What does e-waste do to people in a developing country?

Man sits in front of space crowded with old computers and other electronics as he works on old motherboard

Bangladeshi man works on old computers in a crowded area. Conditions in this country's e-waste industry are extremely unsafe, Aich says

By Peter Murphy

Published July 3, 2018

Investigating the Bangladeshi e-waste industry

UB researcher Nirupam Aich is working with colleagues in Bangladesh to investigate e-waste and its effect on people’s health. His goal is to one day find a solution to the problem in Bangladesh and other developing countries.

“The reason I wanted to do this, is because today, we often use and change our electronics quite frequently, but the habit is actually harming other people, and we don't know about it. That's the basic motivation.”
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Aich is from Bangladesh and will work with colleagues at the University where he received his Bachelor of Science, the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).

“This is a fifteen-year long vision for me,” says Nirupam Aich, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, who is working with collaborators at UB and the University of Toronto (U of T) in addition to researchers at BUET, to study the effects e-waste industries have on citizens in developing countries. “I am never shocked. I knew this is what we will see, but now we need to know the effects.”

Part of this process is to raise awareness about the issues, and Aich and his team did so with a photo exhibit that was featured at the UB Center for the Arts last semester. In addition to the eight photos at the link, Aich shared 12 more at the show. These photos were taken by his colleague Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, and they depict some of the hazards Bangladeshis encounter on a regular basis while working in either of the two e-waste industries; repair and recycling.

According to Aich, only about 20 – 25% of electronics in developed countries get formally recycled. There are companies throughout the United States and Europe with instruments that dismantle electronics and salvage gold, metals, plastics and other materials without causing any significant harm. This is not the case in many developing countries, including Bangladesh.

“During the (recycling) process, all the products are at end of use,” Aich says, “it’s very hard to make this recycling industry profitable. That is why the rest, the 70-80% of electronics go to developing countries.”

Most of these products arrive in Bangladesh illegally, according to Aich. The United Nations Basel Convention treaty was enacted in 1992 to reduce the transfer waste from developed countries to those that are less developed, and the import of used electronic goods is specifically prohibited in Bangladesh according to the country’s Import Policy Order.

“There are 10 – 15 different countries importing large amounts of e-waste,” Aich says, “places like India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh. For Bangladesh, it’s strange because we haven’t actually figured out the source.”

Bangladesh has the largest shipbreaking industry in the world, and any one of its shipbreaking docks could be the site of illegal import, according to Aich. However, the Digital Bangladesh policy adopted by the country’s government in 2008, could contribute significantly to the e-waste problem.

“They want everyone to have phones, internet, multiple phones. They want everyone to have access to digital technology, and because of that, there is a surge in digital economy,” says Aich, “it is great that the digital boom is happening in Bangladesh, and this helps economic growth significantly. At the same time, we need to be aware of the e-waste pollution.”

The demand to move toward a digital society has created a tremendous amount of demand for electronic products like cellphones, computers, etc. When these products reach end-of-life and can no longer be repaired, they need to be recycled. The recycling process in Bangladesh is far different than the recycling process at some of the state-of-the-art recycling companies in the US and Europe, says Aich.

Children working in Bangladesh's e-waste industry train and work on phone to sell

“He is working and then they are learning (referring to the photo on the left),” says Aich, “they try and refurbish the phones and computers, but if that doesn’t work, they take them apart. These people are living under the poverty line, and the shop owners don’t care about their employees’ health.”

Bangladeshis who work in this industry, often children or teenagers, try and sell different pieces of the electronics to retail shops, or recycle some of the parts. The recycling process is lengthy, and involves shredding, melting and washing. Workers wash the plastics and metals they remove and dump the water into public drains contributing to water pollution. Workers involved in the shredding or melting processes do not wear any protective goggles, gloves or other equipment necessary when dealing with this type of waste.

“The reason I wanted to do this, is because today, we often use and change our electronics quite frequently,” Aich says, “but the habit is actually harming other people, and we don’t know about it. That’s the basic motivation.”

Aich and his team are working to obtain samples of the air, soil and water in and around the repair and recycling facilities to learn what contaminants workers are exposed to. The team from UB, U of T and BUET will also examine the health outcomes of these workers. The researchers have developed technology to help determine the type of contaminants workers are exposed to.

“At the same time, we are interested in the workers, themselves,” Aich says, “we want to understand why they work in these industries, investigate what their salaries are, their education level, where they come from. We have to understand the socioeconomic factors.”

In addition to faculty members from U of T and BUET, Aich is working with Sara Behdad in UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Katarzyna Kordas in UB’s Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health and Nadine Murshid in UB’s School of Social Work.