E-waste is a popular, informal name for electronic products nearing the end of their "useful life." Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines are common electronic products. Many of these products can be reused, refurbished, or recycled. Unfortunately, electronic discards is one of the fastest growing segments of our nation's waste stream.
Debate continues over the distinction between "commodity" and "waste" electronics definitions. Some exporters may deliberately leave obsolete or non-working equipment mixed in loads of working equipment (through ignorance, or to avoid more costly treatment processes for 'bad' equipment). On the other hand, some importing countries specifically seek to exclude working or repairable equipment in order to protect domestic manufacturing markets. "White box" computers ('off-brand' or 'no name' computers) are often assembled by smaller scale manufacturers utilizing refurbished components. These 'white box' sales accounted for approximately 45% of all computer sales worldwide by 2004, and are considered a threat to some large manufacturers, who therefore seek to classify used computers as 'waste'.
While a protectionist may broaden the definition of "waste" electronics, the high value of working and reusable laptops, computers, and components (e.g. RAM), can help pay the cost of transportation for a large number of worthless "commodities". Broken monitors, obsolete circuit boards, short circuited transistors, and other junk are difficult to spot in a container load of used electronics.
Until such time as equipment no longer contains such hazardous substances, the disposal and recycling operations must be undertaken with great care to avoid damaging pollution and workplace hazards, and exports need to be monitored to avoid "toxics along for the ride".
If treated properly, electronic waste is a valuable source for secondary raw materials. However, if not treated properly, it is a major source of toxins and carcinogens. Rapid technology change, low initial cost and planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast growing problem around the globe. Technical solutions are available but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied. Electronic waste represents 2 percent of America's trash in landfills, but it equals 70 percent of overall toxic waste.
Due to lower environmental standards and working conditions in China, India, Kenya, and elsewhere, electronic waste is being sent to these countries for processing ' in most cases illegally. Guiyu in the Shantou region of China, and Delhi and Bangalore in India, all have electronic waste processing areas. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal are causing environmental and health problems, including occupational safety and health effects among those directly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste. Trade in electronic waste is controlled by the Basel Convention.
Electronic waste is of concern largely due to the toxicity and carcinogenicity of some of the substances if processed improperly. Toxic substances in electronic waste may include lead, mercury and cadmium. Carcinogenic substances in electronic waste may include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight, much of which is in the lead glass of the CRT. Capacitors, transformers, PVC insulated wires, PVC coated components that were manufactured before 1977 often contain dangerous amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls. Up to thirty-eight separate chemical elements are incorporated into electronic waste items. The un-sustainability of discarding electronics and computer technology is another reason for the need to recycle ' or perhaps more practically, reuse ' electronic waste.
Electronic waste processing systems have matured in recent years following increased regulatory, public, and commercial scrutiny, and a commensurate increase in entrepreneurial interest. Part of this evolution has involved greater diversion of electronic waste from energy intensive, down-cycling processes (e.g. conventional recycling) where equipment is reverted to a raw material form. This diversion is achieved through reuse and refurbishing. The environmental and social benefits of reuse are several: diminished demand for new products and their commensurate requirement for virgin raw materials (with their own environmental externalities not factored into the cost of the raw materials) and larger quantities of pure water and electricity for associated manufacturing, less packaging per unit, availability of technology to wider swaths of society due to greater affordability of products, and diminished use of landfills.
Challenges remain, when materials cannot or will not be reused, conventional recycling or disposal via landfill often follow. Standards for both approaches vary widely by jurisdiction, whether in developed or developing countries. The complexity of the various items to be disposed of, cost of environmentally sound recycling systems, and the need for concerned and concerted action to collect and systematically process equipment are the resources most lacked -- though this is changing. Many of the plastics used in electronic equipment contain flame retardants. These are generally halogens added to the plastic resin, making the plastics difficult to recycle.
A typical electronic waste recycling plant as found in some industrialized countries combines the best of dismantling for component recovery with increased capacity to process large amounts of electronic waste in a cost effective-manner. Material is fed into a hopper, which travels up a conveyor and is dropped into the mechanical separator, which is followed by a number of screening and granulating machines. The entire recycling machinery is enclosed and employs a dust collection system. The European Union, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have already demanded that sellers and manufacturers of electronics be responsible for recycling 75% of them.
Many Asian countries have legislated, or will do so for electronic waste recycling.
The United States Congress is considering a number of electronic waste bills including the National Computer Recycling Act introduced by Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA). This bill has continually stalled, however.
In the meantime, several states have passed their own laws regarding electronic waste management. California was the first state to enact such legislation, followed by Maryland, Maine, Washington and Minnesota. More recently, legislatures in Oregon and Texas passed their own laws.