Sustainable Waste | E-Waste. What is that? What are the issues?

In the last decades electrical and electronic products have revolutionized the world and became ubiquitous of the contemporary life around the planet. Without them, life in the modern world wouldn’t be the same. These products are used in different areas of everyday lives such as medicine, mobility, education, health, foodsupply, communication, security, environmental protection and culture. Examples of them include domestic devices like refrigerators, washing machines, mobile phones, computers, printers, toys and TVs.

What is e-waste?
Source: UNEP Author: Claudia Heberlein
The average UK citizen will discard of 3.3 tonnes of WEEE in a life time – equal to one double decker bus 

However, the amount of appliances put on market every year is increasing both in industrialized and industrializing countries [Schluep et al. 2009]. In the European Union the total weight of electronic appliances put on the market in 2005 ranged up to more than 9.3 million tons with a sensible growing rate, particularly in Eastern Europe. In the States, in 2006, more than 34 million TVs and displays have been placed on the market, while more than 24 million PCs and roughly 139 million portable communication devices such as cell phones, pagers or smart-phones. India had an installed base of about 5 million PCs in 2006, which is contributing to the 25% compounded annual growth rate in the Indian PC industry.In China roughly 14 million PCs were sold in 2005, as well as more than 48 million TVs, nearly 20 million refrigerators and 7.5 million air conditioners in 2001, both growth rate and market penetration are increasing year by year.

Owner of an e-waste scrapping yard stands in front of a mountainous pile of computer waste waiting to be scrapped to recover useful plastics and metals.

E-waste is a waste problem that can cause environmental damage, because of the hazardous materials that compose electronic products. The treatment usually look either at the separation of as much as possible of the recyclable materials, that are mainly glass, metal, and plastic, or at removing the hazardous items. However, e-waste is not only a waste problem; what is important to notice is the enormous amount of electrical and electronic appliances we are today using and at the gigantic impact they have on resource consumption, that leads to systematic depletion of those resources.

Electronic products can contain up to 60 different element: of these some are hazardous, some are valuable, some are both. Electrical and electronic appliances are a major consumer of precious resources, especially metals. Despite the legislative efforts, the majority of precious resources are lost. Several are the causes: (1) insufficient collection efforts; (2) inappropriate recycling technologies; (3) large and often illegal exports streams of e-waste into regions with no or inappropriate recycling infrastructures in place. 70% of the collected e-waste is estimated to end in unreported and unknown destinations. Large emissions of hazardous substances are associated with this. Unfortunately, these regions with inappropriate recycling infrastructure are often located in developing and transition countries. At the moment the developing and transition countries are striving to implement technologies to deal with the recycling of e-waste and to establish circular flow economies.

Export e-waste map. Source:
Who gets e-wate?
Source: UNEP Author: Philippe Rekacewicz, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

E-waste from European countries is being illegally exported to African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria or to China and India. This is a result of local authorities using unauthorized recycling firms cutting costs by shipping e-waste to developing countries rather than paying for more expensive recycling processes. Illegal recycling is a problem that authorities are attempting to tackle across the EU, where only a third of discarded electronic equipment is believed to be recycled according to European regulations. Inspections on 18 EU seaports in 2005 found that up to the 47% of waste destined for export was illegal. In the UK, 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. In the US, estimations say that 50 to 80% of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way. However, their practice is considered legal because the US has not ratified the Basel Convention.

One of the issues of this practice, apart from being illegal and un-ethically correct, is that the methods used by the ‘recycling’ sector in the developing countries to recover material is inefficient and have an heavy impact on human health and the environment. E-waste is in fact mostly open burnt, which create harmful emissions of hazardous substances coming from these different processes [UNEP]:

  1. the product itself (if landfilled): Lead in circuit boards or cathode ray tube (CRT) glass, mercury in liquid crystal display (LCD) backlights
  2. substandard processes: Dioxin formation during burning of halogenated plastics or use of smelting processes without suitable off-gas treatment
  3. reagents used in the recycling process: cyanide and other strong leaching acids, nitrogen oxides (NOx) gas from leaching processes and mercury from amalgamation


Land, G. (2010). “UK govt and European e-waste illegally dumped in Africa.” Retrieved 18.11.12, from

Lewis, A. (2010) Europe breaking electronic waste report ban. BBC News

Greenpeace (2009). “Where does e-waste end up?”. Retrieved 20.11.12, from

Schluep, M., C. Hagelueken, et al. (2009). Recycling. From E-Waste to Resources. Sustainable Innovation and Technology Transfer Industrial Sectore Studies, UNEP.

Heimbuch, J. (2008) E-Waste A Growing Problem in UK Landfills.

UNEP. “E-Waste Management.” Global Partnership on Waste Management. Retrieved 20.11.12, from


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