"Electronic waste" or "E-Waste" may be defined as discarded computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, television sets, and refrigerators. This includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal. Others are 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 (CRTs) are considered one of the hardest types to recycle.
CRTs have relatively high concentration of lead and phosphors (not to be confused with 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" 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.
The EU and its member states operate a system via the European Waste Catalogue (EWC)- a European Council Directive, which is interpreted into "member state law". In the UK, this is in the form of the List of Wastes Directive. However, the list (and EWC) gives broad definition (EWC Code 16 02 13*) of Hazardous Electronic wastes, requiring "waste operators" to employ the Hazardous Waste Regulations (Annex 1A, Annex 1B) for refined definition. Constituent materials in the waste also require assessment via the combination of Annex II and Annex III, again allowing operators to further determine whether a waste is hazardous.
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", 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. Technical solutions are available, but in most cases, a legal framework, a collection, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied.
Display units (CRT, LCD, LED monitors), processors (CPU, GPU, or APU chips), memory (DRAM or SRAM), and audio components have different useful lives. Processors are most frequently out-dated (by software no longer being optimized) 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. This problem could potentially be solved with Modular Smartphones or Phonebloks. These types of phones are more durable and have the technology to change certain parts of the phone making them more environmentally friendly. Being able to simply replace the part of the phone that is broken will reduce e-waste. An estimated 50 million tons of E-waste are produced each year. 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.
In 2006, the United Nations estimated the amount of worldwide electronic waste discarded each year to be 50 million metric tons. 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. The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons each year. 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.
Society today revolves around technology and by the constant need for the newest and most high-tech products we are contributing to mass amount of e-waste. Since the invention of the iPhone, cell phones have become the top source of e-waste products because they are not made to last more than two years. Electrical waste contains hazardous but also valuable and scarce materials. Up to 60 elements can be found in complex electronics. As of 2013, Apple has sold over 796 million iDevices (iPod, iPhone, iPad). Cell phone companies make cell phones that are not made to last so that the consumer will purchase new phones. Companies give these products such short life spans because they know that the consumer will want a new product and will buy it if they make it. In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.
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.
One theory is that increased regulation of electronic waste and concern over the environmental harm in nature economies creates an economic disincentive to remove residues prior to export. Critics of trade in used electronics maintain that it is still too easy for brokers calling themselves recyclers to export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, such as China, 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 have become toxic dump yards of e-waste. Proponents of international trade point to the success of fair trade programs in other industries, where cooperation has led to 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 been shifted to developing countries. Recycling of copper, silver, gold, and other materials from discarded electronic devices is considered better for the environment than mining. 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 smelting 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".
Because the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention or its Ban Amendment, and has few domestic federal 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. 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".
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 re-manufacturing, 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.
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 non-valuable metals. This releases carcinogens and neurotoxins into the air, contributing to an acrid, lingering smog. These noxious fumes include dioxins and furans. Bonfire refuse can be disposed of quickly into drainage ditches or waterways feeding the ocean or local water supplies.
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. Concern over exports of electronic waste were raised in press reports in India, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Nigeria.
Guiyu in the Shantou region of China is a massive electronic waste processing community. It is often referred to as the "e-waste capital of the world." Traditionally, Guiyu was an agricultural community; however, in the mid-1990s it transformed into an e-waste recycling center involving over 75% of the local households and an additional 100,000 migrant workers. Thousands of individual workshops employ laborers to snip cables, pry chips from circuit boards, grind plastic computer cases into particles, and dip circuit boards in acid baths to dissolve the precious metals. Others work to strip insulation from all wiring in an attempt to salvage tiny amounts of copper wire. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal has led to a number of environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution, and water pollution either by immediate discharge or from 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.
A number of studies have been conducted to measure a number of chemicals associated with informal e-waste recycling in the populations. One study enrolled children from Guiyu and a control site 50 km away to measure blood lead levels (BLLs). The average BLL in Guiyu was 15.3 ug/dL compared to 9.9 ug/dL in the control site. In the United States, the CDC has set a reference level for blood lead at 5 ug/dL. High levels of lead in young children can impact IQ and the development of the central nervous system. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the children of parents whose workshop dealt with circuit boards and the lowest was among those who recycled plastic.
