Electronic waste

Electronic waste
Defective and obsolete electronic equipment.

Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. There is a lack of consensus as to whether the term should apply to resale, reuse, and refurbishing industries, or only to product that cannot be used for its intended purpose. Informal processing of electronic waste in developing countries may cause serious health and pollution problems, though these countries are also most likely to reuse and repair electronics. Some electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, may contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Even in developed countries recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to workers and communities and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaching of material such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes. Scrap industry and USA EPA officials agree that materials should be managed with caution, but many[weasel words] believe that environmental dangers of used electronics have been exaggerated.



A fragment of discarded circuit board

"Electronic waste" may be defined as discarded computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, television sets and refrigerators. This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal. Others define the re-usables (working and repairable electronics) and secondary scrap (copper, steel, plastic, etc.) to be "commodities", and reserve the term "waste" for residue or material which is dumped by the buyer rather than recycled, including residue from reuse and recycling operations. Because loads of surplus electronics are frequently commingled (good, recyclable, and non-recyclable), several public policy advocates apply the term "e-waste" broadly to all surplus electronics. Cathode ray tubes (CRT) are considered one of the hardest types to recycle.[1] CRTs have relatively high concentration of lead and phosphors (not phosphorus), both of which are necessary for the display. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes discarded CRT monitors in its category of "hazardous household waste"[2] but considers CRTs that have been set aside for testing to be commodities if they are not discarded, speculatively accumulated, or left unprotected from weather and other damage.

Debate continues over the distinction between "commodity" and "waste" electronics definitions. Some exporters are accused of deliberately leaving difficult-to-recycle, obsolete, or non-repairable equipment mixed in loads of working equipment (though this may also come through ignorance, or to avoid more costly treatment processes). Protectionists may broaden the definition of "waste" electronics in order to protect domestic markets from working secondary equipment. The high value of the computer recycling subset of electronic waste (working and reusable laptops, desktops, and components like RAM) can help pay the cost of transportation for a larger number of worthless pieces than can be achieved with display devices, which have less (or negative) scrap value. In A 2011 Report, "Ghana E-Waste Country Assessment"[3], found that of 215,000 tons of electronics imported to Ghana, 30% were brand new and 70% were used. Of the used product, the study concluded that 15% was not reused and was scrapped or discarded. This contrasts with published but uncredited claims that 80% of the imports into Ghana were being burned in primitive conditions.


Rapid changes in technology, changes in media (tapes, software, MP3), falling prices, and planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste around the globe. Dave Kruch, CEO of Cash For Laptops, regards electronic waste as a "rapidly expanding" issue.[4] Technical solutions are available, but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied. Display units (CRT, LCD, LED monitors), Processors (CPU chips, RAM), and audio components have different useful lives. Processors are most frequently outdated (by software) and are more likely to become "e-waste", while display units are most often replaced while working without repair attempts, due to changes in wealthy nation appetites for new display technology.

An estimated 50 million tons of E-waste are produced each year[citation needed]. The USA discards 30 million computers each year and 100 million phones are disposed of in Europe each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 15-20% of e-waste is recycled, the rest of these electronics go directly into landfills and incinerators."EPA estimates for 2006-7". http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm. .

According to a report by UNEP titled, "Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources," the amount of e-waste being produced - including mobile phones and computers - could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in some countries, such as India.[5] The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons each year.[6] China already produces about 2.3 million tons (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.[6]

Electrical waste contains hazardous but also valuable and scarce materials. Up to 60 elements can be found in complex electronics.

In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.[7][8]

While there is agreement that the number of discarded electronic devices is increasing, there is considerable disagreement about the relative risk (compared to automobile scrap, for example), and strong disagreement whether curtailing trade in used electronics will improve conditions, or make them worse. According to an article in Motherboard, attempts to restrict the trade have driven reputable companies out of the supply chain, with unintended consequences. [9]

Global trade issues

Electronic waste is often exported to developing countries.
4.5-volt, D, C, AA, AAA, AAAA, A23, 9-volt, CR2032 and LR44 cells are all recyclable in most countries.

