Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment applied to consumer and business electronic equipment that is near or at the end of its useful life. Electronic waste now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but it is much more hazardous. Some electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants.
The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tons generated every year. Asia discards an estimated 12 million tons each year.
Electronic waste, popularly known as ‘e-waste’ can be defined as electronic equipments / products connects with power plug, batteries which have become obsolete due to: advancement in technology changes in fashion, style and status nearing the end of their useful life.
 Classification of e-waste
E-waste encompasses ever growing range of obsolete electronic devices such as computers, servers, main frames, monitors, TVs & display devices, telecommunication devices such as cellular phones & pagers, calculators, audio and video devices, printers, scanners, copiers and fax machines besides refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, and microwave ovens, e-waste also covers recording devices such as DVDs, CDs, floppies, tapes, printing cartridges, military electronic waste, automobile catalytic converters, electronic components such as chips, processors, mother boards, printed circuit boards, industrial electronics such as sensors, alarms, sirens, security devices, automobile electronic devices.
The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. If such a huge figure is hard to imagine, think of it like this - if the estimated amount of e-waste generated every year would be put into containers on a train it would go once around the world!
Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but it is much more hazardous. Not only developed countries generate e-waste; Asia discards an estimated 12 million tonnes each year.
E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream because people are upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers more frequently than ever before. Mobile phones and computers are causing the biggest problem because they are replaced most often. In Europe e-waste is increasing at three to five percent a year, almost three times faster than the total waste stream. Developing countries are also expected to triple their e-waste production over the next five years.
 Did you know?
- The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005.
- Mobile phones have a lifecycle of less than two years in developed countries.
- 183 million computers were sold worldwide in 2004 - 11.6 percent more than in 2003.
- 674 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2004 - 30 percent more than in 2003.
- By 2010, there will be 716 million new computers in use. Therewill be 178 million new computer users in China, 80 million new usersin India.
Part of this evolution has involved greater diversion of electronic waste from energy-intensive downcycling processes, where equipment is reverted to a raw material form. This diversion is achieved through reuse and refurbishing. 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.
 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.
 Electronic waste substances
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:
- Americium: smoke alarms
- Mercury: fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats).
- Sulfur: lead-acid batteries.
- Cadmium: light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, nickel-cadmium batteries.
- Lead: solder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC.A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead, but other CRTs have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead.
- Beryllium oxide: filler in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heatsinks for CPUs and power transistors, magnetrons, X-ray-transparent ceramic windows, heat transfer fins in vacuum tubes, and gas lasers.
- Polyvinyl chloride, Third most widely produced plastic, contains additional chemicals to change the chemical consistency of the product. Some of these additional chemicals called additives can leach out of vinyl products. Plasticizers that must be added to make PVC flexible have been additives of particular concern. Burning PVC in connection with humidity in the air creates Hydrogen Chloride (HCl), an acid.
 Generally non-hazardous
- Tin: solder, coatings on component leads.
- Copper: copper wire, printed circuit board tracks, component leads.
- Aluminium: nearly all electronic goods using more than a few watts of power (heatsinks), electrolytic capacitors.
- Iron: steel chassis, cases, and fixings.
- Silicon: glass, transistors, ICs, printed circuit boards.
- Nickel: nickel-cadmium batteries.
- Lithium: lithium-ion batteries.
- Zinc: plating for steel parts.
- Gold: connector plating, primarily in computer equipment.
 Effects on Environment and Health
- Computer wastes that are landfilled produces contaminated leachates which eventually pollute the groundwater. Acids and sludge obtained from melting computer chips, if disposed on the ground causes acidification of soil. Mercury will leach when certain electronic devices, such as circuit breakers are destroyed. The same is true for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from condensers. When brominated flame retardant plastic or cadmium containing plastics are landfilled, both polybrominated dlphenyl ethers (PBDE) and cadmium may leach into the soil and groundwater. It has been found that significant amounts of lead ion are dissolved from broken lead containing glass, such as the cone glass of cathode ray tubes, gets mixed with acid waters and are a common occurrence in landfills.
- Incineration of e-wastes can emit toxic fumes and gases, thereby polluting the surrounding air. The vaporization of metallic mercury and dimethylene mercury, both part of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is also of concern.
- Uncontrolled fires may arise at landfills and this could be a frequent occurrence in many countries. When exposed to fire, metals and other chemical substances, such as the extremely toxic dioxins and furans (TCDD tetrachloro dibenzo-dioxin, PCDDs-polychlorinated dibenzodioxins. PBDDs-polybrominated dibenzo-dioxin and PCDFs poly chlorinated dibenzo furans) from halogenated flame retardant products and PCB containing condensers can be emitted. The most dangerous form of burning e-waste is the open-air burning of plastics in order to recover copper and other metals. The toxic fall-out from open air burning affects both the local environment and broader global air currents, depositing highly toxic by products in many places throughout the world.
