Sustainable electronic waste (also known as e-waste) management is rooted in a scientific method through which economic gain can be generated by extracting precious metals such as copper, gold, silver, palladium, aluminium, and iron from discarded electronic products.
Non-scientific and traditional e-waste management, instead of resulting in gains, leads to economic loss due to an inefficient recycling process and detrimental environmental and health impacts. Efforts are therefore being put in place across countries to make e-waste management practises more scientific and sustainable.
Meanwhile, we must have an in-depth understanding of the value chain of e-waste—the structure, actors, and functions; the roles played by the direct stakeholders; and the interdependency among them—to manage e-waste scientifically and sustainably.
In that pursuit, this is the first of a series of four articles on the e-waste value chain in Bangladesh, shedding light on how the e-waste value chain is structured, who the actors are, and what functions are performed by whom.
E-waste management in Bangladesh is structured in two different but interdependent channels: informal and formal. The informal channel-led e-waste management process is characterised as traditional, rudimentary, unregulated, unscientific, and labour-intensive.
On the contrary, the formal channel manages e-waste scientifically by adhering to e-waste management guidelines and regulations. However, the formal channel has a very minuscule presence in Bangladesh due to its management capacity, which covers only a small percentage of the total e-waste generated by the people of Bangladesh.
E-waste moves throughout the informal and formal channels with the help of a multi-party and multilayer distribution system, making the e-waste management system highly complex. Undefined roles of multi-actors and multidirectional flows of e-waste, disintegrated information, and fund movement throughout the distribution network add further challenges to managing such complex e-waste management in Bangladesh.
Six actors, namely tokai (scavengers), gariwala, feriwala, vangari, e-waste traders, and recyclers, belonging to both the informal and formal channels, are managing e-waste by playing multiple roles in this multi-layered channel system.
Tokai are street children (5 to 15 years of age) who roam around an area to pick up various discarded items (e.g, papers, metal objects, bottles, shoes, and clothes) from streets, dustbins, and dumpsites.
Gariwala are individuals working for themselves or for a small firm and collecting household mixed waste (including e-waste) from residential areas.
Feriwala are individuals either appointed by some cooperatives or self-employed who collect reusable or recyclable discarded items (e.g., electronics and others) from door to door with a basket (to carry) or a three-wheel van from dwellers and many other sources for the purpose of reselling.
Vangari are micro or small-size scrap dealers who are involved in the collection of e-waste, reselling those in the domestic market, and partially dismantling e-waste in an informal way.
Traders are small business enterprises that collect electronic waste and trade it after pre-processing or after dismantling, both in domestic and international markets.
Recycler is the company that collects e-waste and performs all recycling functions in a formal way to extract or produce useful secondary raw materials for other products' productions and produce a final product by using the extracted secondary raw materials.
Three major functions—collection, treatment, and disposal—are performed by both informal and formal e-waste management channels. The informal channel collects both household and industry-discarded e-waste, whereas the formal channel is ratified to collect only industry-discarded e-waste. Both the informal and formal channels deal with hazardous and non-hazardous e-waste.
The level 0 aggregators—tokai, gariwala, and feriwala—collect household discarded e-waste from door-to-door and various other sources and then sell those to level 1 aggregator. Vangari—the level 1 aggregator—collects, stores, and minimally processes e-waste materials. Small-scale e-waste traders or companies—the level 2 aggregators—either engage in further trade (after pre-processing or separation of materials) or recycle the collected e-waste from level 1 aggregators.
Upon collection, the treatment of e-waste is done through a step-by-step process, generally including sorting, disassembly, size reduction, separation by materials, and marketing of recycled products. Though level 0 and level 1 aggregators dominantly play the role of e-waste collectors, many of them are partially involved in partial treatment processes such as sorting and disassembly.
Vangaris, as level 1 aggregators, are, to a certain extent, involved in almost all sub-functions of e-waste treatments, including hazardous materials. However, legally, they are neither entitled to perform all these functions nor deal with hazardous materials. The e-waste treatment by these two levels of aggregator (e.g, levels 0 and 1) is dominantly manual and traditional, also known as 'backyard recycling,' where e-waste is dismantled or burned manually at an open place to extract metals and other precious materials.
Within the level 2 aggregator (e.g., traders and recyclers), there is a minor presence of the formal sector, where a small section of traders and recyclers collect only industry-discarded e-waste and treat or trade or recycle those as per the existing legal guidelines and by adopting a scientific method.
Other traders in level 2, who collect both household and industry-discarded e-waste, perform the treatment functions with the help of a semi-skilled or unskilled labour force (the technical knowledge of this labour force is limited to diploma degrees or apprenticeships) and by using substandard treatment methods of recycling performed at inappropriate recycling infrastructure.
Each stage of e-waste management produces some residuals, mostly moving along the value chain for further reselling and recycling efforts. Despite such efforts, non-adherence to a scientific disposal system is restraining efforts to get maximum value from the residuals of e-waste.
The informal channel-led disposal system is very fundamental, and the scraps from different actors ultimately end up in open landfills after burning them in the open air and or without removing the hazardous residuals.
The formal disposal is challenging, as Bangladesh lacks infrastructure for environmentally sound incineration. In Dhaka, only two landfills (Matuail site and Amin bazar site) serve the disposal needs of both the city corporations (south and north). The Matuail site is expected to reach its capacity soon, and the Amin Bazar site already reached its maximum capacity in 2019.
The city corporations are already overburdened. They are responsible for the management of all sorts of waste but are understaffed to monitor existing waste management procedures, let alone the complex scientific incineration process of e-waste.
There is no denying the fact that the informal channel-led management of e-waste heightens environmental and health risks, among others; however, we cannot also deny the important role that the informal channel is playing by generating economic and social value through the management process of e-waste.
The existing tiny formal channel is neither capable of collecting geographically scattered household and industry-discarded e-waste alone nor has adequate infrastructure and resources to recycle such large-scale e-waste. It is also undeniable that the formalisation of the e-waste management process is the prerequisite for sustainable e-waste management.
Thus, the formalisation decision requires an understanding of what roles both the informal channel and formal channel e-waste management actors are playing and to what extent such roles are contributing positively or negatively to the e-waste value stream. The second article in this series will essentially highlight this.
Nasrin Akter is a professor at the Department of Marketing, Faculty of Business Studies, University of Dhaka.
Muhammad Ismail Hossain is on leave from DU and currently working as Dean of Academic Affairs, Monash and UoL LSE Program at UCB.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.