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Electronic Waste: Background and Overview
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Reasons for Change
P2 Opportunities
Corporate and Non-Profit Initiatives
Options for E-Waste
Where to go for Help
Complete List of Links

Essential Links:

Electronics Reuse and Recycling
A manual that addresses reasons for proper management of electronic wastes, including regulatory obl...

Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse
A 62-page study by GAO that summarizes information on the volumes of and problems associated with us...

What Is E-Waste?
The California Integrated Waste Management Board's (CIWMB) e-waste Web page provides a good introduc...

Electronic Waste Background and Overview

Welcome to the Topic Hub for Electronic Waste, a.k.a. e-waste. This primer is intended for individuals or programs interested in addressing and learning about e-waste and its associated health and environmental issues. The format of this resource is structured to help you easily access the best available information on e-waste, which includes information on the toxic components contained in electronics, its improper disposal, its potential environmental and health effects, legislative information, and resources that are available to help individuals and companies properly manage their e-waste disposal.

What is e-waste?
There is no clear definition of e-waste. For purposes of this resource, e-waste can be defined as electronic products nearing the end of their useful life, such as

  • office and communication equipment (PCs, printers, phones, faxes, etc.)
  • entertainment electronics (TVs, HiFi's, portable CD and DVD players, etc.)
  • surveillance equipment

The problem
Unlike common household waste, e-waste poses a unique dilemma for our nation where landfill disposal is concerned. Generally speaking, computers and other electronic equipment are a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic such as toxic metals, chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, biologically active materials, acids, plastics, and plastic additives. When disposed in aggregate, many of these substances can leach into our soil and water sources, thus affecting our environment and potentially affecting our health. When this material is burned, toxic gases are released into the atmosphere and ash is contaminated with heavy metals. Additionally, disposal of electronics prevents recovery of valuable resources such as copper, gold, and aluminum.

There are four root problems with electronic waste:

  • volume of computers and related e-waste improperly disposed in landfills
  • toxicity of computer components and the cathode ray tube monitor (CRT) itself as a waste product
  • short life span of electronic devices
  • expense of recycling since devices are designed for disposal rather than dismantling of components

Currently, the United States is the largest consumer of electronics in the world, thus making it the largest generator of e-waste as well. Millions of computers are currently stored in warehouses, basements, and storage rooms across the nation, waiting to be either disposed or recycled. Many people have the impression that retired electronic products have substantial residual value, i.e., that it is useful to someone. However, the older equipment gets, the more quickly its value fades, and the more it costs in terms of wasted storage space. Unfortunately, statistics show that the problem will only get worse in the future:

  • The U.S. generates five to seven million tons of electronic waste each year.
  • Electronics already make up approximately 2-5% of the municipal solid waste stream. Research indicates that electronic waste is growing at three times the rate of other municipal wastes.
  • Only 10% of the approximate 13 million computers taken out of service each year in the U.S. are reused or recycled. About 15% are landfilled, and a whopping 75% are stockpiled. An estimated ten million more are sitting in storage somewhere gathering dust, according to a report from the National Safety Council. (Once the decision is made to retire computers, they should be donated or resold as soon as possible to maximize the value of the equipment.)
  • Federal regulations require a switch to digital TV broadcasts by 2009. Consumers may be motivated buy new televisions in order to enjoy the full picture quality and dispose of their old systems.

Besides taking up space in empty cubicles, storerooms, or garages, end-of-life electronics pose significant environmental risks that can adversely affect human health if not managed properly.

Many of these products (notably those with cathode ray tubes (CRTs), circuit boards, batteries, and mercury switches) contain hazardous or toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and some types of flame retardants. Many of these parts contain sufficient amounts to be considered "hazardous" according to federal standards.

An E-Waste Report, conducted in 2004 by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control Hazardous Material Laboratory (CDTSC HML), tested seven electronic product types (microwave ovens, VCRs, printers, CPUs, cell phones, telephones, and radios) of various brands and models to determine their toxicity.

  • All products exceeded at least one hazardous waste criterion.
  • Lead was the most common element exceeding its limit.
  • Cell phones exceeded the most regulatory thresholds compared to the other products tested. (Sb, Cu, Cr, Ni, and Pb on total threshold limit concentrations (TTLC)).
  • All products except microwave ovens exceeded the TTLC and toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP) regulatory thresholds.
  • All products except CPUs exceeded at least one soluble threshold limit concentration (STLC).

Determination of regulated elements in discarded laptop computers, LCD monitors, plasma TVs, and LCD TVs found circuit boards exceeded the TTLC for copper and toxicity characteristic (TC) limit for lead. Plasma TV inner panels exceeded the TTLC, TC, and STLC for lead.

A study by the University of Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management found that the frit seal on a color CRT, which comprises less than 1% of the total mass, is 70%-80% lead. About 70% of the lead in a CRT comes from the funnel, 15% from the front panel, 1% from the neck, 2% from the frit, and 4% from the printed wiring boards. Liquid crystal displays (LCD) only have lead in the circuit boards.

Nickel cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are commonly used in laptop computers and cellular telephones. These batteries are classified as hazardous waste and should be recycled.

Consumer electronics constitute 40% of lead found in landfills. Heavy metals become concentrated in the ash of waste-to-energy facilities, limiting their disposal and reuse. The main concern in regard to presence of lead in landfills is the potential for the lead to leach and contaminate drinking water supplies. If the lead in drinking water is ingested in sufficient amounts, it can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system, and kidneys. Effects on the endocrine system have also been observed, and serious impairment on children's brain development has been well documented by medical professionals. Lead accumulates in the environment and has high acute and chronic toxic effects on plants, animals, and microorganisms.

Short life span
The speed in which technological advances and improvements in electronic products is made is staggering, rendering formerly cutting-edge electronics obsolete. For instance, in 1997 the lifespan of a computer was four to six years. By the end of 2005, the lifespan of a computer is expected to be a little over two years. These improvements ensure an increasing stream of e-waste in the near future, which, in turn, may affect municipal budgets (an increased waste stream generally means more land and more equipment) and potentially increase environmental and health risks if the waste is not properly managed.

  • The average lifespan of personal computers will be 2.4 years by 2005.
  • Cell phones are replaced approximately after 18 months of use, which will result in more than 130 million phones being disposed of annually by 2005.

Expense of recycling
Typically consumers and businesses must pay a fee to get computers and other e-waste recycled. Some recyclers charge by the pound, some charge a flat rate. Often, the charge ranges from $10 to $30 for the service. The value of commodities recovered from computer equipment, such as shredded plastic, copper, and aluminum, is only around $1.50 to $2.00 per unit. Labor costs associated with disassembly are about half the cost of recycling.

Additionally, recyclers are faced with the need for a consistent source of material to be recycled, and a viable market for components and raw materials recovered from e-waste. Lead and mercury that are recovered must be reused or retired. Proximity to smelters, precious metal recyclers, steel reclamation, and plastic recovery/reuse facilities is important, as all recycling profits are adversely affected by transportation costs. In addition to infrastructure to sustain downstream recycling, there is much discussion in the industry on "certification" programs for due diligence. Where do the materials go, and how are they handled?

Leaded glass and plastics are the most problematic materials to recycle. CRT glass can and is being used as a feedstock for new CRT glass. Plastics are typically not well identified, and separation of different resins is problematic.


The Topic Hub™ is a product of the Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange (P2Rx)

The Electronic Waste Topic Hub™ was developed by:

Western Sustainability Pollution Prevention Network
Western Sustainability Pollution Prevention Network
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Hub Last Updated: 10/23/2006