Electronic waste

Electronic waste or e-waste describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for refurbishment, reuse, resale, salvage recycling through material recovery, or disposal are also considered e-waste. Informal processing of e-waste in developing countries can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.

Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to health of workers and communities in developed countries.[1]


Hoarding (left), disassembling (center) and collecting (right) electronic waste in Bengaluru, India

E-waste or electronic waste is created when an electronic product is discarded after the end of its useful life. The rapid expansion of technology and the consumption driven society results in the creation of a very large amount of e-waste in every minute.[2]

The European WEEE Directive classifies waste in ten categories: Large household appliances (including cooling and freezing appliances), Small household appliances, IT equipment (including monitors), Consumer electronics (including TVs), Lamps and Luminaires, Toys, Tools, Medical devices, Monitoring and control instruments and Automatic dispensers. These include used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal as well as re-usables (working and repairable electronics) and secondary raw materials (copper, steel, plastic, etc.). The term "waste" is reserved for residue or material which is dumped 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" and "e-scrap" broadly to all surplus electronics. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are considered one of the hardest types to recycle.[3]

CRTs have a relatively high concentration of lead and phosphors (not to be confused with phosphorus), both of which are necessary for the display. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes discarded CRT monitors in its category of "hazardous household waste"[4] but considers CRTs that have been set aside for testing to be commodities if they are not discarded, speculatively accumulated, or left unprotected from weather and other damage. These CRT devices are often confused between the DLP Rear Projection TV, both of which have a different recycling process due to the materials of which they are composed.

The EU and its member states operate a system via the European Waste Catalogue (EWC) - a European Council Directive, which is interpreted into "member state law". In the UK, this is in the form of the List of Wastes Directive. However, the list (and EWC) gives a broad definition (EWC Code 16 02 13*) of what is hazardous electronic waste, requiring "waste operators" to employ the Hazardous Waste Regulations (Annex 1A, Annex 1B) for refined definition. Constituent materials in the waste also require assessment via the combination of Annex II and Annex III, again allowing operators to further determine whether a waste is hazardous.[5]

Debate continues over the distinction between "commodity" and "waste" electronics definitions. Some exporters are accused of deliberately leaving difficult-to-recycle, obsolete, or non-repairable equipment mixed in loads of working equipment (though this may also come through ignorance, or to avoid more costly treatment processes). Protectionists may broaden the definition of "waste" electronics in order to protect domestic markets from working secondary equipment.

The high value of the computer recycling subset of electronic waste (working and reusable laptops, desktops, and components like RAM) can help pay the cost of transportation for a larger number of worthless pieces than what can be achieved with display devices, which have less (or negative) scrap value. In A 2011 report, "Ghana E-Waste Country Assessment",[6] found that of 215,000 tons of electronics imported to Ghana, 30% were brand new and 70% were used. Of the used product, the study concluded that 15% was not reused and was scrapped or discarded. This contrasts with published but uncredited claims that 80% of the imports into Ghana were being burned in primitive conditions.

Amount of electronic waste worldwide

Rapid changes in technology, changes in media (tapes, software, MP3), falling prices, and planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste around the globe. Technical solutions are available, but in most cases, a legal framework, a collection, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied.

Display units (CRT, LCD, LED monitors), processors (CPU, GPU, or APU chips), memory (DRAM or SRAM), and audio components have different useful lives. Processors are most frequently out-dated (by software no longer being optimized) and are more likely to become "e-waste" while display units are most often replaced while working without repair attempts, due to changes in wealthy nation appetites for new display technology. This problem could potentially be solved with modular smartphones or Phonebloks. These types of phones are more durable and have the technology to change certain parts of the phone making them more environmentally friendly. Being able to simply replace the part of the phone that is broken will reduce e-waste.[7] An estimated 50 million tons of E-waste are produced each year.[8] The USA discards 30 million computers each year and 100 million phones are disposed of in Europe each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 15–20% of e-waste is recycled, the rest of these electronics go directly into landfills and incinerators.[9][10]

In 2006, the United Nations estimated the amount of worldwide electronic waste discarded each year to be 50 million metric tons.[11] According to a report by UNEP titled, "Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources," the amount of e-waste being produced – including mobile phones and computers – could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in some countries, such as India.[12] The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons each year.[13] China already produces about 2.3 million tons (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.[13]

