From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) describes loosely discarded, surplus, obsolete, broken, electrical or electronic devices. The processing of electronic waste in developing countries causes serious health and pollution problems because electronic equipment contains some very serious contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. Even in developed countries recycling and disposal of e-waste involves 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.
"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. 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 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. 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. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes discarded CRT monitors in its category of "hazardous household waste". but considers CRTs 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 may deliberately leave difficult-to-spot obsolete or non-working equipment mixed in loads of working equipment (through ignorance, or to avoid more costly treatment processes). Protectionists may broaden the definition of "waste" electronics. The high value of the computer recycling subset of electronic waste (working and reusable laptops, computers, and components like RAM) can help pay the cost of transportation for a large number of worthless "commodities".
Rapid technology change, low initial cost, 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. 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.An estimated 50 million tonnes of E-waste is produced each year. The USA discards 30 million computers each year and 100 million phones are disposed of in Europe each year.
In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics, while electronic waste represents only 2% of America's trash in landfills. The EPA states that unwanted electronics totaled 2 million tons in 2005. Discarded electronics represented 5 to 6 times as much weight as recycled electronics. The Consumer Electronics Association says that U.S. households spend an average of $1,400 annually on an average of 24 electronic items, leading to speculations of millions of tons of valuable metals sitting in desk drawers. The U.S. National Safety Council estimates that 75% of all personal computers ever sold are now gathering dust as surplus electronics. While some recycle, 7% of cellphone owners still throw away their old cellphones.
Surplus electronics have extremely high cost differentials. A single repairable laptop can be worth hundreds of dollars, while an imploded cathode ray tube (CRT) is extremely difficult and expensive to recycle. This has created a difficult free-market economy. Large quantities of used electronics are typically sold to countries with very high repair capability and high raw material demand, which can result in high accumulations of residue in poor areas without strong environmental laws. Trade in electronic waste is controlled by the Basel Convention. The Basel Convention Parties have considered the question of whether exports of hazardous used electronic equipment for repair or refurbishment are considered as Basel Convention hazardous wastes, subject to import and export controls under that Convention. In the Guidance document produced on that subject, that question was left up to the Parties, however in the working group all of the Parties present believed that when material is untested, or contains hazardous parts that would need to be replaced as part of the repair process, then the Convention did apply.
Like virgin material mining and extraction, recycling of materials from electronic scrap has raised concerns over toxicity and carcinogenicity of some of its substances and processes. Toxic substances in electronic waste may include lead, mercury, and cadmium. Carcinogenic substances in electronic waste may include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Capacitors, transformers, and wires insulated with or components coated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), manufactured before 1977, often contain dangerous amounts of PCBs.
Up to 38 separate chemical elements are incorporated into electronic waste items. Many of the plastics used in electronic equipment contain flame retardants. These are generally halogens added to the plastic resin, making the plastics difficult to recycle. Due to the flame retardants being additives, they easily leach off the material in hot weather, which is a problem because when disposed of, electronic waste is generally left outside. The flame retardants leach into the soil and recorded levels were 93 times higher than soil with no contact with electronic waste. The unsustainability of discarding electronics and computer technology is another reason commending the need to recycle or to reuse electronic waste.
When materials cannot or will not be reused, conventional recycling or disposal via landfill often follow. Standards for both approaches vary widely by jurisdiction, whether in developed or developing countries. The complexity of the various items to be disposed of, the cost of environmentally approved recycling systems, and the need for concerned and concerted action to collect and systematically process equipment are challenges. One study indicates that two thirds of executives are unaware of fines related to environmental regulations.
Increased regulation of electronic waste and concern over the environmental harm which can result from toxic electronic waste has raised disposal costs. The regulation creates an economic disincentive to remove residues prior to export. In extreme cases, brokers and others calling themselves recyclers export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, avoiding the expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes (the processing of which is expensive and difficult).