The Basel Convention, is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. The Convention is also intended to minimize the amount and toxicity of wastes generated, to ensure their environmentally sound management as closely as possible to the source of generation, and to assist less developed countries in environmentally sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate.
The fundamental aims of the Basel Convention are the control and reduction of transboundary movements of hazardous and other wastes including the prevention and minimization of their generation, the environmentally sound management of such wastes and the active promotion of the transfer and use of technologies.
A Draft Strategic Plan has been proposed for the implementation of the Basel Convention. The Draft Strategic Plan takes into account existing regional plans, programmes or strategies, the decisions of the Conference of the Parties and its subsidiary bodies, ongoing project activities and process of international environmental governance and sustainable development. The Draft requires action at all levels of society: training, information, communication, methodological tools, capacity building with financial support, transfer of know-how, knowledge and sound, proven cleaner technologies and processes to assist in the concrete implementation of the Basel Declaration. It also calls for the effective involvement and coordination by all concerned stakeholders as essential for achieving the aims of the Basel Declaration within the approach of common but differentiated responsibility.
Table I: Effects of E-Waste constituent on health
|Source of e-wastes||Constituent||Health effects|
|Solder in printed circuit boards, glass panels and gaskets in computer monitors||Lead (PB)||
|Chip resistors and semiconductors||Cadmium (CD)||
|Relays and switches, printed circuit boards||Mercury (Hg)||
|Corrosion protection of untreated and galvanized steel plates, decorator or hardner for steel housings||Hexavalent chromium (Cr) VI||
|Cabling and computer housing||Plastics including PVC||Burning produces dioxin. It causes
|Plastic housing of electronic equipments and circuit boards.||Brominated flame retardants (BFR)||
|Front panel of CRTs||Barium (Ba)||Short term exposure causes:
- To involve experts in designing communication tools for creating awareness at the highest level to promote the aims of the Basel Declaration on environmentally sound management and the ratification and implementation of the Basel Convention, its amendments and protocol with the emphasis on the short-term activities.
- To engage and stimulate a group of interested parties to assist the secretariat in exploring fund raising strategies including the preparation of projects and in making full use of expertise in non-governmental organizations and other institutions in joint projects.
- To motivate selective partners among various stakeholders to bring added value to making progress in the short-term.
- To disseminate and make information easily accessible through the internet and other electronic and printed materials on the transfer of know-how, in particular through Basel Convention Regional Centers (BCRCs).
- To undertake periodic review of activities in relation to the agreed indicators;
- To collaborate with existing institutions and programmes to promote better use of cleaner technology and its transfer, methodology, economic instruments or policy to facilitate or support capacity-building for the environmentally sound management of hazardous and other wastes.
The Basel Convention brought about a respite to the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. India and other countries have ratified the convention. However United States (US) is not a party to the ban and is responsible for disposing hazardous waste, such as, e-waste to Asian countries even today. Developed countries such as US should enforce stricter legislations in their own country for the prevention of this horrifying act.
In the European Union where the annual quantity of electronic waste is likely to double in the next 12 years, the European Parliament recently passed legislation that will require manufacturers to take back their electronic products when consumers discard them. This is called Extended Producer Responsibility. It also mandates a timetable for phasing out most toxic substances in electronic products.
 Management of E-waste
It is estimated that 75% of electronic items are stored due to uncertainty of how to manage it. These electronic junks lie unattended in houses, offices, warehouses etc. and normally mixed with household wastes, which are finally disposed off at landfills. This necessitates implementable management measures.
In industries management of e-waste should begin at the point of generation. This can be done by waste minimization techniques and by sustainable product design. Waste minimization in industries involves adopting:
- inventory management,
- production-process modification,
- volume reduction,
- recovery and reuse.
 Inventory management
Proper control over the materials used in the manufacturing process is an important way to reduce waste generation (Freeman, 1989). By reducing both the quantity of hazardous materials used in the process and the amount of excess raw materials in stock, the quantity of waste generated can be reduced. This can be done in two ways i.e. establishing material-purchase review and control procedures and inventory tracking system.
Developing review procedures for all material purchased is the first step in establishing an inventory management program. Procedures should require that all materials be approved prior to purchase. In the approval process all production materials are evaluated to examine if they contain hazardous constituents and whether alternative non-hazardous materials are available.
