Where does E-Waste go?

Page - August 26, 2005
Many old electronic goods gather dust in storage waiting to be reused, recycled or thrown away. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as much as three-quarters of the computers sold in the United States are stockpiled in garages and closets. When thrown away, they end up in landfills or incinerators or, more recently, are exported to Asia.

Truck overloaded with hazardous computer waste on the way to scrapping yards.

Landfill: According to the EPA, more than 4.6 million tons of e-waste ended up in U.S. landfills in 2000. Toxic chemicals in electronics products can leach into the land over time or are released into the atmosphere, impacting nearby communities and the environment. In many European countries, regulations have been introduced to prevent electronic waste being dumped in landfills due to its hazardous content. However, the practice still continues in many countries. In Hong Kong, for example, it is estimated that 10-20 percent of discarded computers go to landfill.

Incineration: This releases heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury into the air and ashes.  Mercury released into the atmosphere can bioaccumulate in the foodchain, particularly in fish - the major route of exposure for the general public. If the products contain PVC plastic, highly toxic dioxins and furans are also released. Brominated flame retardants generate brominated dioxins and furans when e-waste is burned.

Reuse: A good way to increase a product's lifespan. Many old products are exported to developing countries. Although the benefits of reusing electronics in this way are clear, the practice is causing serious problems because the old products are dumped after a short period of use in areas that are unlikely to have hazardous waste facilities.

Recycle: Although recycling can be a good way to reuse the raw materials in a product, the hazardous chemicals in e-waste mean that electronics can harm workers in the recycling yards, as well as their neighbouring communities and environment.

In developed countries, electronics recycling takes place in purpose-built recycling plants under controlled conditions. In many EU states for example, plastics from e-waste are not recycled to avoid brominated furans and dioxins being released into the atmosphere. In developing countries however, there are no such controls. Recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, often by children.

Export:  E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the United States, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way. This practice is legal because the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention.

Mainland China tried to prevent this trade by banning the import of e-waste in 2000. However, we have discovered that the laws are not working; e-waste is still arriving in Guiya of Guangdong Province, the main center of e-waste scrapping in China.

We have also found a growing e-waste trade problem in India. Twenty-five thousand workers are employed at scrap yards in Delhi alone, where 10,00 - 20,000 tons of e-waste is handled each year, 25 percent of this being computers. Other e-waste scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.

© UNEP

How did the trade evolve?

In the 1990s, governments in the EU, Japan and some U.S. states set up e-waste "recycling" systems. But many countries did not have the capacity to deal with the sheer quantity of e-waste they generated or with its hazardous nature.

Therefore, they began exporting the problem to developing countries where laws to protect workers and the environment are inadequate or not enforced. It is also cheaper to "recycle" waste in developing countries; the cost of glass-to-glass recycling of computer monitors inthe United States is 10times more than in China.

Demand in Asia for electronic waste began to grow when scrap yards found they could extract valuable substances such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold, during the recycling process. A mobile phone, for example, is 19 percent copper and eight percent iron.

Topics