Society today revolves around technology and by the constant need for the newest and most high-tech products we are contributing to a mass amount of e-waste.[14] Since the invention of the iPhone, cell phones have become the top source of e-waste products because they are not made to last more than two years. Electrical waste contains hazardous but also valuable and scarce materials. Up to 60 elements can be found in complex electronics.[15] As of 2013, Apple has sold over 796 million iDevices (iPod, iPhone, iPad). Cell phone companies make cell phones that are not made to last so that the consumer will purchase new phones. Companies give these products such short lifespans because they know that the consumer will want a new product and will buy it if they make it.[16] In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.[17][18]

While there is agreement that the number of discarded electronic devices is increasing, there is considerable disagreement about the relative risk (compared to automobile scrap, for example), and strong disagreement whether curtailing trade in used electronics will improve conditions, or make them worse. According to an article in Motherboard, attempts to restrict the trade have driven reputable companies out of the supply chain, with unintended consequences.[19]

Global trade issues

One theory is that increased regulation of electronic wastes and concern over the environmental harm in nature economies creates an economic disincentive to remove residues prior to export. Critics of trade in used electronics maintain that it is still too easy for brokers calling themselves recyclers to export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, such as China,[20] India and parts of Africa, thus avoiding the expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes (the processing of which is expensive and difficult). The developing countries have become toxic dump yards of e-waste. Developing countries receiving foreign e-waste often go further to repair and recycle forsaken equipment.[21] Yet still 90% of e-waste ended up in landfills in developing countries in 2003.[21] Proponents of international trade point to the success of fair trade programs in other industries, where cooperation has led to creation of sustainable jobs and can bring affordable technology in countries where repair and reuse rates are higher.

Defenders of the trade in used electronics say that extraction of metals from virgin mining has been shifted to developing countries. Recycling of copper, silver, gold, and other materials from discarded electronic devices is considered better for the environment than mining. 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 labour standards, cheap labour, and the relatively high value of recovered raw materials lead to a transfer of pollution-generating activities, such as smelting 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".[22]

Because the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention or its Ban Amendment, and has few domestic federal 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.[23][24][25][26] This figure is disputed as an exaggeration by the EPA, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, and the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association.

Independent research by Arizona State University showed that 87–88% of imported used computers did not have a higher value than the best value of the constituent materials they contained, and that "the official trade in end-of-life computers is thus driven by reuse as opposed to recycling".[27]


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 re-manufacturing, unsustainable industries in decline in developed countries. Denying developing nations access to used electronics may deny them sustainable employment, affordable products, and internet access, or force them to deal with even less scrupulous suppliers. In a series of seven articles for The Atlantic, Shanghai-based reporter Adam Minter describes many of these computer repair and scrap separation activities as objectively sustainable.[28]

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 non-valuable 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.[26]

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.[29] Concern over exports of electronic waste were raised in press reports in India,[30][31] Ghana,[32][33][34] Côte d'Ivoire,[35] and Nigeria.[36]

The research that was undertaken by the Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT) project, funded by European Commission, found that in Europe, only 35% (3.3 million tons) of all the e-waste discarded in 2012, ended up in the officially reported amounts of collection and recycling systems. The other 65% (6.15 million tons) was either:

  • exported (1.5 million tons),
  • recycled under non-compliant conditions in Europe (3.15 million tons),
  • scavenged for valuable parts (750,000 tons)
  • or simply thrown in waste bins (750,000 tons).[37]


Guiyu in the Shantou region of China is a massive electronic waste processing community.[23][38][39] It is often referred to as the "e-waste capital of the world." Traditionally, Guiyu was an agricultural community; however, in the mid-1990s it transformed into an e-waste recycling center involving over 75% of the local households and an additional 100,000 migrant workers.[40] Thousands of individual workshops employ laborers to snip cables, pry chips from circuit boards, grind plastic computer cases into particles, and dip circuit boards in acid baths to dissolve the precious metals. Others work to strip insulation from all wiring in an attempt to salvage tiny amounts of copper wire.[41] Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal has led to a number of environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution, and water pollution either by immediate discharge or from surface runoff (especially near coastal areas), as well as health problems including occupational safety and health effects among those directly and indirectly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste.