One theory is that increased regulation of electronic waste and concern over the environmental harm in mature economies creates an economic disincentive to remove residues prior to export. Critics of trade in used electronics maintain that it is too easy for brokers calling themselves recyclers to export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, such as China, [10] India and parts of Africa, thus avoiding the expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes (the processing of which is expensive and difficult). The developing countries are becoming big dump yards of e-waste. Proponents of international trade point to the success of fair trade programs in other industries, where cooperation has led creation of sustainable jobs, and can bring affordable technology in countries where repair and reuse rates are higher.

Defenders of the trade in used electronics say that extraction of metals from virgin mining has also been shifted to developing countries. Hard-rock mining of copper, silver, gold and other materials extracted from electronics is considered far more environmentally damaging than the recycling of those materials. They also state that repair and reuse of computers and televisions has become a "lost art" in wealthier nations, and that refurbishing has traditionally been a path to development. South Korea, Taiwan, and southern China all excelled in finding "retained value" in used goods, and in some cases have set up billion-dollar industries in refurbishing used ink cartridges, single-use cameras, and working CRTs. Refurbishing has traditionally been a threat to established manufacturing, and simple protectionism explains some criticism of the trade. Works like "The Waste Makers" by Vance Packard explain some of the criticism of exports of working product, for example the ban on import of tested working Pentium 4 laptops to China, or the bans on export of used surplus working electronics by Japan.

Opponents of surplus electronics exports argue that lower environmental and labor standards, cheap labor, and the relatively high value of recovered raw materials leads to a transfer of pollution-generating activities, such as burning of copper wire. In China, Malaysia, India, Kenya, and various African countries, electronic waste is being sent to these countries for processing, sometimes illegally. Many surplus laptops are routed to developing nations as "dumping grounds for e-waste".[4] Because the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention or its Ban Amendment, and has no domestic laws forbidding the export of toxic waste, the Basel Action Network estimates that about 80% of the electronic waste directed to recycling in the U.S. does not get recycled there at all, but is put on container ships and sent to countries such as China.[11][12][13][14] This figure is disputed as an exaggeration by the EPA, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, and the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association. Independent research by Arizona State University showed that 87-88% of imported used computers did not have a higher value than the best value of the constituent materials they contained, and that "the official trade in end-of-life computers is thus driven by reuse as opposed to recycling".[15]

Guiyu in the Shantou region of China, Delhi and Bangalore in India as well as the Agbogbloshie site near Accra, Ghana have electronic waste processing areas.[11][16][17] Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal causes a variety of environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution, or even water pollution either by immediate discharge or due to surface runoff (especially near coastal areas), as well as health problems including occupational safety and health effects among those directly and indirectly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste. Thousands of men, women, and children are employed in highly polluting, primitive recycling technologies, extracting the metals, toners, and plastics from computers and other electronic waste. Recent studies show that 7 out of 10 children in this region have too much lead in their blood.[citation needed]

Proponents of the trade say growth of internet access is a stronger correlation to trade than poverty. Haiti is poor and closer to the port of New York than southeast Asia, but far more electronic waste is exported from New York to Asia than to Haiti. Thousands of men, women, and children are employed in reuse, refurbishing, repair, and remanufacturing, unsustainable industries in decline in developed countries. Denying developing nations access to used electronics may deny them sustainable employment, affordable products, and internet access, or force them to deal with even less scrupulous suppliers. In a series of seven articles for The Atlantic, Shanghai-based reporter Adam Minter describes many of these computer repair and scrap separation activities as objectively sustainable.[18]

Opponents of the trade argue that developing countries utilize methods that are more harmful and more wasteful. An expedient and prevalent method is simply to toss equipment onto an open fire, in order to melt plastics and to burn away unvaluable metals. This releases carcinogens and neurotoxins into the air, contributing to an acrid, lingering smog. These noxious fumes include dioxins and furans.[19] Bonfire refuse can be disposed of quickly into drainage ditches or waterways feeding the ocean or local water supplies.[14][20]

In June 2008, a container of electronic waste, destined from the Port of Oakland in the U.S. to Sanshui District in mainland China, was intercepted in Hong Kong by Greenpeace.[21] Concern over exports of electronic waste were raised in press reports in India,[22][23] Ghana,[24][25][26] Ivory Coast,[27] and Nigeria.[28]