Another inventory management procedure for waste reduction is to ensure that only the needed quantity of a material is ordered. This will require the establishment of a strict inventory tracking system. Purchase procedures must be implemented which ensure that materials are ordered only on an as-needed basis and that only the amount needed for a specific period of time is ordered.
 Production-process modification
Changes can be made in the production process, which will reduce waste generation. This reduction can be accomplished by changing the materials used to make the product or by the more efficient use of input materials in the production process or both. Potential waste minimization techniques can be broken down into three categories:
i) Improved operating and maintenance procedures,
ii) Material change and
iii) Process-equipment modification.
Improvements in the operation and maintenance of process equipment can result in significant waste reduction. This can be accomplished by reviewing current operational procedures or lack of procedures and examination of the production process for ways to improve its efficiency. Instituting standard operation procedures can optimise the use of raw materials in the production process and reduce the potential for materials to be lost through leaks and spills. A strict maintenance program, which stresses corrective maintenance, can reduce waste generation caused by equipment failure. An employee-training program is a key element of any waste reduction program. Training should include correct operating and handling procedures, proper equipment use, recommended maintenance and inspection schedules, correct process control specifications and proper management of waste materials.
Hazardous materials used in either a product formulation or a production process may be replaced with a less hazardous or non-hazardous material. This is a very widely used technique and is applicable to most manufacturing processes. Implementation of this waste reduction technique may require only some minor process adjustments or it may require extensive new process equipment. For example, a circuit board manufacturer can replace solvent-based product with water-based flux and simultaneously replace solventvapor degreaser with detergent parts washer.
Installing more efficient process equipment or modifying existing equipment to take advantage of better production techniques can significantly reduce waste generation. New or updated equipment can use process materials more efficiently producing less waste. Additionally such efficiency reduces the number of rejected or off-specification products, thereby reducing the amount of material which has to be reworked or disposed of. Modifying existing process equipment can be a very cost-effective method of reducing waste generation. In many cases the modification can just be relatively simple changes in the way the materials are handled within the process to ensure that they are not wasted. For example, in many electronic manufacturing operations, which involve coating a product, such as electroplating or painting, chemicals are used to strip off coating from rejected products so that they can be recoated. These chemicals, which can include acids, caustics, cyanides etc are often a hazardous waste and must be properly managed. By reducing the number of parts that have to be reworked, the quantity of waste can be significantly reduced.
 Volume reduction
Volume reduction includes those techniques that remove the hazardous portion of a waste from a non-hazardous portion. These techniques are usually to reduce the volume, and thus the cost of disposing of a waste material. The techniques that can be used to reduce waste-stream volume can be divided into 2 general categories: source segregation and waste concentration. Segregation of wastes is in many cases a simple and economical technique for waste reduction. Wastes containing different types of metals can be treated separately so that the metal value in the sludge can be recovered. Concentration of a waste stream may increase the likelihood that the material can be recycled or reused. Methods include gravity and vacuum filtration, ultra filtration, reverse osmosis, freeze vaporization etc.
For example, an electronic component manufacturer can use compaction equipments to reduce volume of waste cathode ray-tube.
 Recovery and reuse
This technique could eliminate waste disposal costs, reduce raw material costs and provide income from a salable waste. Waste can be recovered on-site, or at an off-site recovery facility, or through inter industry exchange. A number of physical and chemical techniques are available to reclaim a waste material such as reverse osmosis, electrolysis, condensation, electrolytic recovery, filtration, centrifugation etc. For example, a printed-circuit board manufacturer can use electrolytic recovery to reclaim metals from copper and tin-lead plating bath.
However recycling of hazardous products has little environmental benefit if it simply moves the hazards into secondary products that eventually have to be disposed of. Unless the goal is to redesign the product to use nonhazardous materials, such recycling is a false solution.
 Sustainable product design
Minimization of hazardous wastes should be at product design stage itself keeping in mind the following factors
- Rethink the product design: Efforts should be made to design a product with fewer amounts of hazardous materials. For example, the efforts to reduce material use are reflected in some new computer designs that are flatter, lighter and more integrated. Other companies propose centralized networks similar to the telephone system.
- Use of renewable materials and energy: Bio-based plastics are plastics made with plant-based chemicals or plant-produced polymers rather than from petrochemicals. Bio-based toners, glues and inks are used more frequently. Solar computers also exist but they are currently very expensive.
- Use of non-renewable materials that are safer: Because many of the materials used are non-renewable, designers could ensure the product is built for re-use, repair and/or upgradeability. Some computer manufacturers such as Dell and Gateway lease out their products thereby ensuring they get them back to further upgrade and lease out again.
 Management Options
Considering the severity of the problem, it is imperative that certain management options be adopted to handle the bulk e-wastes. Following are some of the management options suggested for the government, industries and the public.