Six of the many villages in Guiyu specialize in circuit-board disassembly, seven in plastics and metals reprocessing, and two in wire and cable disassembly. Greenpeace, an environmental group, sampled dust, soil, river sediment, and groundwater in Guiyu. They found very high levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants in both places.[42] Lai Yun, a campaigner for the group found "over 10 poisonous metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium."

Guiyu is only one example of digital dumps but similar places can be found across the world in Nigeria, Ghana, and India.[43]

Other informal e-waste recycling sites

Guiyu is likely one of the oldest and largest informal e-waste recycling sites in the world; however, there are many sites worldwide, including India, Ghana (Agbogbloshie), Nigeria, and the Philippines. Most research involving informal e-waste recycling has been done in Guiyu, but there are a handful of studies that describe exposure levels in e-waste workers, the community, and the environment. For example, locals and migrant workers in Delhi, a northern union territory of India, scavenge discarded computer equipment and extract base metals using toxic, unsafe methods.[44] Bangalore, located in southern India, is often referred as the "Silicon Valley of India" and has a growing informal e-waste recycling sector.[45][46] A studies found that e-waste workers in the slum community had higher levels of V, Cr, Mn, Mo, Sn, Tl, and Pb than workers at an e-waste recycling facility.[45]

Environmental impact

The processes of dismantling and disposing of electronic waste in developing countries led to a number of environmental impacts as illustrated in the graphic. Liquid and atmospheric releases end up in bodies of water, groundwater, soil, and air and therefore in land and sea animals – both domesticated and wild, in crops eaten by both animals and human, and in drinking water.[47]

One study of environmental effects in Guiyu, China found the following:[8]

  • Airborne dioxins – one type found at 100 times levels previously measured
  • Levels of carcinogens in duck ponds and rice paddies exceeded international standards for agricultural areas and cadmium, copper, nickel, and lead levels in rice paddies were above international standards
  • Heavy metals found in road dust – lead over 300 times that of a control village's road dust and copper over 100 times

A separate study at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Ghana found a presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in the soil.[48] US EPA standard for lead in soil in play areas is 400 ppm and 1200 ppm for non-play areas.[49] Scrap workers at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump regularly burn electronic components and auto harness wires for copper recovery[50], releasing toxic chemicals like lead, dioxins and furans[51] into the environment.

The environmental impact of the processing of different electronic waste components

E-Waste ComponentProcess UsedPotential Environmental Hazard
Cathode ray tubes (used in TVs, computer monitors, ATM, video cameras, and more)Breaking and removal of yoke, then dumpingLead, barium and other heavy metals leaching into the ground water and release of toxic phosphor
Printed circuit board (image behind table – a thin plate on which chips and other electronic components are placed)De-soldering and removal of computer chips; open burning and acid baths to remove metals after chips are removed.Air emissions and discharge into rivers of glass dust, tin, lead, brominated dioxin, beryllium cadmium, and mercury
Chips and other gold plated componentsChemical stripping using nitric and hydrochloric acid and burning of chipsPAHs, heavy metals, brominated flame retardants discharged directly into rivers acidifying fish and flora. Tin and lead contamination of surface and groundwater. Air emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals, and PAHs
Plastics from printers, keyboards, monitors, etc.Shredding and low temp melting to be reusedEmissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons
Computer wiresOpen burning and stripping to remove copperPAHs released into air, water, and soil.


Information security

E-waste presents a potential security threat to individuals and exporting countries. Hard drives that are not properly erased before the computer is disposed of can be reopened, exposing sensitive information. Credit card numbers, private financial data, account information, and records of online transactions can be accessed by most willing individuals. Organized criminals in Ghana commonly search the drives for information to use in local scams.[53] Electronic files about government contracts have been discovered on hard drives found in Agbogbloshie. Multimillion-dollar agreements from United States security institutions such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Transportation Security Administration, and Homeland Security have all resurfaced in Agbogbloshie.[53][54]


Recycling is an essential element of e-waste management. Properly carried out, it should greatly reduce the leakage of toxic materials into the environment and mitigate against the exhaustion of natural resources. However, it does need to be encouraged by local authorities and through community education.

