E-waste Management in the Digital Age: Embracing Circularity in Consumer Electronics

LightCastle Analytics Wing
August 30, 2023
E-waste Management in the Digital Age: Embracing Circularity in Consumer Electronics

Bangladesh, with its middle and affluent class growing at an impressive 10.5% (Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, 2023), has been racing ahead as one of the region’s fastest-growing consumer markets in Asia. Owing to the increasing purchasing power, along with digitalization, the usage of electronic appliances has been on the rise throughout our nation.

As of June 2023, the digital horizon has flourished, boasting a staggering 129.4 million internet subscribers (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, 2023). This rise can be attributed to the emergence of a number of digital services apart from social media, including over-the-top media, gaming, online learning platforms, and so on (Hasan, 2023).

Yet, amid the excitement of this digital age, there’s an important question we should address: What happens to our environment, especially when these devices approach the end of their life cycles?

E-waste and its Challenges

Due to the improper disposal of electronic devices, which include everything starting from old TV sets to battery-operated children’s toys – Bangladesh ends up generating a whopping 3 million metric tonnes (MMT) of e-waste every year, over 2.7 million metric tonnes of which come from the shipbreaking industry alone. This makes the country one of the largest junkyards of e-waste in Asia (Hridoy Roy, 2022).

To make matters worse, developed countries such as the UK, Germany, and the United States, to name a few, have been dumping electronic scraps in the developing and least-developed countries such as Bangladesh for decades (Shahriar Hossain, 2011).

Fig. 1:  Proportion of E-waste Generated per Year by the Category of Electronic Equipment
Fig. 1: Proportion of E-waste Generated per Year by the Category of Electronic Equipment

Apart from the shipbreaking industry, we can see that the largest contributor of E-waste in Bangladesh is the electronic gadgets that we use, especially computer accessories that account for almost half the country’s E-waste in terms of consumer electronics.

Think about your old gadgets – they might seem harmless, but they serve as secret carriers of trouble. E-waste, the electronics we throw away, contains toxic substances like lead, mercury, and other harmful chemicals. When we toss the electronics in landfills or open areas, those chemicals can slip into the ground, harming the soil and the plants that grow in it. Even worse, these can end up in our food through the plants we eat!

Furthermore, informal recycling shops called “bhangari(s)” often use improper methods of recycling, which involve burning or dismantling electronic devices to extract valuable materials. These activities release toxic fumes and pollutants into the air. The inhalation of these pollutants can have detrimental effects on the respiratory system, contribute to the overall degradation of air quality, and present significant health risks to both workers and nearby communities (Marfua Mowla, 2021).

Additionally, in these scrapyards, workers use their hands and hammers to tackle electronic devices, all without protective masks. Some even work barefoot, with the dusty floor touching their skin directly. But that’s not all – the dust they stir up, full of metal, glass, and plastic, often ends up outside the shops or near drains. And as if that wasn’t enough, discarded circuit boards and crushed parts pile up outside, mixing with the soil and water, causing environmental pollution (Marfua Mowla, 2021).

The Need for a Circular Economy

All these issues highlight the necessity for a circular economy – a system where we don’t just discard used electronics, but repurpose them. For instance, we extract components like metal, plastic, and other parts from old mobiles or computers and repurpose them to make more gadgets (Ahmed, 2023). This approach can significantly reduce the amount of electronic components that end up as trash.

The repurposing of end-of-life electronics plays a pivotal role in cutting down carbon emissions. When we de so, we’re not just saving old gadgets – we’re also preserving the resources needed to craft new ones. This strategy helps reduce energy usage, which in turn curbs carbon emissions, leaving our environment cleaner and greener.

Why is managing e-waste a race against time? Each year, the pile of e-waste keeps getting bigger, and we can’t ignore it. According to Professor Rowson Mamtaz from BUET, the Department of Environment (DOE) is in for a challenge – handling a whopping 1.33 million tons of e-waste in just three years, including the accumulated waste from previous years. What makes matters worse that only 3% of that pile is getting recycled right now, and the actual amount of e-waste could be even more (Aziz, 2022).

Regulations Facing E-waste Management

Given the growing concern, Bangladesh has recognized the importance of addressing e-waste and aligning its efforts with the Sustainable Development Goals. The responsible management of e-waste contributes to several SDGs, including Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), Goal 3 (Good Health and Well-being), and Goal 15 (Life on Land). In this regard, the Department of Environment (DOE) has set a goal of managing at least 50% of the country’s e-waste in 5 years, with a target of managing 10% in the first year.

With this in mind, the government of Bangladesh introduced the E-waste Management Rule on June 10, 2021, 10 years after the creation of the first draft in 2011. The rule includes limitations on the use of certain heavy metals and substances, applicable to manufacturers and importers. They will also be liable to collect the e-waste generated from their operations. The E-waste Management Rule is currently being reviewed by the WTO before being implemented.

However, the delay in implementing this regulation, even two years after its introduction, can be attributed to several countries, like China, Russia, the USA, Japan, and South Korea, who have been pushing for a one-year extension. The big question is: Why? Well, these countries are big players in Bangladesh’s electronics market. Because of their influence, the e-waste recycling industry continues to be unregulated. (Aziz, 2022)

E-waste Management in Action: Reuse, Recycle, Remake

On a brighter note, even in the midst of the unregulated e-waste scene, some organizations are stepping up to tackle the challenge, one step at a time.