 Responsibilities of the Government
(i) Governments should set up regulatory agencies in each district, which are vested with the responsibility of co-ordinating and consolidating the regulatory functions of the various government authorities regarding hazardous substances.
(ii) Governments should be responsible for providing an adequate system of laws, controls and administrative procedures for hazardous waste management (Third World Network. 1991). Existing laws concerning e-waste disposal be reviewed and revamped. A comprehensive law that provides e-waste regulation and management and proper disposal of hazardous wastes is required. Such a law should empower the agency to control, supervise and regulate the relevant activities of government departments.
Under this law, the agency concerned should
- Collect basic information on the materials from manufacturers, processors and importers and to maintain an inventory of these materials. The information should include toxicity and potential harmful effects.
- Identify potentially harmful substances and require the industry to test them for adverse health and environmental effects.
- Control risks from manufacture, processing, distribution, use and disposal of electronic wastes.
- Encourage beneficial reuse of "e-waste" and encouraging business activities that use waste". Set up programs so as to promote recycling among citizens and businesses.
- Educate e-waste generators on reuse/recycling options
(iii) Governments must encourage research into the development and standard of hazardous waste management, environmental monitoring and the regulation of hazardous waste-disposal.
(iv) Governments should enforce strict regulations against dumping e-waste in the country by outsiders. Where the laws are flouted, stringent penalties must be imposed. In particular, custodial sentences should be preferred to paltry fines, which these outsiders / foreign nationals can pay.
(v) Governments should enforce strict regulations and heavy fines levied on industries, which do not practice waste prevention and recovery in the production facilities.
(vi) Polluter pays principle and extended producer responsibility should be adopted.
(vii) Governments should encourage and support NGOs and other organizations to involve actively in solving the nation's e-waste problems.
(viii) Uncontrolled dumping is an unsatisfactory method for disposal of hazardous waste and should be phased out.
(ix) Governments should explore opportunities to partner with manufacturers and retailers to provide recycling services.
 Responsibility and Role of industries
1. Generators of wastes should take responsibility to determine the output characteristics of wastes and if hazardous, should provide management options.
2. All personnel involved in handling e-waste in industries including those at the policy, management, control and operational levels, should be properly qualified and trained. Companies can adopt their own policies while handling e-wastes. Some are given below:
- Use label materials to assist in recycling (particularly plastics).
- Standardize components for easy disassembly.
- Re-evaluate 'cheap products' use, make product cycle 'cheap' and so that it has no inherent value that would encourage a recycling infrastructure.
- Create computer components and peripherals of biodegradable materials.
- Utilize technology sharing particularly for manufacturing and de manufacturing.
- Encourage / promote / require green procurement for corporate buyers.
- Look at green packaging options.
3. Companies can and should adopt waste minimization techniques, which will make a significant reduction in the quantity of e-waste generated and thereby lessening the impact on the environment. It is a "reverse production" system that designs infrastructure to recover and reuse every material contained within e-wastes metals such as lead, copper, aluminum and gold, and various plastics, glass and wire. Such a "closed loop" manufacturing and recovery system offers a win-win situation for everyone, less of the Earth will be mined for raw materials, and groundwater will be protected, researchers explain.
4. Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers should undertake the responsibility of recycling/disposal of their own products.
5. Manufacturers of computer monitors, television sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be responsible for educating consumers and the general public regarding the potential threat to public health and the environment posed by their products. At minimum, all computer monitors, television sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be clearly labeled to identify environmental hazards and proper materials management.
 Responsibilities of the Citizen
Waste prevention is perhaps more preferred to any other waste management option including recycling. Donating electronics for reuse extends the lives of valuable products and keeps them out of the waste management system for a longer time. But care should be taken while donating such items i.e. the items should be in working condition.
Reuse, in addition to being an environmentally preferable alternative, also benefits society. By donating used electronics, schools, non-profit organizations, and lower-income families can afford to use equipment that they otherwise could not afford.
E-wastes should never be disposed with garbage and other household wastes. This should be segregated at the site and sold or donated to various organizations.
While buying electronic products opt for those that:
- are made with fewer toxic constituents
- use recycled content
- are energy efficient
- are designed for easy upgrading or disassembly
- utilize minimal packaging
- offer leasing or take back options
- have been certified by regulatory authorities. Customers should opt for upgrading their computers or other electronic items to the latest versions rather than buying new equipments.
NGOs should adopt a participatory approach in management of e-wastes.
 Related Topics
- RECYCLING – FROM E-WASTE TO RESOURCES (UN Environmental Program, 2009, 120 pages)
- Carroll, Chris (January 2008). "High-Tech Trash". National Geographic Society.