E-waste management


Computer monitors are typically packed into low stacks on wooden pallets for recycling and then shrink-wrapped.[19]

Today the electronic waste recycling business is in all areas of the developed world a large and rapidly consolidating business. Part of this evolution has involved greater diversion of electronic waste from energy-intensive downcycling processes (e.g., conventional recycling), where equipment is reverted to a raw material form. This diversion is achieved through reuse and refurbishing. The environmental and social benefits of reuse include diminished demand for new products and virgin raw materials (with their own environmental issues); larger quantities of pure water and electricity for associated manufacturing; less packaging per unit; availability of technology to wider swaths of society due to greater affordability of products; and diminished use of landfills.

Audiovisual components, televisions, VCRs, stereo equipment, mobile phones, other handheld devices, and computer components contain valuable elements and substances suitable for reclamation, including lead, copper, and gold.

One of the major challenges is recycling the printed circuit boards from the electronic wastes. The circuit boards contain such precious metals as gold, silver, platinum, etc. and such base metals as copper, iron, aluminum, etc. Conventional method employed is mechanical shredding and separation but the recycling efficiency is low. Alternative methods such as cryogenic decomposition have been studied for printed circuit board recycling,[29] and some other methods are still under investigation.

Consumer awareness efforts

  • AddressTheMess.com is a Comedy Central pro-social campaign that seeks to increase awareness of the dangers of electronic waste and to encourage recycling. Partners in the effort include Earth911.com, ECOInternational.com, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many Comedy Central viewers are early adopters of new electronics, and produce a commensurate amount of waste that can be directed towards recycling efforts. The station is also taking steps to reduce its own environmental impact, in partnership with NativeEnergy.com, a company that specializes in renewable energy and carbon offsets.
  • The Electronics TakeBack Coalition [1] is a campaign aimed at protecting human health and limiting environmental effects where electronics are being produced, used, and discarded. The ETBC aims to place responsibility for disposal of technology products on electronic manufacturers and brand owners, primarily through community promotions and legal enforcement initiatives. It provides recommendations for consumer recycling and a list of recyclers judged environmentally responsible.[30]
  • The CERTIFIED ELECTRONICS RECYCLER® program [2] for electronic recyclers is a comprehensive, integrated management system standard that incorporates key operational and continual improvement elements for quality, environmental and health and safety (QEH&S) performance.
  • The grassroots Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (svtc.org) focuses on promoting human health and addresses environmental justice problems resulting from toxins in technologies.
  • Basel Action Network (BAN.org) is uniquely focused on addressing global environmental injustices and economic inefficiency of global "toxic trade". It works for human rights and the environment by preventing disproportionate dumping on a large scale. It promotes sustainable solutions and attempts to ban waste trade.
  • Texas Campaign for the Environment (texasenvironment.org) works to build grassroots support for e-waste recycling and uses community organizing to pressure electronics manufacturers and elected officials to enact producer takeback recycling policies and commit to responsible recycling programs.
  • The World Reuse, Repair, and Recycling Association (wr3a.org) is an organization dedicated to improving the quality of exported electronics, encouraging better recycling standards in importing countries, and improving practices through "Fair Trade" principles.
  • Take Back My TV[31] is a project of The Electronics TakeBack Coalition and grades television manufacturers to find out which are responsible and which are not.

Processing techniques

Recycling the lead from batteries.

In developed countries, electronic waste processing usually first involves dismantling the equipment into various parts (metal frames, power supplies, circuit boards, plastics), often by hand, but increasingly by automated shredding equipment. A typical example is the NADIN electronic waste processing plant in Novi Iskar, Bulgaria -- the largest facility of its kind in Eastern Europe.[32][33] The advantages of this process are the human's ability to recognize and save working and repairable parts, including chips, transistors, RAM, etc. The disadvantage is that the labor is cheapest in countries with the lowest health and safety standards.