One of the major challenges is recycling the printed circuit boards from the electronic wastes. The circuit boards contain such precious metals as gold, silver, platinum, etc. and such base metals as copper, iron, aluminum, etc. One way e-waste is processed is by melting circuit boards, burning cable sheathing to recover copper wire and open- pit acid leaching for separating metals of value.[8] Conventional method employed is mechanical shredding and separation but the recycling efficiency is low. Alternative methods such as cryogenic decomposition have been studied for printed circuit board recycling,[55] and some other methods are still under investigation. Properly disposing of or reusing electronics can help prevent health problems, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and create jobs.[56] Reuse and refurbishing offer a more environmentally friendly and socially conscious alternative to downcycling processes.

Consumer awareness efforts

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency encourages electronic recyclers to become certified by demonstrating to an accredited, independent third party auditor that they meet specific standards to safely recycle and manage electronics. This should work so as to ensure the highest environmental standards are being maintained. Two certifications for electronic recyclers currently exist and are endorsed by the EPA. Customers are encouraged to choose certified electronics recyclers. Responsible electronics recycling reduces environmental and human health impacts, increases the use of reusable and refurbished equipment and reduces energy use while conserving limited resources. The two EPA-endorsed certification programs are Responsible Recyclers Practices (R2) and E-Stewards. Certified companies ensure they are meeting strict environmental standards which maximize reuse and recycling, minimize exposure to human health or the environment, ensure safe management of materials and require destruction of all data used on electronics.[57] Certified electronics recyclers have demonstrated through audits and other means that they continually meet specific high environmental standards and safely manage used electronics. Once certified, the recycler is held to the particular standard by continual oversight by the independent accredited certifying body. A certification board accredits and oversees certifying bodies to ensure that they meet specific responsibilities and are competent to audit and provide certification.[58]

Some U.S. retailers offer opportunities for consumer recycling of discarded electronic devices.[59][60] In the US, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) urges consumers to dispose properly of end-of-life electronics through its recycling locator at www.GreenerGadgets.org. This list only includes manufacturer and retailer programs that use the strictest standards and third-party certified recycling locations, to provide consumers assurance that their products will be recycled safely and responsibly. CEA research has found that 58 percent of consumers know where to take their end-of-life electronics, and the electronics industry would very much like to see that level of awareness increase. Consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers sponsor or operate more than 5,000 recycling locations nationwide and have vowed to recycle one billion pounds annually by 2016,[61] a sharp increase from 300 million pounds industry recycled in 2010.

The Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Electronic Challenge was created by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012.[62] Participants of the Challenge are manufacturers of electronics and electronic retailers. These companies collect end-of-life (EOL) electronics at various locations and send them to a certified, third-party recycler. Program participants are then able publicly promote and report 100% responsible recycling for their companies.[63] The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC)[64] 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.[65] While there have been major benefits from the rise in recycling and waste collection created by producers and consumers, such as valuable materials being recovered and kept away from landfill and incineration, there are still many problems present with the EPR system including “how to ensure proper enforcement of recycling standards, what to do about waste with positive net value, and the role of competition,” (Kunz et al.). Many stakeholders agreed there needs to be a higher standard of accountability and efficiency to improve the systems of recycling everywhere, as well as the growing amount of waste being an opportunity more so than downfall since it gives us more chances to create an efficient system. To make recycling competition more cost-effective, the producers agreed that there needs to be a higher drive for competition because it allows them to have a wider range of producer responsibility organizations to choose from for e-waste recycling.[66]

The Certified Electronics Recycler program[67] for electronic recyclers is a comprehensive, integrated management system standard that incorporates key operational and continual improvement elements for quality, environmental and health and safety performance. The grassroots Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition promotes human health and addresses environmental justice problems resulting from toxins in technologies. 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. Take Back My TV[68] is a project of The Electronics TakeBack Coalition and grades television manufacturers to find out which are responsible, in the coalition's view, and which are not.

