Managing Electronic Waste
Consumers are relying on electronic gadgets more than ever before - computers, monitors, cell phones,game consoles, printers, copiers, fax machines, mp3 players, DVD players, televisions and hundreds of other electronic products are bought and sold each day. With increasing technological advancement, there is a remarkable growth in this sector as well as a high rate of obsolescence. Companies are launching new gadgets, with newer features and technology at an extremely rapid pace. It has come to the point where consumers often find it cheaper to buy a new computer rather than upgrade an old one.
What happens to all these gadgets once they are irreparably broken or become obsolete and been replaced? They usually end up as ‘electronic waste’.
Though there is no formal definition, electronic waste or ‘e waste’ is generally considered to be waste consisting of electric or electronic appliance that is broken or unwanted and usually consists of products that were used for data processing, telecommunications, or entertainment in private households and businesses. This kind of waste is also known as WEEE – Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and spans traditional electric equipment such as refrigerators and washing machines as well as modern technological gadgets such as laptop computers and game consoles.
Did You Know?
- The United States generates more e-waste than any other nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. More than 4.6 million tons of it entered U.S. landfills in 2000, and that amount is projected to grow fourfold in the next few years
- The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005
- 674 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2004 - 30 percent more than in 2003
- As much as 1000 tonnes of a brominated flame retardant called TBBPA was used to manufacture 674 million mobile phones in 2004. This chemical has been linked to neurotoxicity.
The Danger of Electronic Waste
Electronic waste is an area of growing global concern as it is ending up in landfills or incinerators. This is extremely harmful as most electronic equipment contains harmful toxic and carcinogenic substances like lead, mercury and cadmium. Brominated flame retardants are also used which are chemicals hazardous to the environment. According to Greenpeace, the presence of toxic substances in electronics perpetuates the toxic cycle. Unless the issue use of toxic substances is eliminated, it is impossible to secure ‘safe’ recycling. Many electronic components are made of polluting PVC plastic. When disposed in landfills, the toxic chemicals from e-waste can over time leach into the land causing damage to the environment and health problems in nearby communities. When e-waste is incinerated, heavy metals such as mercury and lead are released into the air and ashes. These metals often find their way into the food chain exposing human populations to their harmful effects. 
Tackling the E-Waste Problem
Given that the problem of e-waste is growing rapidly, the search for viable solutions is also becoming increasingly important. The EU has taken a two-fold approach to the issue of e-waste.
As the first step toward tackling this problem, electronic product manufacturers need to use less toxic materials in their products. Through the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), the use of a number of hazardous substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) and have been banned in electronic items. Producers wishing to sell their products within the EU on or after July 1, 2006 will have to find safer alternatives to these substances if they wish to sell their products within the EU ref name="Europa Report WEEE Directive"></ref>[ RoHS Directive]
At the same time, producers must also take responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products through their entire lifecycle. The EU has passed the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive that places the responsibility of the disposal of this waste on the manufacturers of the equipment.
Essentially through the RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC and WEEE Directive 2002/96/EC, the EU has taken steps forward to ensure that its members set targets for the collection, recycling and recovery of all types of electrical goods. However, other countries such as the US and China, have not yet followed with similar legislations.
About the WEEE Directive
The WEEE Directive applies to a wide variety of electric and electronic items that include household appliances, IT and telecommunications equipment, tools, medical devices, sports and leisure equipment, toys, audio visual and lighting equipment and automatic dispensers. According to this directive, both producers and distributors of electric/electronic goods that are covered by the WEEE Directive have a physical or financial responsibility towards the collection, re-use/refurbishment and disposal of WEEE.
Under the WEEE Directive, producers must:
- Join a producer compliance scheme and pay its annual registration fee
- Provide information to the scheme every 3 months about the amount of equipment that has been placed on the market
- Obtain a unique producer identification mark from the compliance scheme
- Mark all products with the ‘crossed out wheeled bin’ symbol that indicates to consumers that it must disposed separately from other waste through a designated WEEE collection point
- Provide information to the operators of treatment and reprocessing facilities about new products so that they can effectively treat, recycle and reuse the new products accordingly.
- Give distributors their producer registration number so that the distributors are sure that they are purchasing from registered producers in compliance with WEEE Directives
- Keep records for 4 years
It is the responsibility of the distributors of electric/electronic equipment covered by the WEEE Directive to:
- Provide information on the environmental impact of electric/electronic equipment and WEEE
- Distributors must also provide information on why WEEE should be separated from other waste
- Distributors must provide information on the meaning of the ‘crossed out wheeled bin’ and how users can safely deposit WEEE for proper treatment and recycling free of charge
- Inform customers about the benefits of take back schemes
- Establish or join a distributor take back scheme 
The aim of the WEEE directive is to record the unit weight of electrical/ electronic equipment sold inside each member state and ensure that a similar proportion is recovered and recycled each year. To this end, recording and reporting recycling rates is divided into 10 seperate categories. Only the first treatment facility in the recycling chain is permitted to record the weights recovered and report this back to the relevant authority:
The 10 categories of WEEE :
* Large household appliances * Small household appliances * IT & telecommunications equipment * Consumer equipment * Lighting equipment * Electrical and electronic tools * Toys, leisure and sports equipment * Medical devices * Monitoring and control instruments * Automatic dispensers
The Computer Take Back Campaign
In the US, where there is no regulation in line with the WEEE Directive, there are initiatives such as the ‘Computer TakeBack Campaign’ started by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC). This initiative is encouraging manufacturers to take back obsolete computers and recycle them. This initiative is gaining popularity and support at the local level as consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem. 
Another initiative that is working toward tackling this problem is StEP – Solving the E-Waste Problem. This initiative was started by various UN organisations and works with scientists, industry, governments and NGO’s to help tackle the global e-waste situation 
There are many options to reuse and recycle technological components and e-waste can actually be a source of raw materials if it is processed properly. For example, almost 95% of PC parts are reusable – from the disk drive and memory, to the gold and silver used in circuit boards. The lead from monitors can be harvested and copper can mined from wires and internal circuitry.
The processing of e-waste in developed countries involves dismantling and separating the waste into different parts – for example, metal frames, circuit boards, plastics etc are all separated. Alternatively, the material is shredded and separated into metal and plastic and sold to either smelters or plastics recyclers.
The processing of e-waste however, is expensive. This had led to the dumping of electronic waste – developed countries with strict regulations regarding e-waste are shipping it to developing countries where there are fewer regulations regarding e-waste disposal. Also, in developing countries, the processing of e-waste is considerably cheaper.
E-Waste in Developing Countries
Electronic waste is being exported from developed countries to developing ones. Countries like India and many African nations are leading destinations for the dumping of e-waste, where it either finds itself in landfills or in waste processing plants. This is putting developing nations at increasing environmental risk. Mainland China has tried to tackle this problem by banning the import of e-waste. However, international laws such as the Basel Convention (on the Control of the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous wastes and their disposal) are being flouted. E-waste dumping is occurring illegally.
- The challenge of e waste
- E-Waste: Dark Side of Digital Age
- What is Computer Recycling
- E-wasting Away
- Cell Phones Getting greener
- E-waste expected to become even bigger problem
- What is the WEEE Directive
- The Smart Way to Tackle E-Waste
- 8th edition of The Guide to Greener Electronics