In an alternative bulk system,[34] a hopper conveys material for shredding into an unsophisticated mechanical separator, with screening and granulating machines to separate constituent metal and plastic fractions, which are sold to smelters or plastics recyclers. Such recycling machinery is enclosed and employs a dust collection system. Some of the emissions are caught by scrubbers and screens. Magnets, eddy currents, and trommel screens are employed to separate glass, plastic, and ferrous and nonferrous metals, which can then be further separated at a smelter. Leaded glass from CRTs is reused in car batteries, ammunition, and lead wheel weights,[19] or sold to foundries as a fluxing agent in processing raw lead ore. Copper, gold, palladium, silver and tin are valuable metals sold to smelters for recycling. Hazardous smoke and gases are captured, contained and treated to mitigate environmental threat. These methods allow for safe reclamation of all valuable computer construction materials.[14] Hewlett-Packard product recycling solutions manager Renee St. Denis describes its process as: "We move them through giant shredders about 30 feet tall and it shreds everything into pieces about the size of a quarter. Once your disk drive is shredded into pieces about this big, it's hard to get the data off".[35]

An ideal electronic waste recycling plant combines dismantling for component recovery with increased cost-effective processing of bulk electronic waste.

Reuse is an alternative option to recycling because it extends the lifespan of a device. Devices still need eventual recycling, but by allowing others to purchase used electronics, recycling can be postponed and value gained from device use.

Benefits of Recycling

Recycling raw materials from end-of-life electronics is the most effective solution to the growing e-waste problem. Most electronic devices contain a variety of materials, including metals that can be recovered for future uses. By dismantling and providing reuse possibilities, intact natural resources are conserved and air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal is avoided. Additionally, recycling reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacturing of new products. It simply makes good sense and is efficient to recycle and to do our part to keep the environment green.[36]

Electronic waste substances

Several sizes of button and coin cell with 2 9v batteries as a size comparison. They are all recycled in many countries since they contain lead, mercury and cadmium.

Some computer components can be reused in assembling new computer products, while others are reduced to metals that can be reused in applications as varied as construction, flatware, and jewelry.[35]

Substances found in large quantities include epoxy resins, fiberglass, PCBs, PVC (polyvinyl chlorides), thermosetting plastics, lead, tin, copper, silicon, beryllium, carbon, iron and aluminium.

Elements found in small amounts include cadmium, mercury, and thallium.[37]

Elements found in trace amounts include americium, antimony, arsenic, barium, bismuth, boron, cobalt, europium, gallium, germanium, gold, indium, lithium, manganese, nickel, niobium, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, selenium, silver, tantalum, terbium, thorium, titanium, vanadium, and yttrium.

Almost all electronics contain lead and tin (as solder) and copper (as wire and printed circuit board tracks), though the use of lead-free solder is now spreading rapidly. The following are ordinary applications:


  • Americium:the radioactive source in smoke alarms. It is known to be carcinogenic.
  • Mercury: found in fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats),[38] and flat screen monitors. Health effects include sensory impairment, dermatitis, memory loss, and muscle weakness. Environmental effects in animals include death, reduced fertility, slower growth and development.
  • Sulphur: found in lead-acid batteries. Health effects include liver damage, kidney damage, heart damage, eye and throat irritation. When released in to the environment, it can create sulphuric acid.
  • BFRs: Used as flame retardants in plastics in most electronics. Includes PBBs, PBDE, DecaBDE, OctaBDE, PentaBDE. Health effects include impaired development of the nervous system, thyroid problems, liver problems. Environmental effects: similar effects as in animals as humans. PBBs were banned from 1973-1977 on. PCBs were banned during the 1980's.
  • Cadmium: Found in light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, and nickel-cadmium batteries. The most common form of cadmium is found in Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries. These batteries tend to contain between 6-18% cadmium. The sale of Nickel-Cadmium batteries has been banned in the European Union except for medical use. When not properly recycled it can leach into the soil, harming microorganisms and disrupting the soil ecosystem. Exposure is caused by proximity to hazardous waste sites and factories and workers in the metal refining industry. The inhalation of cadmium can cause severe damage to the lungs and is also known to cause kidney damage.[39]
  • Lead: solder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC.[40] A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead,[2] but other CRTs have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead.[19]
  • Beryllium oxide: filler in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heatsinks for CPUs and power transistors,[41] magnetrons, X-ray-transparent ceramic windows, heat transfer fins in vacuum tubes, and gas lasers.

Generally non-hazardous

An iMac G4 that has been repurposed into a lamp (photographed next to a Mac Classic and a flip phone.