There have also been efforts to raise awareness of the potentially hazardous conditions of the dismantling of e-waste in American prisons. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, prisoner-rights activists, and environmental groups released a Toxic Sweatshops report that details how prison labor is being used to handle e-waste, resulting in health consequences among the workers.[69] These groups allege that, since prisons do not have adequate safety standards, inmates are dismantling the products under unhealthy and unsafe conditions.[70]

Processing techniques

In many developed countries, electronic waste processing usually first involves dismantling the equipment into various parts (metal frames, power supplies, circuit boards, plastics), often by hand, but increasingly by automated shredding equipment. A typical example is the NADIN electronic waste processing plant in Novi Iskar, Bulgaria—the largest facility of its kind in Eastern Europe.[71][72] 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 cheapest in countries with the lowest health and safety standards.

In an alternative bulk system,[73] a hopper conveys material for shredding into an unsophisticated 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. Some 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".[74] An ideal electronic waste recycling plant combines dismantling for component recovery with increased cost-effective processing of bulk electronic waste. Reuse is an alternative 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.

Benefits of recycling

Recycling raw materials from end-of-life electronics is the most effective solution to the growing e-waste problem. Most electronic devices contain a variety of materials, including metals that can be recovered for future uses. By dismantling and providing reuse possibilities, intact natural resources are conserved and air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal is avoided. Additionally, recycling reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacturing of new products.[75] Another benefit of recycling e-waste is that many of the materials can be recycled and re-used again. Materials that can be recycled include "ferrous (iron-based) and non-ferrous metals, glass, and various types of plastic." “Non-ferrous metals, mainly aluminum and copper can all be re-smelted and re-manufactured. Ferrous metals such as steel and iron also can be re-used."[76] Due to the recent surge in popularity in 3D printing, certain 3D printers have been designed (FDM variety) to produce waste that can be easily recycled which decreases the amount of harmful pollutants in the atmosphere.[77] The excess plastic from these printers that comes out as a byproduct can also be reused to create new 3D printed creations.[78]

Benefits of recycling are extended when responsible recycling methods are used. In the U.S., responsible recycling aims to minimize the dangers to human health and the environment that disposed and dismantled electronics can create. Responsible recycling ensures best management practices of the electronics being recycled, worker health and safety, and consideration for the environment locally and abroad.[79] In Europe, metals that are recycled are returned to companies of origin at a reduced cost.[80] Through a committed recycling system, manufacturers in Japan have been pushed to make their products more sustainable. Since many companies were responsible for the recycling of their own products, this imposed responsibility on manufacturers requiring many to redesign their infrastructure. As a result, manufacturers in Japan have the added option to sell the recycled metals.[81]


One of the factors which exacerbate the e-waste problem is the diminishing lifetime of many electrical and electronic goods. There are two drivers (in particular) for this trend. On the one hand, consumer demand for low cost products mitigates against product quality and results in short product lifetimes.[82] On the other, manufacturers in some sectors encourage a regular upgrade cycle, and may even enforce it though restricted availability of spare parts, service manuals and software updates, or through planned obsolescence.

Consumer dissatisfaction with this state of affairs has led to a growing repair movement. Often, this is at a community level such as through repair cafės or the "restart parties" promoted by the Restart Project.[83]

The "Right to Repair" is spearheaded in the US by farmers dissatisfied with non-availability of service information, specialised tools and spare parts for their high-tech farm machinery. But the movement extends far beyond farm machinery with, for example, the restricted repair options offered by Apple coming in for criticism. Manufacturers often counter with safety concerns resulting from unauthorised repairs and modifications.[84]

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 jewellery. Substances found in large quantities include epoxy resins, fiberglass, PCBs, PVC (polyvinyl chlorides), thermosetting plastics, lead, tin, copper, silicon, beryllium, carbon, iron, and aluminium. Elements found in small amounts include cadmium, mercury, and thallium.[85] 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,[86] 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:


