Questions & Answers on Electronic Waste

1. What is electronic waste?


Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) describes loosely discarded, surplus, obsolete, or broken electrical or electronic devices. Electronic waste may be defined as all secondary computers, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, and other items such as television sets and refrigerators, whether sold, donated, or discarded by their original owners. This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal.

Other definitions for the re-usables (working and repairable electronics) and secondary scrap (copper, steel, plastic, etc.) is to see them as "commodities", and reserve the term "waste" for residue or material which was represented as working or repairable but which is dumped or disposed or discarded by the buyer rather than recycled, including residue from reuse and recycling operations. Informal processing of electronic waste is occurring worldwide in Less Develop Countries, causing serious health and pollution problems.

2. How much e-waste is being generated around the world and how much gets recycled?


Every country and state has different laws and legislation, and some have none at all. In the United States, 26 states have electronic waste laws in place that require there to be responsible recycling options. To find out about programs in your state that allow for electronic equipment recycling, search your state government’s EPA branch or current E-Waste initiatives.

Japan and the European Union have adopted progressive e-waste recycling laws. The European parliament have approved two laws to require manufacturers to cover the recycling and collection costs for their own take-back programs, Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. Under the RoHS initiative, any manufacturer who wants to do business in Europe has to produce lead-free products.

3. Where does it all go?


Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a strategy to promote the integration of environmental costs associated with goods throughout their life cycles into the market price of the products. It is also known as product stewardship, or EPR, which uses financial incentives to encourage manufacturers to design environmentally-friendly products. The goal is to hold producers liable for the costs of managing their products at end of life and to relieve local governments of the costs of managing certain priority products by forcing manufacturers to internalize the cost of recycling within the product price.

EPR promotes that producers (usually brand owners) have the greatest control over product design and marketing and therefore have the greatest ability and responsibility to reduce toxicity and waste. EPR may take the form of a reuse, buy-back, or recycling program, or in energy production from waste materials. The producer may also choose to delegate this responsibility to a third party, a so-called producer responsibility organization (PRO), which is paid by the producer for spent-product management.

4. Is the world able to handle the massive quantities of electronic waste?


Yes. For the last thirty years, recycling laws of all varieties have been put into effect all over the world. Electronic waste became part of this story in the last two decades, with laws varying greatly from country to country, with many less developed countries lacking any legislation at all. In Europe, The Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment have set the global standard for responsible recycling programs.

The United States does not yet have a comprehensive national approach for the reuse and recycling of used electronics, with all previous efforts to establish a national approach being unsuccessful. Despite broad agreement among key stakeholders that reusing and recycling electronics in an environmentally sound manner has substantial advantages over disposing of them in landfills or exporting them to developing countries in a manner that threatens human health and the environment, a federal law has yet to be enacted.

5. Is this an environmental situation that's getting better?


Tons. 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. Some electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. Whether in developed countries where recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to workers and communities, or in responsible recycling operations, great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure and leaching of material such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.

6. What is the big deal about rare earth metals and electronic waste?


One computer can contain hundreds of chemicals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems. These chemicals are especially dangerous because of their ability to migrate into the soil, water, and air and accumulate in our bodies and the environment.

Although it is known that e-waste contains lead, mercury, and other toxins known to cause severe health problems in humans, and particularly children, the negative health impacts continue to appear and expose more about their hazardous impact. As more e-waste is placed in landfills, exposure to environmental toxins is only likely to increase, resulting in elevated risks of cancer as well as increased occurrences of developmental and neurological disorders.

7. Who is the world’s largest producer of electronic waste?


No. Take Back programs are a giant leap in the history of Original Electronic Manufacturers to take corporate social and environmental responsibility for the second life and end of life of electronics, but there is no such as a truly 100% ‘green’ method. Electronics are made of components that have no entirely sustainable method of disposal. Take Back programs are big step forward, and when coupled with products designed for disassembly and recovery, there is great promise for the future of these programs.

8. Where is the world's most hazardous e-waste dump site?


This question must be asked, yet is very difficult to answer given current systems of gathering information. Flows of secondary and waste products are not well known and there are little national statistics on production, sales and trade in these goods. Few, if any statistical categories are defined to distinguish new goods from used or waste ones.

