by Peter Murphy
Published December 7, 2018
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.
“This is a 15-year-long vision for me,” says Aich, 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 involves raising awareness about the issues, and Aich and his team did so with a photo exhibition in the Center for the Arts last semester as part of Sustainability Month. These photos, taken by Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, depict some of the hazards Bangladeshis encounter on a regular basis while working in either of the two e-waste industries: repair and recycling.
Aich says only about 20 to 25 percent 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, however, 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 to 80 percent of electronics, go to developing countries.”
Most of these products arrive in Bangladesh illegally, he explains. The United Nations Basel Convention treaty was enacted in 1992 to reduce the transfer of 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 to 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 ship breaking, or ship demolition, industry in the world, and any one of its ship breaking docks could be the site of illegal import, Aich says. 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,” Aich says. “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 and computers. When these products reach their 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 U.S. and Europe, Aich says.
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 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 UB colleagues Sara Behdad, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering; Katarzyna Kordas, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health; and Nadine Murshid, assistant professor of social work.