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". 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. This figure is disputed as an exaggeration by the EPA, the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, and the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association.
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. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal can cause 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 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.
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, sustainable industries in decline in developed countries. It is held that denying developing nations access to used electronics denies them affordable products and internet access.
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. 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, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria.
Today the electronic waste recycling business is in all areas of the developed world a large and rapidly consolidating business. Electronic waste processing systems have matured in recent years, following increased regulatory, public, and commercial scrutiny, and a commensurate increase in entrepreneurial interest. 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.
Consumer recycling options include donating equipment directly to organizations in need, sending devices directly back to their original manufacturers, or getting components to a convenient recycler or refurbisher.
Consumer recycling includes a variety of donation options, such as charities which may offer tax benefits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of electronic recycling and donation options for American consumers. The National Cristina Foundation, Tech Soup (the Donate Hardware List), the Computer Takeback Campaign,and the National Technology Recycling Project provide resources for recycling. However, local recycling sites that do not process waste products on site, and consumers that throw electronics in the trash, still contribute to electronic waste.
Individuals looking for environmentally-friendly ways in which to dispose of electronics can find corporate electronic takeback and recycling programs across the country. Corporations nationwide have begun to offer low-cost to no-cost recycling, open to the public in most cases, and have opened centers nationally and in some cases internationally. Such programs frequently offer services to take back and recycle electronics, including mobile phones, laptop and desktop computers, digital cameras, and home and auto electronics. Companies such as Staples, Toshiba, and Gateway offer takeback programs that provide monetary incentives for recyclable and/or working technologies. The Manufacturers Recycling Management Co. was founded by Panasonic, Sharp Corporation, and Toshiba to manage electronic waste branded by these manufacturers, including 750 tons of TVs, computers, audio equipment, faxes, and components in its first four months. Office Depot lets customers obtain "tech recycling" boxes for e-waste if not eligible for the EcoNEW tech trade-in program. Best Buy offers a similar program for products which were purchased at Best Buy. Exceptions exist in some states, which allow for the trade-in of electronics which were not purchased at Best Buy.
Though helpful to both the environment and its citizens, there are some downsides to such programs. Many corporations offer services for a variety of electronic items, while their recycling centers are few in number. Recycling centers and takeback programs are available in many parts of the country, but the type and amount of equipment to be recycled tends to be limited. Some corporations, like Sony in its Take Back Recycling Program, provide recycling incentives but only accept up to five recycled items per day and only if they are that corporation's products. Sony also partners with the Waste Management Inc. Recycle America program and offers discounts and tradeup programs. Costco, which offers free shipping and handling for all recycled pieces of equipment, will only allow Costco club members to participate in their programs. Crutchfield Electronics offers its own gift cards in exchange for electronic waste, through Consumer Electronics Exchange. Hewlett-Packard has recycled over 750 million pounds of electronic waste globally, including hardware and print cartridges.
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.org, 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 (electronicstakeback.com) 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 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.
- 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.
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. 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 often cheapest in countries with the lowest health and safety standards.
In an alternative bulk system, a hopper conveys material for shredding into a sophisticated 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. Most 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 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.
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.
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 (radioactive source).
- Mercury: fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (pinball games, mechanical doorbells, thermostats). With new technologies arising, the elimination of mercury in many new-model computers is taking place.
- Sulfur: lead-acid batteries.
- PCBs: prior to ban, almost all 1930s–1970s equipment, including capacitors, transformers, wiring insulation, paints, inks, and flexible sealants.
- Cadmium: light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, nickel-cadmium batteries.
- Lead: old 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.
- 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.
- Germanium: 1950s–1960s transistorized electronics (bipolar junction transistors).
- 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.
- Electronic waste by country
- Digger gold
- Green computing
- Polychlorinated biphenyls
- Retail hazardous waste
- Basel Convention
- Material safety data sheet
- International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement
- Solving the E-waste Problem
- World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association
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