impacts of e-waste. On International E-Waste Day today, let’s delve into this issue, explore its multifaceted impacts and discuss potential solutions.

 

What is e-waste?

ELECTRONIC waste or e-waste is the term that refers to any electrical or electronic devices that have been discarded as waste without any intention of reusing them, are unwanted by their owner or have reached the end of their useful life or become obsolete. E-waste covers a wide range of discarded electronic devices and gadgets, such as computers, mobile phones, TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners, fluorescent lamps, batteries and more. These devices contain valuable materials, including rare earth materials, gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lithium, ceramic, metals, plastics and glass.

However, the current linear model for production and consumption contributes to the growing e-waste problem. Most e-products are not designed to last long or to be repaired easily, and they are becoming more complex and challenging to repair. At the same time, products have also become cheaper, making it attractive for consumers to buy new and discard used ones. All these factors combined lead to more e-waste. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report shows that only 17.4 per cent of the e-waste generated in 2019 was collected and recycled properly, while the rest was either dumped in landfills or burned in informal settings.

 

Hidden threat of e-waste

On environment: E-waste poses a severe threat to environmental and human health due to the presence of toxic and hazardous materials and improper disposal practices. E-waste contains not only valuable materials but also hazardous substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, yttrium, chromium, beryllium, nickel, arsenic, antimony trioxide, tin, polyvinyl chloride, Halogenated and brominated flame retardants.

Toxic chemicals can leach into the soil and affect its quality and fertility when e-waste is dumped in landfills to decay. This can make the soil less suitable for growing plants and crops, polluting the entire value chain and reducing the biodiversity of soil organisms, like bacteria, fungi and worms, crucial for nutrient cycling and decomposition. According to a report by UNEP, e-waste is responsible for 70 per cent of the toxic chemicals found in landfills, which can contaminate the soil and groundwater and threaten food security and livelihoods.

Water pollution is another major issue caused by e-waste. When e-waste is exposed to rain or floods, it can release toxic substances such as heavy metals, organic pollutants and pathogens into surface and groundwater sources, reducing water quality and availability for drinking, irrigation, and supporting aquatic life. This pollution can also increase freshwater scarcity and the risk of waterborne diseases.

Lastly, air pollution is another significant concern from e-waste. Burning or incinerating e-waste releases toxic and harmful gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Burning e-waste can produce ground-level ozone. This occurs when volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans react with sunlight, causing acid rain and smog. Handling and inhaling toxic substances from e-waste can pose significant health risks and increase mortality.

On humans: E-waste is a serious health problem affecting millions worldwide due to its toxic substances. The World Health Organisation has estimated that exposure to e-waste can result in a multitude of health problems, including respiratory infections, skin diseases, eye irritation, headaches, nausea, fatigue, an increased risk of cancer and neurological disorders. These health risks are particularly pronounced for informal workers who handle e-waste without proper equipment, training and protection and use primitive methods like breaking or burning to extract valuable materials. These workers often work in dangerous conditions and are exposed to dangerous chemicals, heavy metals and toxic air to retrieve precious metals to support their families. Children and pregnant women working in this sector are especially more vulnerable to the effects of e-waste exposure, which can impair their growth development cognitive abilities.

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On climate change: Electronic waste is a significant environmental issue that has far-reaching implications for climate change. E-waste releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons when burned or dumped in landfills. These emissions contribute to the increasing frequency of natural disasters and heat waves. E-waste plays a vital role in GHG emissions during production, use and disposal. E-products require considerable energy and resources to extract and process raw materials. This generates CO2 and other GHG emissions during production. For instance, one laptop emits over 220 kilogram of carbon dioxide during manufacturing.

Additionally, e-products consume electricity to run, which also generates emissions depending on the energy source. According to a report by the International Energy Agency, the global electricity consumption of information and communication technologies was 1,100 terawatt-hours in 2018, accounting for about 3.7 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Finally, the disposal of e-waste can release GHG when burned or dumped in landfills. In 2019, e-waste contributed to a global carbon footprint of 98 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents, similar to Belgium’s annual emissions, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report.

Resource depletion: E-waste is a goldmine of secondary raw materials, including precious metals like gold, copper, nickel and rare materials like indium and palladium, which have strategic value. These materials can be repurposed and recycled to create new products, reducing the need for mining, saving energy and water, and generating income and employment. A 2016 study by the United Nations University estimated that e-waste contained 7.7 per cent of the global gold supply, equivalent to 112.3 tonnes of gold. However, improper e-waste disposal leads to the loss of valuable materials and increased environmental and social problems. Wasting these resources also increases the demand for raw material extraction and production, which can negatively impact deforestation, land degradation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and human rights violations.

 

Challenges in e-waste landscape

BANGLADESH is grappling with a surge in e-waste generation due to population growth, urbanisation, consumer behaviour, freelancing and internet access. Despite various policies and regulatory frameworks introduced to manage this issue, a comprehensive and integrated approach to the e-waste situation is lacking. Inadequate infrastructure, lack of effective multi-stakeholder engagement and insufficient investment make it even more difficult.