Six of the many villages in Guiyu specialize in circuit-board disassembly, seven in plastics and metals reprocessing, and two in wire and cable disassembly. Greenpeace, an environmental group, sampled dust, soil, river sediment, and groundwater in Guiyu. They found very high levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants in both places. Lai Yun, a campaigner for the group found "over 10 poisonous metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium."
Guiyu is only one example of digital dumps but similar places can be found across the world in Nigeria, Ghana, and India. With amounts of e-waste growing rapidly each year urgent solutions are required. While the waste continues to flow into digital dumps like Guiyu, there are measures that can help reduce the flow of e-waste.
A suggested preventative step involves the major electronics firms removing the worst chemicals in their products in order to make them safer and easier to recycle.
Guiyu is likely one of the oldest and largest informal e-waste recycling sites in the world, however, there are many sites worldwide, including India, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Most research involving informal e-waste recycling has been done in Guiyu, but there are a handful of studies that describe exposure levels in e-waste workers, the community, and the environment. Bangalore, located in southern India, is often referred as the "Silicon Valley of India" and has a growing informal e-waste recycling sector. Hair samples were collected from workers at an e-waste recycling facility and an e-waste recycling slum community in Bangalore. Levels of V, Cr, Mn, Mo, Sn, Tl, and Pb were significantly higher in the workers at the e-waste recycling facility compared to the e-waste workers in the slum community. However, Co, Ag, Cd, and Hg levels were significantly higher in the slum community workers compared to the facility workers. A study in Ghana found higher levels of urinary PAH-metabolites in e-waste workers compared to unexposed controls. They also found a greater frequency of complaints of cough, chest pain, and vertigo from those exposed to emissions from the e-waste recycling processes.
The processes of dismantling and disposing of electronic waste in developing countries led to a number of environmental impacts as illustrated in the graphic. Liquid and atmospheric releases end up in bodies of water, groundwater, soil, and air and therefore in land and sea animals – both domesticated and wild, in crops eaten by both animals and human, and in drinking water.
One study of environmental effects in Guiyu, China found the following:Airborne dioxins – one type found at 100 times levels previously measured
Levels of carcinogens in duck ponds and rice paddies exceeded international standards for agricultural areas and cadmium, copper, nickel, and lead levels in rice paddies were above international standards
Heavy metals found in road dust – lead over 300 times that of a control village's road dust and copper over 100 times
The environmental impact of the processing of different electronic waste components
E-waste presents a potential security threat to individuals and exporting countries. Hard drives that are not properly erased before the computer is disposed of can be reopened, exposing sensitive information. Credit card numbers, private financial data, account information, and records of online transactions can be accessed by most willing individuals. Organized criminals in Ghana commonly search the drives for information to use in local scams. Electronic files about government contracts have been discovered on hard drives found in Agbogbloshie. Multimillion-dollar agreements from United States security institutions such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Transportation Security Administration, and Homeland Security have all resurfaced in Agbogbloshie.
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. One way e-waste is processed is by melting circuit boards, burning cable sheathing to recover copper wire and open- pit acid leaching for separating metals of value. 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, and some other methods are still under investigation. Properly disposing of or reusing electronics can help prevent health problems, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and create jobs. Reuse and refurbishing offer a more environmentally friendly and socially conscious alternative to downcycling processes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency encourages electronic recyclers to become certified by demonstrating to an accredited, independent third party auditor that they meet specific standards to safely recycle and manage electronics. This should work so as to ensure the highest environmental standards are being maintained. Two certifications for electronic recyclers currently exist and are endorsed by the EPA. Customers are encouraged to choose certified electronics recyclers. Responsible electronics recycling reduces environmental and human health impacts, increases the use of reusable and refurbished equipment and reduces energy use while conserving limited resources. The two EPA-endorsed certification programs are Responsible Recyclers Practices (R2) and E-Stewards. Certified companies ensure they are meeting strict environmental standards which maximize reuse and recycling, minimize exposure to human health or the environment, ensure safe management of materials and require destruction of all data used on electronics. Certified electronics recyclers have demonstrated through audits and other means that they continually meet specific high environmental standards and safely manage used electronics. Once certified, the recycler is held to the particular standard by continual oversight by the independent accredited certifying body. A certification board accredits and oversees certifying bodies to ensure that they meet specific responsibilities and are competent to audit and provide certification.