E-Waste ComponentElectric Appliances in which they are foundAdverse Health Effects
AmericiumThe radioactive source in smoke alarms.It is known to be carcinogenic.[87]
LeadSolder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC. A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead,[4] but other CRTs have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead.Adverse effects of lead exposure include impaired cognitive function, behavioral disturbances, attention deficits, hyperactivity, conduct problems, and lower IQ.[88] These effects are most damaging to children whose developing nervous systems are very susceptible to damage caused by lead, cadmium, and mercury.[89]
MercuryFound in fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats),[90] and ccfl backlights in flat screen monitors.Health effects include sensory impairment, dermatitis, memory loss, and muscle weakness. Exposure in-utero causes fetal deficits in motor function, attention, and verbal domains.[88] Environmental effects in animals include death, reduced fertility, and slower growth and development.
CadmiumFound in light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, and nickel-cadmium batteries. The most common form of cadmium is found in Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries. These batteries tend to contain between 6 and 18% cadmium. The sale of Nickel-Cadmium batteries has been banned in the European Union except for medical use. When not properly recycled it can leach into the soil, harming microorganisms and disrupting the soil ecosystem. Exposure is caused by proximity to hazardous waste sites and factories and workers in the metal refining industry.The inhalation of cadmium can cause severe damage to the lungs and is also known to cause kidney damage.[91] Cadmium is also associated with deficits in cognition, learning, behavior, and neuromotor skills in children.[88]
Hexavalent chromiumUsed in metal coatings to protect from corrosion.A known carcinogen after occupational inhalation exposure.[88]

There is also evidence of cytotoxic and genotoxic effects of some chemicals, which have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation, cause cell membrane lesion, cause DNA single-strand breaks, and elevate Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) levels.[92]

SulfurFound in lead-acid batteries.Health effects include liver damage, kidney damage, heart damage, eye and throat irritation. When released into the environment, it can create sulfuric acid through sulfur dioxide.
Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs)Used as flame retardants in plastics in most electronics. Includes PBBs, PBDE, DecaBDE, OctaBDE, PentaBDE.Health effects include impaired development of the nervous system, thyroid problems, liver problems.[93] Environmental effects: similar effects as in animals as humans. PBBs were banned from 1973 to 1977 on. PCBs were banned during the 1980s.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)Used as an antistatic additive in industrial applications and found in electronics, also found in non-stick cookware (PTFE). PFOAs are formed synthetically through environmental degradation.Studies in mice have found the following health effects: Hepatotoxicity, developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, hormonal effects and carcinogenic effects. Studies have found increased maternal PFOA levels to be associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) and stillbirth. Increased maternal levels of PFOA are also associated with decreases in mean gestational age (preterm birth), mean birth weight (low birth weight), mean birth length (small for gestational age), and mean APGAR score.[94]
Beryllium oxideFiller in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heatsinks for CPUs and power transistors,[95] magnetrons, X-ray-transparent ceramic windows, heat transfer fins in vacuum tubes, and gas lasers.Occupational exposures associated with lung cancer, other common adverse health effects are beryllium sensitization, chronic beryllium disease, and acute beryllium disease.[96]
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Commonly found in electronics and is typically used as insulation for electrical cables.[97] In the manufacturing phase, toxic and hazardous raw material, including dioxins are released. PVC such as chlorine tend to bioaccumulate.[98] Over time, the compounds that contain chlorine can become pollutants in the air, water, and soil. This poses a problem as human and animals can ingest them. Additionally, exposure to toxins can result in reproductive and developmental health effects.[99]

Generally non-hazardous

E-Waste ComponentProcess Used
Aluminiumnearly all electronic goods using more than a few watts of power (heatsinks), electrolytic capacitors.
Coppercopper wire, printed circuit board tracks, component leads.
Germanium[86]1950s–1960s transistorized electronics (bipolar junction transistors).
Goldconnector plating, primarily in computer equipment.
Lithiumlithium-ion batteries.
Nickelnickel-cadmium batteries.
Siliconglass, transistors, ICs, printed circuit boards.
Tinsolder, coatings on component leads.
Zincplating for steel parts.

Human health and safety

Residents living near the recycling sites

Residents living around the e-waste recycling sites, even if they do not involve in e-waste recycling activities, can also face the environmental exposure due to the food, water, and environmental contamination caused by e-waste, because they can easily contact to e-waste contaminated air, water, soil, dust, and food sources. In general, there are three main exposure pathways: inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact.[100]

Studies show that people living around e-waste recycling sites have a higher daily intake of heavy metals and a more serious body burden. Potential health risks include mental health, impaired cognitive function, and general physical health damage.[101](See also Electronic waste#Hazardous) DNA damage was also found more prevalent in all the e-waste exposed populations (i.e. adults, children, and neonates) than the populations in the control area.[101] DNA breaks can increase the likelihood of wrong replication and thus mutation, as well as lead to cancer if the damage is to a tumor suppressor gene.[92]