Regulatory shortcomings: The current law on e-waste management, the Hazardous Waste (e-waste) Management Rules 2021 under the Bangladesh Environmental Protection Act, 1995, is inadequate and poorly enforced. It does not cover all aspects of e-waste management. They lack specific methods and standards for e-waste collection, transportation, storage, recycling and disposal. It also does not define the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, such as government agencies, producers, importers, retailers, collectors, recyclers and consumers. There is also a lack of coordination among different stakeholders and a lack of transparency and accountability in the system, which could lead to inconsistency, inefficiency and non-compliance among stakeholders involved in e-waste management.

Lack of producer responsibility: The producers, assemblers, importers or exporters of e-products have no incentives or mechanisms to adopt eco-design principles or extended producer responsibility schemes in Bangladesh. Extended producer responsibility is a policy approach that requires producers to take responsibility for their products at end-of-life by paying for the collection or treatment of their products or providing information or guidance to consumers on how to dispose of them. Extended producer responsibility also encourages producers to design more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable products. However, producer responsibility is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh. Producers, assemblers, importers or exporters face no consequences or rewards for their products at end-of-life. They have no obligation to pay for the collection or treatment of their products, provide information or guidance to consumers on how to dispose of them or design durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable products.

Inadequate recycling facilities: Bangladesh also faces a significant challenge in managing e-waste due to the lack of adequate facilities for collecting, transporting, storing, treating and recycling it. There are no set standards or criteria for e-waste recycling or disposal facilities. Most of the existing facilities are informal and unregulated. Furthermore, there are no specific requirements or guidelines on how these facilities should operate, what technologies they should use, what outputs they should produce or what emissions they should control. This lack of proper safety measures or waste management practices increases the risk of pollution and accidents, further compounding the problem.

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Informal e-waste sector: The informal e-waste management sector in Bangladesh is a significant challenge for environmental and social sustainability. This sector handles about 80 per cent of the e-waste generated in the country but operates without legal recognition or regulation. The informal workers, mostly poor and uneducated, collect, dismantle, repair, refurbish or trade e-waste using primitive methods and tools. They are unaware of the health and environmental risks posed by the toxic and hazardous materials present in e-waste. They also lack proper equipment, training or protection to handle e-waste safely and efficiently. As a result, they expose themselves and their communities to various diseases and injuries and pollute the soil, water, and air with e-waste contaminants.

Consumer engagement: Consumers or end-users of e-products play a vital role in e-waste management, but they are often neglected or uninformed. According to current rules and regulations, consumers should return their discarded or unused products to authorised traders, sellers or collection centres, but they are not given any guidance, education or motivation. Consumers also have no economic incentive to recycle their e-waste, as they do not receive any compensation or reward for their participation. Many consumers are unaware of the environmental and health impacts of e-waste and the benefits of recycling. They also lack information on how and where to dispose of their e-waste properly. They often throw away their e-waste with other household waste or sell it to informal collectors without realising they are contributing to environmental pollution and health hazards.

 

What can be done?

A data-driven roadmap: Bangladesh must adopt a data-driven approach to tackle the growing e-waste problem and avoid future catastrophes. This approach should be based on a comprehensive assessment of the country’s current and projected e-waste generation and management, aligning with international standards and best practices. A national inventory and database should be established to track e-waste generation, collection, transportation, recycling and disposal. A comprehensive legal framework should also be developed to regulate all aspects of e-waste management.

The framework should clearly define the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, such as government agencies, producers, importers, retailers, collectors, recyclers and consumers, to ensure transparency and accountability. As part of this, producers, importers, retailers, collectors and recyclers should register with authorities and report their activities. Clear and measurable targets for e-waste collection and recycling are essential for tracking e-waste movement and disposal, ensuring compliance with environmental standards and best practices. Additionally, they can provide valuable data and information on e-waste generation and management that can be used for planning and decision-making. Investing in infrastructure and technology for safe and efficient e-waste collection, transportation, recycling and disposal is crucial to address this issue effectively.

Extended producer responsibility: Extended Producer Responsibility is a practical solution to reduce the environmental impact of production and consumption. It requires producers and importers to collect and recycle their products at the end of their life cycle, incentivising companies to design durable, repairable and recyclable products. Producer responsibility can take many forms, such as mandatory take-back schemes, deposit-refund systems, advance disposal fees or eco-labels. The decision by the EU to switch from a proprietary port to a USB C is a great example of extended producer responsibility. As a result, Apple introduced USB C ports in their iPhone 15 model, which reduces the burden on consumers and the government in managing e-waste.