It is estimated that 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e‐waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste.  In the US in 2008, 3.16 million tons of e‐waste was generated. Of this amount, only 430,000 tons or 13.6 % was recycled, according to the EPA. The rest was trashed – in landfills or incinerators.

9. Isn't it illegal to export e-waste from a Western nation to a Less Developed Country?


Yes. Even if we aggregated every story ever written, videotaped, filmed, or document on the story of electronic waste, it would merely scratch the surface on whatever truth remains to be told.  Electronic Waste stories and massive exported dump sites have been documented all over the world in Less Developed Countries: China, India, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan.

10. Is is possible to design electronics that aren't toxic?


The United States government is the largest producer of electronic waste in the world, the scope of which has always been kept confidential. For this resaon, the federal government, which purchases billions of dollar worth of information technology equipment and services annually, has the opportunity to provide leadership in the environmentally sound and cost effective management of electronic assets throughout their life-cycle.

Executive Order (E.O.) 13514 sets goals for the federal government to improve our environmental, energy and economic performance, in part through specific electronics stewardship activities. The FEC assists federal agencies and facilities in meeting the goals of E.O. 13514 and facing the challenges posed by electronics acquisition, use and disposal.

11. Is there a current ‘end of life’ for electronics?


Very much so. The Basel Convention came into force in 1992 as the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes, the control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The Convention has 175 Parties worldwide and aims to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects resulting from the generation, management, transboundary movements and disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

The only countries who have not ratified the convention are the United States, Afghanistan and Haiti. The only nation that has ever prosecuted an entity found in violation of exporting electronic waste is the UK, hearing its first cases in 2010.
Meanwhile, documented cases of daily shipments of e-waste dumped all over Less Developed Countries from Ghana to China continue to appear with dizzying frequency, as there is no international monitoring force imposing any concrete and tangible punishment for this dumping.

12. Who is responsible for electronics at ‘end of life’?


It is not possible to guarantee with 100% certainty that dropping your electronics off at ‘responsible’ recycling events ensure your device will get recycled.  There is no EPA certified program in the United States, nor is there any global monitoring program or organization to ensure that all electronic recycling programs will safely and responsibly recycle your electronics.

The most effective strategy to recycle your electronics are to go to your state’s EPA website and find your local, approved drop off facility, event or organization leading in e-waste recycling initiatives. Most US states have such programs and most Western nations in Europe, North America and Australasia have government take back and product stewardship programs for consumers to recycle their programs at end of use. In Less Developed Countries, these types of recycling program simply don’t exist.

13. Where does my electronic device end up if I recycle it?


Yes, take back programs such as those provided through retail outlets in the US like Best Buy or Dell and Goodwill’s ecycling program are all reliable places to recycle electronics. All of these programs ‘guarantee’ that your devices will be recycled, and boast of the  international certifications and accredations of the recycling facilities they use.  The problem lies in the greater lack of international law or governing body concertedly monitoring the e-trade industry.

The programs to be watchful about our one-off events or take back events that claim to be affiliated with these retail programs, or those claiming to have affiliation with a charity. The best bet is to ask the event organizers to confirm that they are officially partnered with the advertised corporation or program, and to contact the charity where possible. A new type of scam has occurred where ‘brokers’ use charities to lure consumers to drop off equipment in the name of donations, only to take that e-waste and export it overseas.

14. Are there toxic components in my electronics?


Not all used electronics are obsolete. In fact most can be reused for parts or completely refurbished for second life. Reuse is the general term applied to used electronics that can be reused for parts or refurbishment before they have been deemed unusable, or the 'end of life'. Since  e-waste is not composed of just one material, and all electronic devices are constructed with many different materials, recycling e-waste is a more complex process than other forms of reuse.

Advocates of Reuse aim to both divert devices from landfills as well as extract the most value out of these materials. Electronics are made with valuable metals, like copper and gold, which can be sold and reused in alternative capacities. However, e-waste recyclers also recycle and reuse materials that aren’t nearly as valuable, and if reuse programs are not conducted safely, the toxic impact can be very serious and dangerously hazardous to one self and the environment.

