E-waste (electronic waste) includes computers, entertainment electronics, mobile phones and other items that have been discarded by their original users. While there is no generally accepted definition of e-waste, in most cases e-waste consists of expensive and more or less durable products used for data processing, telecommunications or entertainment in private households and businesses.
E-waste is both valuable as source for secondary raw material, and toxic if treated and discarded improperly. Rapid technology change, low initial cost and even 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.
Due to lower environmental standards and working conditions in China and India, e-waste is being sent to these countries for processing – in most cases illegally. Bangalore in India and the Guiyu area in the Chaozhou region of China have e-waste processing areas. Uncontrolled burning and disposal are causing environmental problems due to the methods of processing the waste. Trade in e-waste is controlled by the Basel Convention.
E-waste is of concern largely due to the toxicity of some of the substances if processed improperly. The toxicity is due in part to lead, mercury, cadmium and a number of other substances. A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight. Up to thirty-six separate chemical elements are incorporated into e-waste items. The unsustainability of discarded electronics and computer technology is another reason for the need to recycle – or even better, re-use – e-waste.
E-waste presents difficulties for recycling due to the complexity of
each item and lack of viable recycling systems. 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
Health hazards in E-waste
Computers and other electronic equipment are manufactured from materials found naturally as well as man-made. While some naturally occurring substances, such as chromium, are harmless in nature, their use in the manufacture of electronic equipment often results in compounds which are hazardous. These are highly toxic and especially harmful to human health and the environment if not disposed of carefully.
Arsenic is a poisonous metallic element which is present in dust and soluble substances. Chronic exposure to arsenic can lead to various diseases of the skin and decrease nerve conduction velocity and can cause lung cancer.
Barium is a metallic element that is used in sparkplugs, fluorescent lamps and "getters" in vacuum tubes. Being highly unstable in the pure form, it forms poisonous oxides when in contact with air. Short-term exposure to barium could lead to brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the heart, liver and spleen.
Beryllium has been classified as a human carcinogen since exposure to it can cause lung cancer. The primary health concern is inhalation of beryllium dust, fume or mist. Workers who are constantly exposed to beryllium, even in small amounts, and who become sensitised to it can develop Chronic Beryllium Disease (beryllicosis), a disease which primarily affects the lungs. Exposure to beryllium causes a form of skin disease that is characterised by poor wound healing and wart-like bumps. Studies have shown that people can still develop beryllium diseases many years after the last exposure.
Brominated flame retardants (BFR’s) The three main types of BFRS used in electronic and electrical appliances are Polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) and Tetrabromobisphenol - A (TBBPA). BFRs have been found in indoor dust and air through migration and evaporation from plastics. Combustion of halogenated case material and printed wiring boards at lower temperatures releases toxic emissions including dioxins which can lead to severe hormonal disorders. Major electronic manufacturers have begun to phase out BFRs because of its toxicity.
Cadmium components may have serious impacts on the kidneys. It is adsorbed through respiration and taken up with food. Due to the long half-life in the body, cadmium can easily be accumulated in amounts that cause symptoms of poisoning. Acute exposure to cadmium fumes causes flu-like symptoms of weakness, fever, headache, chills, sweating and muscular pain. The primary health risks of long term exposure are lung cancer and kidney damage.
CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) are compounds composed of carbon, fluorine, chlorine, and sometimes hydrogen. Used mainly in cooling units and insulation foam, it has been phased out because when released into the atmosphere, tit accumulates in the stratosphere and have a deleterious effect on the ozone layer. This results in increased incidence of skin cancer in humans and in genetic damage in many organisms.
Chromium and its oxides are widely used because of their high conductivity and anti corrosive properties. While some forms of chromium are non toxic, Chromium (VI) is easily absorbed in the human body and can produce various toxic effects within cells. Most chromium (VI) compounds are irritating to eyes, skin and mucous membranes. Chronic exposure to chromium (VI) compounds can cause permanent eye injury, unless properly treated. Chromium VI may also cause DNA damage.