Fig. 2:  Current E-Waste Management Scenario
Fig. 2:  Current E-waste Management Scenario

Reuse: The large consumer electronics market worth USD 2.4 billion as of 2020, with a growth rate of 15% per annum, has opened up the scope for re-commerce. Given more than 126 million internet users, the widespread adoption of the internet also contributed in this regard.

Introducing SWAP – a platform that facilitates the buying and selling of both new and previously used gadgets. Parvez Hossain, the CEO and Co-founder of SWAP, claims they sell around 7000-8000 second-hand e-gadgets each month. But here’s the twist: Getting a fair price for used gadgets is still a challenge in the re-commerce world. As a result, despite the presence of electronic goods worth approximately BDT 200 billion that could be resold, the market remains rather untapped.

Recycle: As per Md. Abul Kalam Azad, a number of recycling companies in Bangladesh serve to extract components such as fibre, metal, and plastic from unusable mobile handsets, PCBs (printed circuit boards) of computers or CRT monitors; the components are later reused in the production of similar products. (Ahmed, 2023) Despite the market gap and the export opportunities, the e-waste recycling market still remains rather untapped, with only 3% of the total e-waste being recycled.

Remake: Earlier this year, Walton rolled in with exchange deals for Air Conditioners earlier this year (New Age, 2023). Singer’s on board too, offering exchanges for Refrigerators, TVs, Washing Machines, Microwave Ovens, and Sewing Machines in their New Year Campaign (Dhaka Tribune, 2023). Their goal is to reuse the valuable parts from old electronics in making newer ones, at a much lower cost.

However, previously Walton had found themselves in trouble after offering take-back offers on refrigerators. Because only specific parts of the used refrigerators were of use to Walton, they had to find a way to dispose of the rest of the parts, for instance, the insulation made of foam. This added to their costs, causing this campaign to be rather ineffective.

The Way Forward

Even with the current efforts being made, only 3% of E-waste is being recycled right now, which means there is still plenty of scope in the e-waste management sector. Only through concerted efforts of the government, organizations as well as individuals can we reach a solution for this issue. 

Fig.3: Recommendations for E-Waste Management
Fig.3: Recommendations for E-waste Management

Various strategies have been highlighted to combat the e-waste challenge, presenting a roadmap for action. However, it is imperative for the government to provide support for most of these initiatives, such as by facilitating awareness campaigns, establishing and monitoring legislations regarding the right to repair, EPR and manufacturers’ accountability, and helping to build integrated waste facilities in major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong.

On the other hand, manufacturers have a dual role: driving progress from their end and motivating consumers to join the cause. Initiatives like refundable deposit fees or advance disposal fees can nudge consumers towards responsible e-waste management by covering recycling costs.

However, consumer responsibility is only possible when there is public awareness regarding the dangers of e-waste. Unfortunately, as per a survey conducted on 915 individuals regarding consumers’ perception of e-waste recycling and management in Bangladesh, over 66% of the respondents had little to no idea about the concept of recycling e-waste.

Additionally, almost 40% of the respondents were unwilling to pay to take responsibility for e-waste, which can be further backed by the fact that the majority of the respondents believe e-waste management to be the government’s responsibility only (Anan Ashrabi Ananno, 2021).

Fig. 4: Level of Consumer Awareness Regarding E-waste
Fig. 4: Level of Consumer Awareness Regarding E-waste

Furthermore, there would be very little point in implementing measures aimed at encouraging consumers to return their end-of-life products until and unless a proper recycling mechanism has been established first. As a result, a wiser strategy would be to position consumer-centric measures within a longer-term vision. Such measures are likely to gain more ground once the awareness campaigns begin to yield the desired outcomes, and proper recycling mechanisms have been put in action.

Additionally, since the current scenario sees e-waste primarily managed by the informal sector, to truly ensure systemic change within the industry, we must empower these informal recycling shops and establish a formal, documented network of waste collectors and recyclers.

Achieving sustainability requires a multi-faceted approach: spreading awareness, strengthening the informal sector, facilitating a nationwide collection network, implementing supportive policies for recyclers and producers, and enforcing regulations rigorously. This collective effort ensures that everyone involved benefits, ensuring the long-term success of these measures.

To speak for the success of the recommendations mentioned, it is by implementing such similar measures that Europe has achieved the status of the highest e-waste collector in the world, despite being the second largest generator of e-waste globally (Baldé, 2017).

While matching European standards may be a stretch, with collective efforts and determination, we, too, can move towards our goal of achieving a more sustainable economy, all the while enjoying digitalization without its downsides. We’re in for a win-win situation: cleaner air to breathe in, as well as exciting economic prospects with affordable technology and a vast export market for recycled components.

In conclusion, addressing the challenges of e-waste management requires a multi-faceted approach that involves cooperation from various stakeholders. Through the abovementioned legislations and facilities, Bangladesh can pave the way for a more sustainable and responsible e-waste management system. By working together, we can significantly reduce the environmental impact of e-waste and create a cleaner, healthier future for our country.


This article was authored by Raisa Mahjabin, a Content Writer at LightCastle Partners. Advisory and editorial support was provided by Nazmus Sadat, Co-founder and Circular Economy Specialist, BD Recycle Technologies Ltd. (BRTL), and Samiha Anwar, Business Consultant at LightCastle Partners. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]


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WRITTEN BY: LightCastle Analytics Wing

At LightCastle, we take a systemic and data-driven approach to create opportunities for growth and impact. We are an international management consulting firm which creates systemic and data-driven opportunities for growth and impact in emerging markets. By collaborating with development partners and leveraging the power of the private sector, we strive to boost economies, inspire businesses, and change lives at scale.

For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

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