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.