Dioxins and furans are a family of chemicals comprising 75 different types of dioxin compounds and 135 related compounds known as furans. “Dioxins” refer to the family of compounds comprising polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs). Although never intentionally manufactured, dioxins form as unwanted by-products in the manufacture of some pesticides as well as during combustion. It is known to be highly toxic to animals and humans because it bio-accumulates in the body and can lead to malformations of the foetus, decreased reproduction and growth rates and cause impairment of the immune system among other things.
Lead is the fifth most widely used metal after iron, aluminium, copper and zinc. It is commonly used in the electrical and electronics industry in solder, lead-acid batteries, electronic components, cable sheathing, in the glass of CRTs etc. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. Other symptoms are appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation, fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability and headache. Continued excessive exposure, as in an industrial setting, can affect the kidneys. It is particularly dangerous for young children because it can damage nervous connections and cause blood and brain disorders.
Mercury is one of the most toxic yet widely used metals in the production of electrical and electronic applications. It is a toxic heavy metal that bioaccumulates causing brain and liver damage if ingested or inhaled. In electronics and electrical appliances, mercury is highly concentrated in batteries, some switches and thermostats, and fluorescent lamps.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of organic compounds use in a variety of applications, including dielectric fluids for capacitors and transformers, heat transfer fluids and as additives in adhesives and plastics. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and to cause a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. PCBs are persistent contaminants in the environment. Due to the high lipid solubility and slow metabolism rate of these chemicals, PCBs accumulate in the fat-rich tissues of almost all organisms (bioaccumulation). The use of PCBs is prohibited in OECD countries, however, due to its wide use in the past, it still can be found in e-waste and in some other wastes.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the most widely-used plastic, used in everyday electronics and appliances, household items, pipes, upholstery etc. PVC is hazardous because contains up to 56% chlorine which when burned produces large quantities of hydrogen chloride gas, which combines with water to form hydrochloric acid and is dangerous because when inhaled, leads to respiratory problems.
Televisions and Computer Monitors (other than flat screens) produce images using a cathode ray tube (CRT), a heavy funnel-shaped glass tube with a Åat screen at the front and an electron emitter at the back. The CRT creates images when electrons hit the back of the phosphor-coated screen, lighting it up and allowing us to watch cartoons or browse the web. In order to protect humans and animals from radiation produced inside the cathode ray tubes, 3-8 pounds of lead are encapsulated in the glass within each monitor or television. While lead has long been known to be a human toxin capable of causing cancer, there are many other materials in electronic waste with toxic effects.
CRT'S are not the only hazardous components in e-waste. Circuit boards readily qualify as hazardous waste due to the presence of lead and copper. This means that everything from cell phones to electronic toys and microwave ovens have hazardous components in them and must be handled properly at end of life. Mercury is present in Åat screens, scanners, and switches. Beryllium, cadmium, and arsenic also present in electronic waste mean it must be handled properly at the time of disposal.
Many discarded computers still work, but they are "thrown away" or stored in garages to make room for upgrades. Tons of computers that are supposedly "recycled" end up being exported to developing countries.
This is a great link to CBC's Marketplace broadcast of Environment>>High-Tech Trash originally broadcast October 22,2002 it really is a well researched and comprehensive look at what is being done and what is not being done with computer waste. It also tackels some really serious problems that are begining to emerge as a result of this stuff being dumped in landfills it takes a look at the problem in both a domestic and international context. Take a look you will be very surprised as were we, here at the TFP at the scope of the problem its one of those articles that spurs us on here at TFP to do our work and further the cause of extending the life of computers and to work on some real solutions.
Check out these Great reports, by Evironment Canada they are very well done and really show the scope of the problem and what is being done about the E-Waste Problem to date.
You are here: EnviroZine > Issue 33 > Feature 1
UCCRP (Unusable E-Waste Recycling Program)A comprehensive Unusable E-Waste Recycling Program or UERP will be coming soon here at Technology For People Group Inc. We are hoping in the very near future to begin this program as we are currently in the planning and promotion stage we will keep you posted as to its progress.