15. What are the hazards of the toxic components in electronics?


Yes. There is time when the lifespan of an electronic device has come to an end. At this point, electronics are referred to as being at their End-of-life. The hallmark of end-of-life-electronics is that they are considered no longer usable, are obsolete, or just don’t work anymore. Since regular disposal of these items via landfill is not an option in many countries and numerous states in the US, many localities have responded by setting up special recycling centers where end-of-life-electronics can be safely left. Some programs, especially through schools, offer fundraising incentives for the disposal of things like cell phones, cell phone batteries, and printer ink cartridges. Depending on your location, you may be required to pay a fee in order to dispose of your old electronic equipment.

16. How do I find out if my state or country recycles electronics?


The inconvenient truth about this question is that there is no simple answer to this question. If you live in Europe, all electronics are subject to take back laws that requires the producer to be responsible for all of their products at end of life, whereupon consumers return their electronics back to the vendor at end of life.  If you are an American, and you live in a state with E-Waste laws, your responsibility depends on if you are an individual or a corporation. Both are required to recycle electronics at end of life. Neither are monitored or checked by any authority, watchdog or legal body. If you are living in a Less Developed Country, then no one is held responsible for recycling e-waste, and no one is stopping the tons of electronic waste that is dumped on your shores.

17. What is extended producer responsibility?


Design for disassembly and Design for recovery, or DfD is a design process that allows for the easy recovery of products, parts and materials when electronics are disassembled or renovated. The process is intended to maximize economic value and minimize environmental impacts through reuse, repair, refurbishment and recycling. A DfD process involves developing the assemblies, components, materials, construction techniques, and information and management systems to accomplish this goal.

DfD is growing within manufacturing industries and in the electronics sector when  managing the end-of-life of products. The effort is driven by the increasing disposal of large amounts of e-waste, and the resulting pollution and the loss of materials and energy that these products contain. Unlike other waste streams, many components of electronics are highly toxic, and DfD initiatives in the IT sector are some of the first strides towards greening the supply chain and the componentry of electronics.

18. Is there a 100% green method to ‘take back’ or recycle my electronics?


When electronics are manufactured, resources from the earth are gathered and processed into basic materials used in the manufacturing process. These basic materials are used to make the various components that are put together to make the electronic products that you buy. Some of the parts and components used in computers include: Circuit Boards and Hard Drives, Plastic Housings and Monitors.  Circuit boards and hard drives contain metals such as iron, copper, and gold. Metals like lead are used to coat other metals to protect them from rusting.

Plastic is commonly used in many electronic products. While most plastics are manufactured from petroleum oil, some companies are using plant-based resources such as corn to create bioplastics. Many different types of plastics may be used in a single electronic product. There are two basic types of monitors. The cathode-ray tube (CRT) found inside some monitors is a funnel-shaped, leaded glass tube with a metal frame inside. The lead in the glass provides shielding from the electromagnetic rays produced inside the cathode-ray tube, which produce the picture on the screen. Liquid crystal display monitors (LCDs) use small fluorescent lights, which contain very small amounts of mercury in order to make them work.

19. Is it okay to recycle my electronics at ‘take back’ and corporate retail programs?


The rare earth elements have exotic names like cerium, bastnasite, lanthanum, yttrium, neodymium, but these hard-to-extract elements are vital raw materials for our electronics, renewable energy and national defense. They supply magnetism, luminescence, and strength to our video screens, cell phones and satellites. A whopping 97% is sourced from China.  In 2009, reports the U.S. government, global production was 132,000 metric tons. All but 3,000 of those tons came from China.

Extracting and processing rare earth elements is expensive and prices are skyrocketing. Neodymium, used in everything from personal electronics to anti-lock brakes and airbags, has increased in price 130 percent since December, when China announced unexpected cutbacks on exports.  The result is that mines are opening up and or being reopened worldwide as manufacturers scramble to supply an unprecedented and forever growing demand, partially driven by the universal usage of electronics.

20. What is Reuse?


Guiyu, China. Not only does most of the world’s electronic waste end up in China, but the large majority of e-waste in China ends up in only designated location in South China: Guiyu.  South China, home of most of Chinese ethnic minorities and the nation’s poor, it has also become the e-scrap capital of the world.  With ten years of documenting electronic waste dumping, informal recycling, and equipment waste burning and smeltering, Guiyu has become and electronic wasteland of hazardous chemicals. The water in Guiyu is non potable. Tests have confirmed lead in children, and DNA damage has been detected in toxicological samples.  If there is such a thing as a ‘ground zero’ in the e-waste story, Guiyu is the destination point.