05/07: E-Scrap Recycling in Dhaka

The following essay is an abstract for my final studio. The research studio was led by Stephen Kieran, James Timberlake, Jacob Mans and assisted by Billie Faircloth, all of the architecture firm KieranTimberlake. The final review will be tomorrow, May 8th in their offices.

Computers and cell phones provide massive improvements in connectivity and productivity, but also represent a substantial negative environmental impact. Both new and used electronics (functioning and not) are imported to Bangladesh, destined for sale or for the informal refurbishing and dismantling market. Concentrated in and around Old Dhaka, small informal firms cluster and specialize in fixing or breaking down different components of different electronic equipment. Electronic equipment, especially batteries and monitors, are large sources of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Exposure to these elements can cause brain disorders, learning disabilities, lung damage, nerve damage, kidney and liver disease, hearing impairment, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. Without regulatory oversight these small firms do not use any personal protection when processing material and take little to no precautions when disposing of low value components or byproducts, which can include acidic waste water with high concentrations of heavy metals. In Bangladesh, low wages and increased use of electronics will cause informal recycling of e-scrap to steadily increase. Recycling e-scrap has many benefits, as it provides upwards of 60,000 jobs in Dhaka, and offers affordable refurbished electronics for those unable to afford new imports. Informal recycling reduces solid waste and provides affordable sources of plastics and precious metals for domestic manufacturing of plastic household goods and even jewelry. Intervening in this system of recycling requires acknowledging and maintaining its strengths while addressing these toxic risks.

How can formal interventions reduce environmental impacts and improve economic welfare in the informal e-scrap sector? The informal sector does a good job collecting and dismantling defunct electronics, and should be paired with a formal network to collect material with toxic content (circuit boards, batteries, monitors, etc). Existing logistic networks will be employed to bring these materials out of dense and overcrowded residential neighborhoods and sent to the Tongi Industrial Estate just north of Dhaka. There, material will be shredded, sorted and melted into plastic, metals and glass, all under internationally certified ‘best-practices’. This recycled material will then be sold to distributors and supply local manufacturers. The recycling factory will include refurbishing facilities, and offer training and certification to refurbishers and dismantlers. Dust, fumes and waste water will be captured and treated on site, and a vegetative buffer will help mitigate the factory’s impact on its industrial surroundings. The factory itself will strive to limit demand for electricity by using passive cooling techniques and a combined heating and power generation system. Construction will focus on low maintenance requirements and a safe and healthy work environment. As the volume of discarded electronics increase, new certified shredding facilities can open up around Dhaka to process and forward metals to Tongi to be refined into ore. Former recycling sites in Old Dhaka could be remediated and converted to community computer literacy training facilities. This project would operate under the social business model championed by Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus, helping to better engage the informal sector and to integrate worker and environmental safety and health. 



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