Some U.S. retailers offer opportunities for consumer recycling of discarded electronic devices. In the US, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) urges consumers to dispose properly of end-of-life electronics through its recycling locator at www.GreenerGadgets.org. This list only includes manufacturer and retailer programs that use the strictest standards and third-party certified recycling locations, to provide consumers assurance that their products will be recycled safely and responsibly. CEA research has found that 58 percent of consumers know where to take their end-of-life electronics, and the electronics industry would very much like to see that level of awareness increase. Consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers sponsor or operate more than 5,000 recycling locations nationwide and have vowed to recycle one billion pounds annually by 2016, a sharp increase from 300 million pounds industry recycled in 2010.
The Sustainable Materials Management Electronic Challenge was created by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Participants of the Challenge are manufacturers of electronics and electronic retailers. These companies collect end-of-life (EOL) electronics at various locations and send them to a certified, third-party recycler. Program participants are then able publicly promote and report 100% responsible recycling for their companies. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition 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.
The Certified Electronics Recycler program 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 focuses on promoting human health and addresses environmental justice problems resulting from toxins in technologies. 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 is a project of The Electronics TakeBack Coalition and grades television manufacturers to find out which are responsible and which are not.
The e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) has been instrumental in building a network of e-waste recyclers and refurbishers in the country. It continues to drive the sustainable, environmentally sound management of all e-waste in South Africa. E-Cycling Central is a website from the Electronic Industry Alliance which allows you to search for electronic recycling programs in your state. It lists different recyclers by state to find reuse, recycle, or find donation programs across the country. Ewasteguide.info is a Switzerland-based website dedicated to improving the e-waste situation in developing and transitioning countries. The site contains news, events, case studies, and more. StEP: Solving the E-Waste Problem This website of StEP, an initiative founded by various UN organizations to develop strategies to solve the e-waste problem, follows its activities and programs.
In many 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. 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, 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, 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. 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". 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.
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. Another benefit of recycling e-waste is that many of the materials can be recycled and re-used again. Materials that can be recycled include "ferrous (iron-based) and non-ferrous metals, glass, and various types of plastic." “Non-ferrous metals, mainly aluminum and copper can all be re-smelted and re-manufactured. Ferrous metals such as steel and iron can be also be re-used." Due to the recent surge in popularity in 3D printing, certain 3D printers have been designed (FDM variety) to produce waste that can be easily recycled which decreases the amount of harmful pollutants in the atmosphere. The excess plastic from these printers that comes out as a byproduct can also be reused to create new 3D printed creations.
Benefits of recycling are extended when responsible recycling methods are used. In the U.S., responsible recycling aims to minimize the dangers to human health and the environment that disposed and dismantled electronics can create. Responsible recycling ensures best management practices of the electronics being recycled, worker health and safety, and consideration for the environment locally and abroad. In Europe, metals that are recycled are returned to companies of origin at a reduced cost. Through a committed recycling system, manufacturers in Japan have been pushed to make their products more sustainable. Since many companies were responsible for the recycling of their own products, this imposed responsibility on manufacturers requiring many to redesign their infrastructure. As a result, manufacturers in Japan have the added option to sell the recycled metals.
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. 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. 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:
Other health effectsDNA breaks can increase the likelihood of developing cancer (if the damage is to a tumor suppressor gene)
DNA damages are a special problem in non-dividing or slowly dividing cells, where unrepaired damages will tend to accumulate over time. On the other hand, in rapidly dividing cells, unrepaired DNA damages that do not kill the cell by blocking replication will tend to cause replication errors and thus mutation
Elevated Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) levels can cause damage to cell structures (oxidative stress)