On 10 June 2021, Bangladesh achieved a critical milestone by implementing its first ever formal policy on e-waste management. Published as the Hazardous Waste (e-waste) Management Rules, 2021 by the Department of Environment, the legislation provides systematic guidelines to manufacturers on the production, storage, treatment and recycling of e-waste, as well as outlining penalties for violations.
Civil society groups and environmental activists across the country have been pushing for formalisation of e-waste management processes for years as the scale of pollution has grown exponentially. In terms of numbers, Bangladesh went from producing 2.8 million tonnes of e-waste in 2009 to 12 million tonnes in 2019 – effectively quadrupling the amount of e-waste generated in 10 years. Of this massive quantity, only 3% is currently being recycled according to the Department of Environment. Overall Bangladesh produces a disproportionately high level of e-waste, accounting for approximately 7% of global e-waste dumped each year. Despite this untenable situation, there continues to be a general lack of awareness of the severity of the problems and their environmental consequences across public and private sectors.
The effects are unsurprisingly dire – the environment has been suffering from catastrophic effects, with disposed waste piling up and leaking contaminants and heavy metals like lead, mercury and copper into soil and water systems and releasing toxic pollutants in the air. In addition, e-waste is being dumped in areas where primarily women and children work in the informal sector, leading not only to environmental degradation but also serious health risks. Recent figures indicate that up to 15% of child labourers exposed to e-waste may die from complications related to poor e-waste management practices, 83% of child labourers suffer long-term health problems, while 36% of women who live adjacent to recycling sites have experienced pregnancy loss. It is clear that if continued, these waste management practices will have devastating impacts on people and ecosystems for generations to come.
APC member Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE) is the only non-governmental organisation in Bangladesh to have implemented a project specifically on e-waste, according to its executive director Ahmed Swapan Mahmud. Determined to make an impact despite the challenging conditions, VOICE has used APC subgrants first to advocate for enactment of the e-waste management rules that were adopted in 2021, and in a second follow-up project between April and September 2022 to review those rules in order to identify strengths and weaknesses, and to offer manufacturers guidance for their implementation. This latter project will be the feature of this article.
[Documentary by VOICE (made with the support of APC) portrays the current state of e-waste generation and management in Bangladesh.]
While the creation of the rules is a critical step forward, the results of VOICE’s research have exposed a massive gap between policy and practice. “What we found during the review is that the level of enforcement is very weak,” Mahmud stated. Though these initial findings are discouraging on the one hand, on the other “there is a huge opportunity,” and this space of potential is precisely where VOICE has been channelling their efforts.
Building a multistakeholder dialogue
The process of setting up a sustainable and enforceable e-waste management system in Bangladesh has begun but has been slow to develop. While some processing plants are collecting e-waste to extract usable parts, this is being done on a very limited scale and the handful of factories dealing with e-waste is inadequate for the amount being generated. “Faster implementation of the e-waste management rules is crucial,” Mahmud emphasised, “and preparedness to enforce the law is a necessity.”
A key step to effective implementation of e-waste management policies is ensuring that there is adequate awareness raising and capacity building, both of which VOICE believes are critical to success. “Many companies are not sensitised appropriately. It’s not that all companies are bad, but sensitisation is important to achieving a level of awareness and moral responsibility,” Mahmud explained. “It’s through interaction that people come to understand things properly, so that is why it is important for us to continue the dialogue with them.”
To that end, VOICE convened a series of meetings between various stakeholders to discuss the e-waste rules and implementation techniques. These brought together the Department of Environment, civil society organisations, policy makers, manufacturers, media representatives and various experts to highlight findings of the new rules and discuss strategies for their implementation. It also led to the formation of an alliance of approximately 20 local and national NGOs who have been participating in various discussions.
In parallel, VOICE conducted an active social media campaign, sharing news, resources and business models for effective e-waste management. This work continues today through the dedication of volunteers. Their analysis was also covered by several media outlets. “Sensitising media and journalists for influencing policy makers and raising awareness among the public on the issue is a must,” according to Mahmud.
Mapping collective responses
Engaging the public is an important part of the strategy, which includes spreading information as well as helping consumers have a better understanding about their options. “We are working in Dhaka, the capital and a metropolis,” Mahmud said. “The penetration [of digital technology] is quite high: out of 160 million people in Dhaka, 130 million are using mobile devices.” Although the trend toward reliance on digital devices is likely to keep increasing, there are ways that companies can work with the public to mitigate some of the environmental damage.
One option is for companies to offer discounts to people who trade in their old devices for new ones, and ensure the old devices are properly treated and recycled. Another is to support repair houses and encourage people to explore ways to extend the lifespan of their existing devices.
At the level of government, Mahmud said that VOICE has a pilot project mapped out, pending funding, to work with the Dhaka city corporation on establishing colour-coded waste receptacles. Using coloured bins for different types of waste, including domestic e-waste, would make it easier for the public to quickly identify appropriate disposal options, and pre-sorting the waste would help recycling facilities ensure it is treated and stored properly.
The central element in all these plans is that effective implementation is not possible without collaboration across all sectors of society, and VOICE continues to seek out ways to bring everyone to the table. “We have a plan to organise a multistakeholder meeting with companies and recycling facility owners, and engage with the public, the policy makers and the environmental department,” Mahmud outlined, “and come out of the discussion with a plan of what we can do together.”
Advocating for the health of the planet
By identifying gaps, reviewing manufacturer compliance and engaging in public awareness campaigns, VOICE continues to mobilise collective action for environmental justice and sustainability. “We need to do advocacy and continue to work with different stakeholders to keep building the evidence,” Mahmud said, emphasising that funders and donor agencies who are committed to addressing environmental sustainability also have an important role to play in providing mechanisms for civil society to engage in this work. “We can draw the attention of funders; they must have policies on e-waste management at the country level. They must address this issue,” Mahmud insisted. “This is also related to global development frameworks like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
The urgency of the situation in Bangladesh is reflected in similar contexts across the planet. As the demand for digital devices grows, policies are in a constant race to catch up, and the environment often suffers in the process. VOICE has researched the effects of this and knows firsthand how crucial it is to work together to implement solutions before it is too late. “This is the environment we’re talking about,” Mahmud reflected. “Once there is devastation, it never comes back in the same way, and everyone should be concerned about this. We must address this issue globally.”
This piece is a version of the information provided by Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE) as part of the project “Research and Advocacy on the Implementation of E-waste Management Act for Environmental Sustainability in Bangladesh”, adapted for the Seeding Change column. This column presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through APC's core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.
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Cover image courtesty of VOICE.