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Electronic Waste: Reasons for Change
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:

Computers, E-Waste, and Product Stewardship: Is California Ready for the Challenge?
The report examines six policy options which could catalyze creation of a system of extended product...

Extended Producer Responsibility: A Legislative Model
Summary of extended producer responsibility for several markets.

Reasons for Change

Most consumers and small businesses are unaware of the toxic materials in electronic products they rely on for word processing, data management, and access to the Internet. In general, computer equipment is composed of a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic, such as heavy metals, chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, biologically active materials, acids, plastics, and plastic additives. Due to the toxicity of these materials and the potential risk they pose to our environment and public health, it is no surprise that governments and communities alike are taking steps to address the issue.

Four main reasons are most often cited for initiating change in e-waste handling: 1) financial, 2) legislative/political, 3) environmental, and 4) public health.

According to "Computers, E-Waste, and Product Stewardship: Is California Ready for the Challenge?" (prepared by the non-profit Global Futures Foundation and the Future 500):

  • Cleaning up computer and electronic waste could cost industry as much as $232 million, or generate as much as a $36 million profit, depending on what solutions are chosen.
  • Xerox has earned more than $1 billion through an asset management program through which it takes back, disassembles, and remanufactures copy machines.

Components of a computer or other electronic products can contain gold, glass, aluminum, and tin that can be recycled. By recycling these resources, manufacturers can save significant amount of money.

Companies are also realizing the hidden costs of storing defunct electronic equipment, including storage space, insurance costs, taxes, and administrative costs associated with tracking obsolete assets that have not been removed from inventory. Companies can realize tax breaks in some cases through donation of used equipment.

Recycling or donating the equipment is a much less expensive option than disposing of the equipment as hazardous waste. Depending upon the quantity and exact nature of electronic equipment, it may be classified as hazardous waste. For complete federal hazardous waste generator requirements, consult 40 CFR Parts 260-262 and state regulatory requirements. Many states are currently considering CRTs as universal waste.

Worldwide, governments are beginning to address e-waste through legislative channels. Several states have determined that e-waste is likely in violation of RCRA regulations and thus, cannot be disposed in the regular trash. California recently banned disposal of fluorescent lamps and electronic devices for everyone in the state. California also collects an advance recovery fee on the sale of electronic products. Massachusetts banned all cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from computers and televisions, etc., from solid-waste disposal facilities effective April 1, 2000. In Maine, computer manufacturers are held responsible for handling and recycling of computer monitors. Washington and Maryland also have passed legislation on e-waste recycling.

The European Union (EU) has developed the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive to ensure that systems for collection, treatment, and recycling of electronic waste will be in place throughout the European Union. National legislation is being developed to implement this directive and is expected to be in place by the end of 2006. This directive effectively puts the responsibility for e-waste on the manufacturers of the products. This includes establishing the collection infrastructure and responsible disposal.

The Reduction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) restricts the use of six hazardous materials (lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium VI, and flame retardants polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)) in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment.

China has legislation restricting the use of hazardous materials in products and it's expected to take effect March 1, 2007. Japan's recycling laws have provided incentive for manufacturers to move to a lead-free process. Companies have been proactive in phasing out other harmful materials, also. A California law uses the EU RoHS directive as its basis and will take effect on January 1, 2007.

The exponential growth of e-waste has raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of voluntary programs. However, one way e-waste may be effectively addressed voluntarily is through the promotion of extended producer responsibility (EPR). The aim of EPR is to encourage producers to prevent pollution and reduce resource and energy use in each stage of the product life cycle through changes in product design and process technology. In its widest sense, producer responsibility is the principle that producers bear a degree of responsibility for all the environmental impacts of their products. This includes upstream impacts arising from the choice of materials and from the manufacturing process, as well as downstream impacts, i.e. from use and disposal of products. In little more than a decade, extended producer responsibility has evolved from an academic concept to a policy principal that is transforming the way the world's largest corporations do business. Since Germany prominently put the concept into practice with a comprehensive EPR mandate for packaging (1991), the policy has quickly spread throughout Europe and Asia. Today, more than a dozen countries have some form of mandated EPR, and corporations around the globe have attempted to stave off more laws by initiating their own take-back programs. The effectiveness of EPR in North America (particularly the U.S.) has yet to be adequately measured, but the concept has taken root and some successes have been documented.

Another potential reason or opportunity that may cause change in the manner that we address e-waste is social in nature. Consumers are beginning to make responsible choices in the products they purchase, and in many ways, these same consumers quite often place great pressure on local, state, and federal politicians to push legislation that will force manufacturers and local communities to address the issue of e-waste.

Health risks
Health risks from e-wastes include the following:

  • lead exposure, causing damage to nervous and reproductive systems and kidneys, and inhibiting mental development of young children and fetuses
  • Cadmium exposure, causing kidney damage and harm to fragile bones
  • Mercury exposure, causing brain damage
  • Brominated flame retardants exposure, causing neurodevelopmental problems and disrupting thyroid and liver functions
Click to see full-size image: PDF or JPG.

Environmental risks associated with e-waste are closely tied with the health risks listed above. Different chemicals and substances such as brominated flame retardants and heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) may leach into soils and water when electronic products are disposed.


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