Electronic waste facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
E-waste
Electronic waster collecting room

Electronic waste, or E-waste is electronic equipment that is being thrown away. It includes phones, computers, and other electronics that have passed their time and are not used any more.

E-waste is an ongoing concern for every country in the 21st century. Because of Moore's law, the rule that states transistor numbers double every two years, most people need to keep up to speed by upgrading computers every 3 years on average. People usually throw away their old laptops, cameras, computers, cell phones and televisions. This creates a large amount of practically useless waste. Most countries have methods to combat e waste and find a use for obsolete technology. When you take in to account all the computer users in the world, over 30 million tons of e-waste is created nearly every year.

Amount of electronic waste worldwide

Brokencircuitboard2011
A fragment of discarded circuit board.

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. An estimated 50 million tons of E-waste are produced each year. 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.

In 2006, the United Nations estimated the amount of worldwide electronic waste discarded each year to be 50 million metric tons. 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. The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons each year. 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.

Society today revolves around technology and by the constant need for the newest and most high-tech products we are contributing to mass amount of e-waste. 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. 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 life spans because they know that the consumer will want a new product and will buy it if they make it. In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.

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.

Global trade issues

Ewaste-crtkid
Electronic waste is often exported to developing countries.
Batteries comparison 4,5 D C AA AAA AAAA A23 9V CR2032 LR44 matchstick-1
4.5-volt, D, C, AA, AAA, AAAA, A23, 9-volt, CR2032, and LR44 cells are all recyclable in most countries.
Agbogbloshie
The E-waste centre of Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where electronic waste is burnt and disassembled with no safety or environmental considerations.

One theory is that increased regulation of electronic waste 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, 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. 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 labor standards, cheap labor, and the relatively high value of recovered raw materials leads 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".

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. 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".

Guiyu

Guiyu in the Shantou region of China is a massive electronic waste processing community. 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. 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. 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.

A number of studies have been conducted to measure a number of chemicals associated with informal e-waste recycling in the populations. One study enrolled children from Guiyu and a control site 50 km away to measure blood lead levels (BLLs). The average BLL in Guiyu was 15.3 ug/dL compared to 9.9 ug/dL in the control site. In the United States, the CDC has set a reference level for blood lead at 5 ug/dL. High levels of lead in young children can impact IQ and the development of the central nervous system. 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.

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. 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. With amounts of e-waste growing rapidly each year urgent solutions are required. While the waste continues to flow into digital dumps like Guiyu, there are measures that can help reduce the flow of e-waste.

A suggested preventative step involves the major electronics firms removing the worst chemicals in their products in order to make them safer and easier to recycle.

TV and Computer Monitor Recycling Pen - geograph.org.uk - 1025508
A pile of discarded TVs and computer monitors.

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, 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. Bangalore, located in southern India, is often referred as the "Silicon Valley of India" and has a growing informal e-waste recycling sector. Hair samples were collected from workers at an e-waste recycling facility and an e-waste recycling slum community in Bangalore. 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. A study in Ghana found higher levels of urinary PAH-metabolites in e-waste workers compared to unexposed controls. They also found a greater frequency of complaints of cough, chest pain, and vertigo from those exposed to emissions from the e-waste recycling processes.

Environmental impact

0ld keyboards
Old keyboards and one mouse.

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.

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

  • 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

The environmental impact of the processing of different electronic waste components

E-Waste Component Process Used Potential Environmental Hazard
Cathode ray tubes (used in TVs, computer monitors, ATM, video cameras, and more) Breaking and removal of yoke, then dumping Lead, 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 components Chemical stripping using nitric and hydrochloric acid and burning of chips PAHs, 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 reused Emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons
Computer wires Open burning and stripping to remove copper PAHs 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. 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.

E-waste management

Recycling

Recycling Computers
Computer monitors are typically packed into low stacks on wooden pallets for recycling and then shrink-wrapped.
See also: Computer recycling

Audiovisual components, televisions, VCRs, stereo equipment, mobile phones, other handheld devices, and computer components contain valuable elements and substances suitable for reclamation, including lead, copper, and gold.

Recycling

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. 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, 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. Reuse and refurbishing offer a more environmentally friendly and socially conscious alternative to downcycling processes.

Processing techniques

Recycling lead in a lead-acid battery recovery facility
Recycling the lead from batteries.

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. 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, 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". 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. 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 can be also be re-used." 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. The excess plastic from these printers that comes out as a byproduct can also be reused to create new 3D printed creations.

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. In Europe, metals that are recycled are returned to companies of origin at a reduced cost. 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.

Electronic waste substances

Button cells and 9v cells (3)
Several sizes of button and coin cell with 2 9v batteries as a size comparison. They are all recycled in many countries since they contain lead, mercury and cadmium.

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 jewelry. 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. 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, 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:

Hazardous

Recyclers with old computers São Paulo March 2012
Recyclers in the street in São Paulo, Brazil with old computers
E-Waste Component Electric Appliances in which they are found Adverse Health Effects
Americium The radioactive source in smoke alarms. It is known to be carcinogenic.
Lead Solder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC. A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead, 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. These effects are most damaging to children whose developing nervous systems are very susceptible to damage caused by lead, cadmium, and mercury.
Mercury Found in fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats), and 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. Environmental effects in animals include death, reduced fertility, and slower growth and development.
Cadmium Found 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. Cadmium is also associated with deficits in cognition, learning, behavior, and neuromotor skills in children.
Hexavalent chromium Used in metal coatings to protect from corrosion. A known carcinogen after occupational inhalation exposure.

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.

Sulphur Found 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 sulphuric acid through sulphur 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. 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.
Beryllium oxide Filler in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heatsinks for CPUs and power transistors, 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.

Other health effects

  • DNA breaks can increase the likelihood of developing cancer (if the damage is to a tumor suppressor gene)
  • DNA damages are a special problem in non-dividing or slowly dividing cells, where unrepaired damages will tend to accumulate over time. On the other hand, in rapidly dividing cells, unrepaired DNA damages that do not kill the cell by blocking replication will tend to cause replication errors and thus mutation
  • Elevated Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) levels can cause damage to cell structures (oxidative stress)

Generally non-hazardous

Repurposed Imac
An iMac G4 that has been repurposed into a lamp (photographed next to a Mac Classic and a flip phone).
E-Waste Component Process Used
Aluminium nearly all electronic goods using more than a few watts of power (heatsinks), electrolytic capacitors.
Copper copper wire, printed circuit board tracks, component leads.
Germanium 1950s–1960s transistorized electronics (bipolar junction transistors).
Gold connector plating, primarily in computer equipment.
Lithium lithium-ion batteries.
Nickel nickel-cadmium batteries.
Silicon glass, transistors, ICs, printed circuit boards.
Tin solder, coatings on component leads.
Zinc plating for steel parts.

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