See also



  1. ^ http://www.executiveblueprints.com/aboutweee/WEEECRTandMonitor.htm
  2. ^ a b Morgan, Russell (2006-08-21). "Tips and Tricks for Recycling Old Computers". SmartBiz. http://www.smartbiz.com/article/articleprint/1525/-1/58. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  3. ^ "Ghana e-Waste Country Assessmen". Ghana e-Waste Country Assessmen. SBC e-Waste Africa Projec. http://ewasteguide.info/files/Amoyaw-Osei_2011_GreenAd-Empa.pdf. Retrieved 29 August 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Prashant, Nitya (2008-08-20). "Cash For Laptops Offers 'Green' Solution for Broken or Outdated Computers". Green Technology (Norwalk, Connecticut: Technology Marketing Corporation). http://green.tmcnet.com/topics/green/articles/37567-cash-laptops-offers-green-solution-broken-outdated-computers.htm. Retrieved 2009-03-17.  In "Opinion". National Center For Electronics Recycling News Summary (National Center For Electronics Recycling). 2008-08-28. http://www.electronicsrecycling.org/public/NewsletterViewer.aspx?message=sent&id=40. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
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  7. ^ Kozlan, Melanie (2010-11-02). "What is 'E-Waste' & How Can I Get Rid Of It?!". Four Green Steps. http://www.fourgreensteps.com/infozone/featured/features/what-is-e-waste-a-how-can-i-get-rid-of-it. 
  8. ^ "Poison PCs and toxic TVs". http://svtc.org/wp-content/uploads/ppc-ttv1.pdf. 
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  10. ^ Where computers go to die -- and kill (4/10/2006)
  11. ^ a b Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (2002-02-25). "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia" (PDF). Seattle and San Jose. http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf. 
  12. ^ Chea, Terence (2007-11-18). "America Ships Electronic Waste Overseas". Associated Press. http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/071118/exporting_e_waste.html?.v=3. 
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  19. ^ a b c d Royte, Elizabeth (2005-08-01). "E-gad! Americans discard more than 100 million computers, cellphones and other electronic devices each year. As "e-waste" piles up, so does concern about this growing threat to the environment.". Smithsonian Magazine (Smithsonian Institution). http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-9604019_ITM. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  20. ^ "Computer waste disposal in China" (WMV). CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/mrl3/23745/thenational/archive/ewaste-102208.wmv. 
  21. ^ "Illegal e-waste exposed". Greenpeace International. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/illegal-e-waste-exposed140708. 
  22. ^ "E-Trash Industry Poses Hazards to Workers". http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11211916. 
  23. ^ "British Broadcasting Corporation". BBC News. 2005-10-14. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/4341494.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  24. ^ "Electronic Waste in Ghana". YouTube. http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=pr1zQrXM_7s. 
  25. ^ "Poisoning the poor – Electronic Waste in Ghana". Greenpeace International. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/poisoning-the-poor-electroni. 
  26. ^ "British Broadcasting Corporation". BBC News. 2008-08-05. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7543489.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  27. ^ "British Broadcasting Corporation". BBC News. 2006-11-27. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6187358.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
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  29. ^ Yuan, C., Zhang, H. C., McKenna, G., Korzeniewski, C., and Li, J. “Experimental Studies on Cryogenic Recycling of Printed Circuit Board”, International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology, Vol. 34, 2007, pp. 657-666
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  31. ^ "Take Back My TV". http://www.takebackmytv.com. 
  32. ^ "40 Million BGN Invested In Bulgaria's 1st Appliances Recycle Plant". Sofia News Agency. 2010-06-28. http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=117588. Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  33. ^ "Bulgaria Opens Largest WEEE Recycling Factory in Eastern Europe". Ask-eu.com. 2010-07-12. http://www.ask-eu.com/Default.asp?Menue=142&Bereich=5&SubBereich=16&KW=130&NewsPPV=8492. Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  34. ^ http://simsrecycling.com/news-and-resources/audio-and-video
  35. ^ a b Haffenreffer, David (2003-02-13). "Recycling, the Hewlett-Packard Way". Financial Times (CNN). http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-22405423_ITM. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  36. ^ Benefits of Recycling
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