Another solution that could be implemented is a green tax or fee system that charges producers based on the environmental performance of their products. The green tax or fee system could use a rating system that evaluates the products according to various criteria, like energy consumption, hazardous substance content, recyclability, repairability, etc. The higher the rating, the lower the tax or fee. The revenue from the green tax or fee system could be used to fund e-waste management activities or support green innovation. A common platform for producers, importers, retailers and consumers could enable seamless collection, recycling and safe disposal of electronic devices. This could help create a market for recycled materials and stimulate innovation in product design and recycling technology.

Circular economy: To tackle the growing e-waste problem, we must adopt a circular economy approach that prioritises resource efficiency and minimisation. E-waste recycling can be a sustainable way to create green jobs, promote a circular economy and reduce waste. This approach involves using products, parts and materials for as long as possible and viewing waste as a valuable resource. The circular economy model for electronics offers numerous benefits, including resource conservation, environmental impact reduction, value recovery and climate change mitigation. Implementing a circular economy for e-waste could lower GHG emissions, conserve natural resources, create new jobs, enhance competitiveness, generate income, promote social equity, and reduce health risks. A World Bank study estimated that implementing a circular economy for e-waste could generate an annual net benefit of $62 billion for Bangladesh by 2050 compared to the current development path.

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Recycling facilities: A potential solution to address the issue of e-waste in Bangladesh is to establish a certification system for e-waste recycling or disposal facilities. This system would require facilities to meet minimum standards and criteria for operation, technology, output and emission. The government should establish clear procedures for granting environmental clearance certificates based on compliance with environmental and occupational health and safety standards. According to a report by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, only 10 per cent of the e-waste facilities in Bangladesh have environmental clearance certificates from the Department of Environment, while the rest operate without legal authorisation or monitoring. The system should ensure adequate equipment and technology to handle hazardous substances safely and separate or recover different materials. The government should also conduct regular inspections and audits to ensure proper operation and performance and impose penalties or sanctions for non-compliance or violations. This system can ensure the quality and safety of e-waste facilities, prevent pollution or accidents, and protect workers’ rights. The certification system could follow international best practices and standards, such as the e-Stewards or R2 standards for e-waste recyclers.

Informal sector: Recognising and integrating the informal sector workers into the formal e-waste management system is crucial. They should receive incentives, training, certification and support. Enhancing the capacity and safety of both formal and informal e-waste recyclers by providing them with technical assistance, financial incentives and protective equipment is also important. This can help them improve their practices, reduce health and environmental risks and increase income and social status. Developing formal sector facilities for safe and efficient collection, transportation, dismantling and recycling of e-waste, complying with environmental standards and providing decent employment opportunities can reduce the reliance on informal sector workers and increase the recovery rate of valuable materials from e-waste.

Consumers: A nationwide campaign on e-waste awareness and action targeting consumers or end-users could be launched to address the gap in e-waste management. Through awareness campaigns, incentive schemes, convenient collection systems and feedback mechanisms, consumers should be empowered. The campaign could use various media channels to educate consumers about the environmental and health impacts of improper e-waste disposal and the benefits of reducing, reusing and recycling electronic devices. This can encourage consumers to adopt eco-friendly practices like buying energy-efficient products, extending device lifespan, donating or selling old devices and disposing of e-waste at authorised collection points. Consumers should also be given economic incentives or rewards for returning their discarded or unused products to authorised traders, sellers, or collection centres. A survey by the Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development found that 74 per cent of the consumers in Bangladesh were unaware of the proper disposal methods of e-waste, and 64 per cent were willing to participate in e-waste awareness campaigns.

Public-private partnership: Promoting public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder collaboration among government agencies, producers, importers, retailers, collectors, recyclers, NGOs and consumers to establish a sustainable and inclusive system of e-waste management is another solution. This can help to create a shared vision and responsibility, mobilise resources and expertise and ensure transparency and accountability. Strengthening regional and international cooperation on e-waste management to share knowledge, experiences, resources and solutions is also beneficial.

Research and innovation: To improve data collection, develop technology and add value to e-waste, we must encourage research and innovation in e-waste management. This will help us better understand the e-waste situation in Bangladesh, find the best practices and solutions for managing e-waste and create new economic and social development opportunities. We can also work towards a zero-carbon economy focusing on climate change education, research and innovation by encouraging innovation and research on new products, processes and business models that reduce e-waste generation and enhance resource recovery.

 

Conclusion

E-WASTE management is not just an environmental concern; it’s an economic opportunity and a matter of social justice. E-waste is a global problem that requires local solutions. A comprehensive approach founded on data, technology, regulation, research and innovation is essential for a sustainable and prosperous zero-carbon future where e-waste is managed responsibly. In doing so, Bangladesh can contribute to several Sustainable Development Goals, primarily SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and SDG 13 (Climate Action), while creating a world where climate action is evidence-based and tailored to local needs. Together, we can build a future where the adverse impacts of e-waste are minimised, benefiting both people and the planet.

 

Md Zahurul Al Mamun is an independent climate researcher.



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