What is e-waste?

E-waste is a term used to cover almost all types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) that has or could enter the waste stream. Although e-waste is a general term, it can be considered to cover TVs, computers, mobile phones, white goods (e.g. fridges, washing machines, dryers etc), home entertainment and stereo systems, toys, toasters, kettles – almost any household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply.


Why is e-waste growing?
E-waste is growing exponentially simply because the markets in which these products are produced are also growing rapidly as many parts of the world cross over to the other side of the ‘Digital Divide’. For example, between 2000 and 2005, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes a 22% growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in China (1). Furthermore, China was the 6th largest ICT market in 2006, after the US, Japan, Germany, UK and France (2). This is astounding when one considers that just ten years ago, under 1% of China’s population owned a computer (3).

Computers are only one part of the e-waste stream though, as we see that in the EU in 2005, fridges and other cooling and freezing appliances, combined with large household appliances, accounted for 44% of total e-waste, according to UNU’s Study supporting the 2008 Review of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive (4).

Rapid product innovations and replacement, especially in ICT and office equipment, combined with the migration from analogue to digital technologies and to flat-screen TVs and monitors, for example, are fuelling the increase. Additionally, economies of scale have given way to lower prices for many electrical goods, which has increased global demand for many products that eventually end up as e-waste.

Why is e-waste different from general municipal waste?
In addition to various hazardous materials, e-waste also contains many valuable and precious materials. In fact up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronics. Using the personal computer (PC) as an example – a normal Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) computer monitor contains many valuable but also many toxic substances. One of these toxic substances is cadmium (Cd), which is used in rechargeable computer batteries and contacts and switches in older CRT monitors.

Cadmium can bio-accumulate in the environment and is extremely toxic to humans, in particular adversely affecting kidneys and bones (5). It is also one of the six toxic substances that has been banned in the European Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive. Beyond CRT monitors, plastics, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cabling is used for printed circuit boards, connectors, plastic covers and cables.

When burnt or land-filled, these PVCs release dioxins that have harmful effects on human reproductive and immune systems (6). Mercury (Hg), which is used in lighting devices in flat screen displays, can cause damage to the nervous system, kidneys and brain, and can even be passed on to infants through breast milk (7).

Electrical goods contain a range of other toxic substances such as lead (Pb), beryllium (Be), brominated flame retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls(PCB) just to name a few. Lead plays an important role in the overall metal production processes and while attempts to design-out lead from EEE does not necessarily mean that it is no longer used. Even the lead-free solder elements are co-produced with lead. This illustrates the need for a holistic view to be taken in analyzing the e-waste situation for working out possible solutions.

On the other hand, the huge impact of EEE on valuable metals resources must not be neglected. A mobile phone e.g. can contain over 40 elements including base metals (copper (Cu), tin (Sn),..), special metals (cobalt (Co), indium (In), antimony (Sb), ..), and precious metals (silver (Ag), gold (Au), palladium (Pd), ..). The most common metal is copper (9 g), while the precious metal content is in the order of milligrams only: 250 mg silver, 24 mg gold and 9 mg palladium. Furthermore, the lithium-ion battery contains about 3.5 grams of cobalt. This appears to be quite marginal but with the leverage of 1.2 billion mobile phones sold globally in 2007 this leads to a significant metal demand (8).

Similar calculations can be made for computers or other complex electronics and the increasing functionality of EEE products is largely achieved using the unique properties of precious and special metals. For example 80% of the world indium demand is used for LCD screens, over 80% of ruthenium is used for hard disks and 50% of the worldwide demand for antimony is used for flame retardants. Taking into account the highly dynamic growth rates of EEE, it becomes clear that they are a major driver for the development of demand and prices of certain metals.

Because of this complex composition of valuable and hazardous substances, specialized, often “high-tech” methods are required to process e-waste in ways that maximize resource recovery and minimize potential harm to humans or the environment. Unfortunately, the use of the these specialized methods is rare, with much of the world’s e-waste traveling great distances, mostly to developing countries, where crude techniques are often used to extract precious materials or recycle parts for further use. These “backyard” techniques pose dangers to poorly protected workers and their local natural environment.

Moreover, they are very inefficient in terms of resource recovery as recycling in these instances usually focuses on a few valuable elements like gold and copper (with often poor recycling yields), while most other metals are discarded and inevitably lost. In this sense it can be demonstrated that resource efficiency is another important dimension in the e-waste discussion in addition to the ecological, human security, economical and societal aspects.

How much e-waste is there?
Because so much of the planet’s e-waste is unaccounted for, it is difficult to quantify e-waste amounts. Moreover, the types of e-waste included in government-initiated analyses and collection programmes vary from country to country. Under the current version of the WEEE Directive, the EU has 10 distinct product categories, whereas in North America it is typically limited to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) products and televisions and in Japan to four product categories including TVs, air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines.
The deviation in categorization of e-waste notwithstanding, reasonable estimates are in the order of 40 million tonnes p.a., which is enough to fill a line of dump-trucks stretching half way around the globe.

A recent review of European legislation on e-waste, known as the “Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment (WEEE)” Directive (mentioned earlier), highlights that in 2005 in Europe alone, there were between 8.3 and 9.1 million tonnes of e-waste, tendency rising.

In Australia, with an average of 22 electrical items per household, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that in the next two years, most of the 9 million computers, 5 million printers and 2 million scanners in Australian homes will be replaced (9).

In the US the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that the US generated 1.9 to 2.2 million tonnes of e-waste in 2005, with only 12.5% collected for recycling (10).

Why is so much e-waste unaccounted for?
The US-EPA has estimated a 5 to 10% increase in the generation of e-waste each year globally. Perhaps even more alarming is that only 5% of this amount is being recovered (11)– so where are the other 38 million tonnes? In Europe the review of the WEEE Directive by the United Nations University found that 25% of the total weight of the EU’s e-waste in 2005 was unaccounted for. Astoundingly, this finding clearly demonstrates that there was no scientific data available to explain where over 6 million tonnes of e-waste is going each year.

So why is so much e-waste unaccounted for? – We don’t really know for sure. Enough is known to suggest a few explanations, such as illegal shipments to developing countries, like China and India; domestic ‘informal’ processing centres; as well as the e-waste that remains in the sheds, attics and storage rooms of sentimental owners.

E-waste – A global challenge
In summary one can clearly grasp and understand the e-waste problem is of global concern because of the nature of production and disposal of waste in a globalized world. Although it is difficult to quantify global e-waste amounts, we do know that large amounts are ending up in places where processing occurs at a very rudimentary level.This raises concerns about resource efficiency and also the immediate concerns of the dangers to humans and the environment.

There is a long and often complicated chain of events in the e-waste problem, beginning from an idea that someone has for a new product and then its production, ending in its purchase and eventual disposal by the end user. By engaging with various stakeholders and relevant scientific wisdom within this chain of events, we are on the way to Solve the E-waste Problem (StEP).

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3 This is on the assumption of a 1998 population of 1,248,100,000 people in China and 11,200,000 computers (UN Data: http://data.un.org/)
4 For example, the production of household fridges in China is rising rapidly, at over 7% in the first quarter of 2007. See UNU’s Study supporting the 2008 Review of the WEEE Directive at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/weee/pdf/final_rep_unu.pdf
5 Greenpeace Report, Toxic Tech: Not in our Backyard.
8 “Mining our computers”, C. Hagelüken, C. Meskers, Proceedings of Electronics Goes Green 2008+, pp. 623-628.

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