"Back then, gold was priced at Tk3,000 per bhori, a motherboard would cost around Tk10-15 thousand, and a complete computer would not be available for less than Tk1 lakh," Akbar Ali was reminiscing about 1984.
Akbar acquired his hardware servicing skills during the era when DOS (disk-based operating system) computers were prevalent. Saqlain, his mentor, used to visit different offices to repair computers, with Akbar assisting him.
Akbar gradually took over the work. During this period, there was a bar named Golden Gate on Elephant Road, under which Akbar independently repaired an office computer for the first time.
The rise of e-waste
There was a time when computer mechanics demanded visiting fees akin to doctors. The customer had to pay Tk500 to find out where it was damaged. Then if one wanted to fix it, they had to come to an agreement for a certain amount of money.
A few spare parts shops were on Elephant Road. At that time, computers did not have a presence in every household, there were only big foreign offices, banks and some local institutions. Using a computer, one could write letters and create log sheets, among other things. RAM would have been 264 kilobytes, 512 kilobytes at most.
Gradually, computers amalgamated the functionalities of a television, calculator, ink pen, and book, essentially serving as an all-in-one playground. People diligently saved their earnings to acquire a computer, funds that were previously earmarked for land registry or the purchase of gold jewellery.
Simultaneously, the usage of mobile phones continued to rise. The utilisation of electronic appliances within households, including microwave ovens, toasters, and blenders, also witnessed a notable surge.
Consequently, the generation of electronic waste escalated rapidly. However, prior to the 2000s, such concerns were not yet perceived in the same light as they are today.
Aslam Sheikh first noticed the issue of e-waste in 2001. He used to deal in old furniture in Segunbagichar's carpet lane. When Aslam saw that people don't understand what to do with useless mobiles and computers, he realised that there is a new day ahead for him.
People didn't even want to keep those things in the house because it was a waste of space. As new models came on top of it, people's interest in old models was also decreasing. At that time these wastes were sold at Tk20-30 per kg.
Nevertheless, the term "e-waste" had become prevalent worldwide by that time, and concerns regarding it were on the rise. This was due to the presence of various metals and chemicals, including mercury, lead, zinc, arsenic, and oxides, which posed a threat to the environment when they mixed with air and water.
These pollutants dispersed through the air, affecting respiratory health, mingled with the soil, disrupting plant growth, and, if penetrating deeper, led to arsenic contamination in water.
As a consequence, the issue of e-waste disposal, processing, and recycling inevitably took centre stage in the country. Aslam initiated contact with major entities such as mobile importers, telephone companies, foreign corporations, and banks, all of which accumulated substantial amounts of e-waste and were open to selling.
Aslam aimed to negotiate a contract price rather than a fixed one. While the institutions were amenable, complications arose regarding compliance with rules and regulations. Aslam needed various licences, including a trade licence, TIN certificate, and clearance from the Department of Environment, a process that consumed a considerable amount of time.
Expressing his frustration, Aslam remarked, "We require 14 licences for this business, with an annual renewal cost of Tk10 lakh. Initially, there was joy in the business as dismantling a computer yielded a significant amount of metal. Motherboards were approximately a foot in length.
"However, over time, the size of circuits, motherboards, chips, processors, and RAM kept decreasing. Consequently, despite breaking numerous devices, the availability of metal materials such as iron, aluminium, or copper dwindled."
As time passed, the volume of waste grew, but the availability of valuable substances decreased. Fortunately, there has been a heightened awareness among people. Consequently, rather than indiscriminately discarding waste, individuals now wait for waste collectors, who traverse the streets in vans for collection.
Even though we may not purchase these items directly, they find their way into the recycling process. These items are commonly referred to as local goods and are often sold in areas like Chankharpul or Elephant Road.
Just at the entrance of Chankharpool, you'll find Shakil Enterprise. Abdullah, a 22-23-year-old, occupies the shop. Several motherboard screws adorn the end wall of the establishment, showcasing Abdullah's hobby of assembling old motherboards.
Abdullah mentioned that the shop operates from 10 am to 10 pm and receives e-waste from all across the country, including mobiles, computers, and household products. On a daily basis, he purchases goods amounting to Tk20-22 thousand.
While I was speaking to him, a thin person wearing a cap entered the shop with a bag over his shoulder. He extracted three motherboards from the bag – one for a mobile phone and the other two for a computer.
At a glance, Abdullah declared, "This one is out of order. The other two are functioning." He then paid the man Tk180, and the man left without uttering a word.
I inquired about how Abdullah distinguishes between useless and active items. Abdullah explained, "I have acquired my knowledge through observation, having been engaged in this trade since my childhood without pursuing formal education."
Similar to Shakil Enterprise, there are 7-8 shops in Chankharpool dealing with e-waste. Some specialise in dealing exclusively with motherboards or RAM. However, Shuvo Enterprise, owned by Akbar Ali, deals with nearly all old electronic products.
Akbar Ali possesses extensive knowledge of computer hardware, a skill that was rare to find in the eighties and nineties. Nevertheless, with the advent of new technologies, one can make educated guesses by examining the processor's timeline.
Akbar Ali mentioned, "I completed my education up to the eighth standard and learned hardware work through observation. I can discern which components are where and which ones are functional.
"However, nowadays, it's wiser to purchase a new model instead of repairing the old one. It may cost a bit more, but you get the latest technology. Consequently, I became unemployed and now support my family by trading e-waste."
He further added that in their operations, the power supply unit, processor, or motherboard is dismantled solely with a screwdriver. Due to space constraints, they do not separate the metal, and they haven't acquired the technique to do so. Despite these limitations, large companies collect goods from their establishments. Chittagong Road, Shanir Akhra, or Rayer Bagh are locations where establishments export e-waste abroad.
Dholaipar, known for processing various types of waste, has a long history of operation, making it easy to find experienced workers. E-waste disposal, though a relatively new task, is considered less challenging than other forms of waste recycling, involving small-scale casting and welding.
Smelting is also conducted every once in a while. Despite the lack of these complex processes, there is substantial earning potential for both business owners and the government.
Mohammad Al Faisal, the general manager of Zaman Enterprise, emphasises the significant employment opportunities being generated in the sector. He highlights the revenue potential for the government as well.
However, challenges arise when the required products to fill at least one container for export are unavailable, leading to increased waiting times and higher warehouse rents.
Despite increased public awareness, only 3-5 percent of waste is currently collected for processing, with the remaining 95 percent destined for disposal in landfill.
According to a survey by the Department of Environment, e-waste generated in the country was 4 lakh metric tonnes in 2018, which rose to 12 lakh tonnes five years later in 2023. It is estimated that the figure could reach to crores by 2035.