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Electronic Waste

You are currently viewing a revision titled "Electronic Waste", saved on May 3, 2014 at 12:28 am by Kathryn Bielecki
Electronic Waste

Technological innovation of the past has led to an abundance of electronic products. These products once thrown away are considered electronic waste or commonly referred to as E-waste. Electronic waste is a huge source of environmental pollution and endangers the health of people. It is the one of the fastest growing industries of recycling, thus has the potential for mass amounts of pollution to the environment. It is therefore urgent to find ways to generate less of this type of waste, and to recycle it safely.




Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

Electronics produce a lot of waste, including metals (of varying characteristics), rubber, glass and plastics - all of which can be harmful if simply thrown away.

Landfills, and any kind of improper processing of e-waste also pollute the air to breathe and water to drink, which are capable of traveling and spreading the pollution. This can have severe impacts on health of humans as well as of other living things, which can be greatly mitigated by better management practices.


Relationships to Resources

Disposal of e-waste in landfills can contribute to a greater scarcity of land, particularly in densely populated areas where landfill space competes with agricultural, urban and industrial land uses (well beyond the site of the landfill itself).

Unsafe disposal of e-waste can lead to the pollution of land, air, and water.

Recycling materials will decrease demand for new raw materials, reducing requirements for mineral resources.

Living things are negatively affected by the land use, pollution, and mining mentioned above.

The electronic items that are thrown away are a type of human-made, physical assets. Throwing them away or doing a poor job of processing them ignores their potential value.


Relationships to Organizational Forms

Electronic waste recycling relates to the natural resource management clusters in that it could help reduce the need to mine new minerals, and reduce the environmental impacts associated with disposal of electronic wastes. 

Recycling can take the form of individual sales if recyclers take individual computers from consumers for purposes of recycling. More often, however, there will be longer-term contracts between recycling businesses and companies that discard large numbers of computers (or take them back from customers), which fit in the committed sales or service cluster. If manufacturers commit themselves (or are committed by law) to take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of the products they sell, then this would fit into the same cluster.

Recycling of electronic waste also ties directly into currencies and markets. The recycling of high value and rare materials will put them back into the market, potentially counteracting the steady rise in price as supplies of virgin raw materials decline. The economics of recycling or disposal are very sensitive to labor costs, as well as government regulations (which can create markets for recycling where none existed before).


Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity


Some discussion (still missing) is needed here on why so much electronic equipment is thrown away, and why so little of that is recycled.

"Recycling" in Ghana and China

E-waste is often exported to Ghana for incredibly low prices by many companies. In Ghana, it is usually dumped into huge scrapyards that completely lack any sort of protection, causing harmful components like mercury, brominated fire retardants, and lead to leak into the soil and water.

In the scrapyard, workers with little pay and less protection search for the valuable components among the junk, prying the electronics open for valuable metals. What rubber and plastic remains is either dumped into a landfill, which pollutes the soil and water, or simply burned, which pollutes the air (Caroll; Greenpeace International)

Guiyu, a city in southern China, is home to a similar situation as Ghana's, on a far greater scale. Referred to as the "E-Waste Capital of the World," Guiyu employs well over 150,000 workers that pick through scrapyards and dumps for cables, chips, boards, cases, and batteries for reprocessing. Like in Ghana, there is rampant uncontrolled burning, grinding of plastics, and disposal that causes much pollution, leading to severe local health problems, especially lead poisoning (Basel Action Network).


Issues potentially arising from E-waste

Electronic waste has become the fastest growing solid waste around the world. While recycling using primitive practices, there can be harmful results to the environment and population in the surrounding area. A few recent issues found are listed below.

1) In Guiyu, China the children living in the area have been proven to have higher blood lead levels, due to the pollution from the E-waste(1).

2) After testing the soil in southern china near the three largest E-waste recycling cities in China (Taizhou, Guiyu, and Qingyuan) scientists found a mixture of metals and plastics including polichlorinated biphenyls (PBSs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which can cause negative effects on the environment through the water, air, and soil. Plus exposing the human population to this toxin could have side health effects (2).

Toxins that recycling companies avoid to include in recyclable products:​

  • lead and cadmium in computer circuit boards
  •  lead oxide and barium in computer monitors and T.V. cathode-ray tubes
  • mercury in switches and flat screens 
  • fire retardant used on printed circuit boards and plastic casings (3)


E-Cycling in the United States

The EPA currently maintains a database of locations in each state where electronics can be donated and recycled. Currently, this seems to be the furthest the EPA is interested in recycling laws, other than safety laws on disposal. Recycling programs generally fall to the state level. Twenty-five states (in order of adoption: California, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri, Hawai'i, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Vermont, South Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah) have adopted some variety of program dealing with the recycling, donating, or reusing of electronics in addition to various independent organizations that promote similar ideals.

Although affluent industrialized nations have laws that prohibit dumping of e-waste within the country itself, there is no law stating the waste cannot be taken elsewhere. As it is significantly cheaper to simply throw the waste material in a big hole in a country with lax laws than it is to actually process any of it, it happens far more often than it really should. Places like China and Ghana are so often chosen because of their government's extremely lax laws regarding environmental issues and the willing workforce in the area to do their own scavenging of the waste.

To stop this, there could be a United Nations-backed initiative to eliminate the unsafe dumping of e-waste in signatory countries, similar to the Basel Convention to control hazardous waste disposal, though this would still require nations to sign such an agreement. Governments in the most affected countries (such as China and Ghana) could also pass similar laws that ban dumping.