Prenatal exposure and neonates' health

Prenatal exposure to e-waste has found to have adverse effects on human body burden of pollutants of the neonates. In Guiyu, one of the most famous e-waste recycling sites in China, it was found that increased cord blood lead concentration of neonates was associated with parents' participation in e-waste recycling processes, as well as how long the mothers spent living in Guiyu and in e-waste recycling factories or workshops during pregnancy.[100] Besides, a higher placental metallothionein (a small protein marking the exposure of toxic metals) was found among neonates from Guiyu as a result of Cd exposure, while the higher Cd level in Guiyu's neonates was related to the involvement in e-waste recycling of their parents.[102] High PFOA exposure of mothers in Guiyu is related to adverse effect on growth of their new-born and the prepotency in this area.[103]

Prenatal exposure to informal e-waste recycling can also lead to several adverse birth outcomes (still birth, low birth weight, low Apgar scores, etc.) and longterm effects such as behavioral and learning problems of the neonates in their future life.[104]


Children are especially sensitive to e-waste exposure because of several reasons, such as their smaller size, higher metabolism rate, larger surface area in relation to their weight, and multiple exposure pathways (for example, dermal, hand-to-mouth, and take-home exposure).[105][101] They were measured to have an 8-time potential health risk compared to the adult e-waste recycling workers.[101] Studies have found significant higher blood lead levels (BLL) and blood cadmium levels (BCL) of children living in e-waste recycling area compared to those living in control area.[106][107] For example, one study found that the average BLL in Guiyu was nearly 1.5 times compared to that in the control site (15.3 ug/dL compared to 9.9 ug/dL),[106] while the CDC of the United States has set a reference level for blood lead at 5 ug/dL.[108] The highest concentrations of lead were found in the children of parents whose workshop dealt with circuit boards and the lowest was among those who recycled plastic.[106]

Exposure to e-waste can cause serious health problems to children. Children's exposure to developmental neurotoxins containing in e-waste such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and PBDEs can lead to a higher risk of lower IQ, impaired cognitive function, and other adverse effects.[109] In certain age groups, a decreased lung function of children in e-waste recycling sites has been found.[100] Some studies also found associations between children's e-waste exposure and impaired coagulation,[110] hearing loss,[111] and decreased vaccine antibody tilters[112] in e-waste recycling area.

E-waste recycling workers

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has summarized several potential safety hazards of recycling workers in general, such as crushing hazards, hazardous energy released, and toxic metals.[113]

Hazards applicable to recycling in general
Hazards Details
Slips, trips, and falls They can happen during collecting and transporting e-wastes.
Crushing hazards Workers can be stuck or crushed by the machine or the e-waste. There can be traffic accidents when transporting e-waste. Using machines that have moving parts, such as conveyors and rolling machines can also cause crush accidents, leading to amputations, crushed fingers or hands.
Hazardous energy released Unexpected machine startup can cause death or injury to workers. This can happen during the installation, maintenance, or repair of machines, equipment, processes, or systems.
Cuts and lacerations Hands or body injuries and eye injuries can occur when dismantling e-wastes that have sharp edges.
Noise Working overtime near loud noises from drilling, hammering, and other tools that can make a great noise lead to hearing loss.
Toxic chemicals (dusts) Burning e-waste to extract metals emits toxic chemicals (e.g. PAHs, lead) from e-waste to the air, which can be inhaled or ingested by workers at recycling sites. This can lead to illness from toxic chemicals.


OSHA has also specified some chemical components of electronics that can potentially do harm to e-recycling workers' health, such as lead, mercury, PCBs, asbestos, refractory ceramic fibers (RCFs), and radioactive substances.[113]Besides, in the United States, most of these chemical hazards have specific Occupational exposure limits (OELs) set by OSHA, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).

Occupational exposure limits (OELs) of some hazardous chemicals
Hazardous chemicals OELs (mg/m^3) Type of OELs
lead (Pb) 0.05[115] NIOSH recommended exposure limits (REL), time weighted average (TWA)
mercury (Hg) 0.05[116] NIOSH REL, TWA
cadmium (Cd) 0.005[117] OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL), TWA
hexavalent chromium 0.005[118] OSHA PEL, TWA
sulfer dioxide 5[119] NIOSH REL, TWA

For the details of health consequences of these chemical hazards, see also Electronic waste#Electronic waste substances.

