Keeping the e-waste genie in the bottle

Shihab Sarkar | Thursday, 22 September 2016

The spectacle of vast tracts of land beside a river lying for decades without even a faint trace of vegetation is now quite common in this country. These lands are made up of the geological constituents of soil, yet they have lost fertility. Due to over-cultivation and the presence of lethal chemicals coming from fertilisers, the soil has lost its age-old ability to grow crops or wild vegetation. This process of the lands going barren is part of the natural cycle. But lately, the country is being made to brace for yet another distressing bout of the previously fertile lands' loss of productivity.
Thanks to the mixing of the soil with residual harmful chemicals and toxic materials, swathes of fertile land are in for catastrophic consequences. The lands will lose their capability to grow the plant life. The hazardous substances are coming from the tonnes of discarded electrical and electronic goods. In the country, these worn-out items are generally dumped into fallow lands having no protective enclosures. The objects, many being byproducts of items used at consumer level, are globally termed electronic waste or e-waste. Over the last two decades, e-waste and the need for their scientific management have come under the national-level spotlight. After changing hands from hawkers to scrap wholesalers, the most non-usable of these objects are found being littered indiscriminately, or thrown away at improvised scrap yards. These yards are fraught with myriad types of dangers --- mostly related to human health. With the entry of electronic gadgets into the rural areas, the relatively developed villages are also experiencing e-waste scourge.        
Few middle-class urban households are found these days that do not have one or two discarded electrical or electronic gadgets lying unused, thus dumped, for years. In most of the cases, the typical of the equipment include mobile handsets, desktops, laptops, tablets, TV sets etc. Heavier items like refrigerators, washing machines, toasters and even fans comprise a major segment of these unusable objects. Of late, the list has included the energy-saving compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs and mercury lights. Old medical equipment also has a dominant share among these discarded items. With the average people not knowing how to dispose of them, these junk items normally end up being stored in the shaded corners of a home. In the houses with space constraints these intricate machines, mostly technology-run, occupy open and vital places within the four walls. These junks are kept in many houses for years on end to rot away slowly.
That these unfixable and discarded household electronic goods never 'die', and keep posing great health hazards to people has long been pointed out. Most of these objects are made of metals, plastic materials and circuits, and metal wires and adhesives, which are harmful to humans. The most hazardous substances used in these items include mercury gas, lead, silicon, tin, resin, fibre glass, cadmium, zinc, chromium, nitrous oxide etc.   If handled lackadaisically and without extra caution, the discarded e-materials can cause scores of ailments, and even premature deaths. Pregnant women and children are the most susceptible to them. These substances never vanish completely, with their residual portions remaining mixed with soil and water. Some of them keep floating in the air. The literally indestructible components of the modern technical wonders affect humans by way of different forms: gaseous toxic substances, dust particulates, drinking water etc. They also transmit through soil and thus mix with crops and the edible in the food chain. Due to their inorganic nature, they are insoluble in water. Fish, and in the process human consumers, turn out to be the final victims.
Before the country was overwhelmed with electronic gadgets and machinery, the major source of toxic waste was the ship-breaking industry. It was followed by the mobile phone technology. In a decade, the cell phone use assumed the proportions of a fever. At the end of February, 2016, the phones' connections reached the mind-boggling figure of 131.085 million, reveals Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) statistics. According to an association of computer experts, every year up to 30 per cent of computers become dysfunctional in the country. The quantity of mobile phones becoming unusable, and thus discarded is anybody's guess.
The work on e-waste management started in earnest in 2014. In that year, a local NGO, funded by Sweden's nature conservation organisation SSNC, released a research paper titled 'E-waste: Present Scenario in Bangladesh'. In the paper, the organisation presented an in-depth portrayal of the state of electronic waste and its management in the country. The research work was based on surveys done in Dhaka and Chittagong from December, 2013 to July, 2014. Electronic goods users, importers, sellers, mechanics and recycling people were interviewed.
The picture that emerged in 2014 has not changed. The earlier stakeholders in the whole e-waste accumulation and its poor management still dominate the scene. It is the hawkers who buy the dumped gadgets or goods from residences and offices, and sell them to designated wholesale traders. Small manufacturers of second-hand electronic items buy from these venues the reusable spare parts, with the rest too-worn-out goods, along with lots of hazardous objects, remain scattered in human habitats. These places include spaces near crop fields, the rivers and water bodies.
The United Nations University and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have lately become vocal on putting restraints on the use of some harmful electronic gadgets. In a joint research, they have expressed concern at the objects' impact on the environment and human health. It's quite natural that the piling up of these discarded items in dilapidated condition has lately emerged as a matter of grave concern among the scientists and health experts in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world. Given the present development spree with dozens of electronically operating juggernauts in the pipe line, the concern in Bangladesh over fallout is a genuine one. For now, what worries the country's experts the most is the increasing use of electronic goods and the fast-rising volume of the objects dumped. As some of them have viewed the problem, unlike domestic waste, electronic waste has already assumed dreadful proportions in Bangladesh. Thanks to the widespread ignorance about the hazard and an appalling lack of deterrent rules and laws, the ominous threat of e-waste looms large. To speak bluntly, the nation's e-waste management activities are still at a preliminary stage. Nobody knows when a law on e-waste management will come out of the confines of rituals and take effect. The state of Bangladesh in this regard appears to be miserably awful when compared to that in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal in South Asia. All these countries have effective laws and regulations on e-waste management.
Bangladesh has grand plans in the making. It's poised to enter the era of nuclear power in the near future. The massive infrastructure linked to it entails foolproof waste disposal. Comprehensive development warrants increased engagement with electronic, nuclear and other advanced technologies. All this might backfire in case we fare sloppily.
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