However, simple disposal just is not enough. Corporations need to be induced to recycle rather than dispose on a national level. This could be done by either making recycling more attractive, or by making the option of not recycling unattractive. How this specifically could be done is wide open; a government could either provide bonus rewards to companies that operate recycling programs that meet a set of criteria, or could simply impose taxes on waste brought to landfills. It could also require companies to take back the products it sells and recycle them safely; this would create an incentive to design their products in such a way that they are easily recyclable.


Efforts toward better Product Design

Inspired by the "Cradle-to-Cradle" concept and "Intelligent Product System," there are some efforts to develop better products. These include Phonebloks and Fairphones


Phonebloks is a project to create a phone that is modular, not unlike computers or laptops. The core of the phone is simply a circuit board with a touch screen; the rest of the functionality comes in a diverse collection of 'bloks' that are attached to the back and secured with a panel. Every bit of hardware is customizable, from the screen and internal memory to a camera or microphone. Most of the bloks would be user-contributed by various startups in addition to established brands. Very little hardware would be replaced, on a very seldom basis.


A related venture, Fairphone, has already started production. They are seeking to introduce the "fair trade" concept into the production of smartphones, ensuring that tantalum, tin and other materials used in the phone are from mines where they do not fund armed struggle and the workers are paid decently, enabling better working conditions in the factory where the smartphones are produced, producing a phone that can be used for a long time, and helping to establish methods of safe e-waste recycling. They are not fully there yet - and can not be at the current scale of operations. For example, according to one of their blog posts, the factory in Chonqing, China, were the first smartphones are being produced (December 2013) has 1000 employees, of whom only 100 are involved in producing the fairphones. In order to improve working conditions for all workers at the factory, Fairphone has begun a process involving the management of the company and the workers; in the immediate term, a $2.50 surcharge on each phone sold is put in a fund (matched by the company, thus $5 per phone) managed by a body elected by the workers and to be used for the benefit of the workers as they decide.

Note that the above paragraph is based only on the company's own web-site and a Deutsche Welle report and is thus not fully fact-checked.


Approaches to creating greater Abundance

Rather than buying a new product, consider:

  • Replacing one component or the software (check whether the electronic item can be repaired before throwing it out)
  • Buy every other new model, rather than every single new model

Companies can design modular products, and design them so that they can be easily recycled. See Intelligent Product Systems.

Manufacturing companies can take back electronic products and recycle them.

Governments can pass laws requiring manufacturers of electronic products to take them back and recycle them.

Expanding on government policies, in 2007 China started Phase 1 of their plan for economic stability. In China the Communist Party has implemented environmental regulations on electronic waste, parallel to the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) (4). During phase one Chinese companies were required to label their products with the metals contained. The regulations are not exempt from large stationary industry tools in China, unlike in the European Union. A large stationary industry tool would be considered large metal equipment used in past productions that have now been recycled. Phase 2 started soon after aiming to eliminate certain hazardous substances in products, that are due to the metal from the E-waste which can be contaminated with harmful chemicals (4). Along with these expectation the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MITT) issued a catalogue of procedures when recycling E-waste; this catalogue mainly puts emphasis on categorizing resources with "high volume" or high potential to sell and placing them above materials with low potential.This creates a greater abundance as China adopts the ideology of environmental sustainability, as it can be seen as harmful to the population surrounding. 



Basel Action Network: non-profit organization that exerts pressure on governments to stop the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, and to support the production of products that do not generate toxic waste.

Basel Convention Home Page

E-Stewards: certifies responsible e-waste recyclers in the United States; the site provides a map where you can find them.

EPA directory on eCycling

UK Electronic Waste Responsibilites



Basel Action Network. 25 Feb. 2002. Exporting Harm - The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.

Carroll, Chris. "High-Tech Trash." National Geographic January 2008.

EWASA  (E-Waste Association of South Africa)

Greenpeace International, Web. 5 Aug. 2008. Poisoning the poor - Electronic Waste in Ghana .

Leonard, Annie. 2010. The Story of Stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health - and a vision for change. New York: Free Press. See especially pages 202-206.


United Nations. United Nations Environmental Programme. Recycling - From E-waste to Resources. New York: United Nations, 2009.

(1) Xia, H., Lin, P., Xijin, X., Liangkai, Z., Bo, Q., Zongli, Q., & ... Zhongxian, P. (2007). Elevated Blood Lead Levels of Children in Guiyu, an Electronic Waste Recycling Town in China. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(7), 1113-1117.

(2) Wang, L., Hou, M., An, J., Zhong, Y., Wang, X., Wang, Y., & ... Fu, J. (2011). The cytotoxic and genetoxic effects of dust and soil samples from E-waste recycling area on L02 cells. Toxicology & Industrial Health, 27(9), 831-839. doi:10.1177/0748233711399313

(3) Prystay, C. (2004, Sep 23). Recycling 'E-waste'; Singapore company finds global edge in processing toxic computers, TVs safely. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

(4) Adam Bobrow, Paul Jones, Robin Gerofsky Kaptzan, Jin Ma and Thomas P. Redick The International Lawyer, Vol. 43, No. 2, International Legal Developments in review: 2008 (SUMMER 2009), pp. 1073-1098 Published by: American Bar Association Article Stable URL:



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