Informal and formal industries

Informal e-recycling industry refers to small e-waste recycling workshops with few (if any) automatic procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE). On the other hand, formal e-recycling industry refers to regular e-recycling facilities sorting materials from e-waste with automatic machinery and manual labor, where pollution control and PPE are common.[100][120] Sometimes formal e-recycling facilities dismantle the e-waste to sort materials, then distribute it to other downstream recycling department to further recover materials such as plastic and metals.[120]

The health impact of e-waste recycling workers working in informal industry and formal industry are expect to be different in the extent.[120] Studies in three recycling sites in China suggest that the health risks of workers from formal e-recycling facilities in Jiangsu and Shanghai were lower compared to those worked in informal e-recycling sites in Guiyu.[101] In another study of e-waste recycling in India, hair samples were collected from workers at an e-waste recycling facility and an e-waste recycling slum community (informal industry) in Bangalore.[121] Levels of V, Cr, Mn, Mo, Sn, Tl, and Pb were significantly higher in the workers at the e-waste recycling facility compared to the e-waste workers in the slum community. However, Co, Ag, Cd, and Hg levels were significantly higher in the slum community workers compared to the facility workers.

Even in formal e-recycling industry, workers can be exposed to excessive pollutants. Studies in the formal e-recycling facilities in France and Sweden found workers' overexposure (compared to recommended occupational guidelines) to lead, cadmium, mercury and some other metals, as well as BFRs, PCBs, dioxin and furans. Workers in formal industry are also exposed to more brominated flame-retardants than reference groups.[120]

Hazard controls

For occupational health and safety of e-waste recycling workers, both employers and workers should take actions. Suggestions for the e-waste facility employers and workers given by California Department of Public Health are illustrated in the graphic.

Safety suggestion for e-waste recycling facilities employers and workers
Hazards What must employers do What should workers do
General Actions include:
  1. determine the hazards in the workplace and take actions to control them;
  2. check and make correction to the workplace condition regularly;
  3. supply safe tools and PPE to workers;
  4. provide workers with training about hazards and safe work practice;
  5. a written document about injury and illness prevention.
Suggestions include:
  1. wear PPE when working;
  2. talk with employers about ways to improve working conditions;
  3. report anything unsafe in the workplace to employers;
  4. share experience of how to work safely with new workers.
Dust Actions include:
  1. offer a clean eating area, cleaning area and supplies, uniforms and shoes, and lockers for clean clothes to the workers;
  2. provide tools to dismantle the e-waste.

If the dust contains lead or cadmium:

  1. measure the dust, lead and cadmium level in the air;
  2. provide cleaning facilities such as wet mops and vacuums;
  3. provide exhaust ventilation. If it is still not sufficient to reduce the dust, provide workers with respirators;
  4. provide workers with blood lead testing when lead level is not less than 30 mg/m3.
Protective measures include:
  1. clean the workplace regularly, and do not eat or smoke when dealing with e-waste;
  2. don't use brooms to clean the workplace since brooms can raise dust;
  3. before going home, shower, change into clean clothes, and separate the dirty work clothes and clean clothes;
  4. test the blood lead, even if the employers don't provide it;
  5. use respirator, check for leaks every time before use, always keep it on your face in the respirator use area, and clean it properly after use.
Cuts and lacerations Protective equipment such as gloves, masks and eye protection equipments should be provided to workers When dealing with glass or shredding materials, protect the hands and arms using special gloves and oversleeves.
Noise Actions include:
  1. measure the noise in the workplace, and use engineering controls when levels exceed the exposure limit;
  2. reduce the vibration of the working desk by rubber matting;
  3. provide workers with earmuffs when necessary.
Wear the hearing protection all the time when working. Ask for the employer about the noise monitoring results. Test the hearing ability.
Lifting injuries Provide facilities to lift or move the e-waste and adjustable work tables. When handling e-waste, try to decrease the load per time. Try to get help from other workers when lifting heavy or big things.


See also

Policy and conventions:





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