Lentis/Where It Goes: Electronic Waste and Salvage

Electronic waste (e-waste) is a term for electronics that have reached the end of their life cycle and are awaiting disposal. E-waste traditionally encompasses products such as televisions, computers, and cell phones; however, as electronic components become more prevalent in everyday consumer products, the exact definition of e-waste has blurred. [1]

Stockpiled electronic waste

E-waste levels have grown drastically in recent years as the average turnover rate of electronics has fallen. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that retailers sold 438 million new consumer electronics in the United States, while 2.37 million tons of electronics qualified for end-of-life management[2]. In the United States, 70% of heavy metals in landfills can be attributed to electronic waste, yet e-waste only accounts for 2-3% of overall municipal waste [3]. Experts project that the severity of the e-waste problem will escalate as demand for electronic consumer goods rises in China and India. Currently, the bulk of the waste originates from developed countries such as the United States and areas of Europe, but it is estimated that waste in China will increase from 1.7 million tons in 2007 to 5.4 million tons in 2015. [4]

Disposal MethodsEdit

Responsible E-waste ManagementEdit

Proper processing of electronic waste requires that consumers send e-waste to qualified electronics recycling (e-cycling) centers as opposed to disposing of products in traditional trash cans.

The EPA has established guidelines that dictate appropriate practices for e-waste management. Responsible e-cycling companies typically follow a three-step process.[5] First, any items that are able to be re-used are sent to areas where their life cycle can be extended, such as developing nations. This has a secondary effect of bringing technology to groups who previously may not have had access. Some argue, though, that reuse places electronics products in societies incapable of proper e-cycling, therefore doing more harm than good [6].

If the product cannot be re-used, human workers and sophisticated machines carefully disassemble the device to collect various recyclable metals. These are re-distributed to manufacturers for inclusion in future products. [7] This step requires a level of expertise and capital expenditure not currently available in developing nations. Processing centers in these areas employ labor-intensive and more dangerous procedures instead. Finally, any materials that cannot be recycled and pose potential harm are disposed of in a highly regulated manner to avoid environmental and health consequences. [5] Many responsible e-cyclers have a zero-landfill policy.

Improper Disposal & ExportationEdit

The majority of e-waste currently ends up in landfills due to consumers placing their used electronics items in traditional trash management systems. The harmful materials contained within electronics necessitate separate processing from typical waste.

Consumer-recycled e-waste can still pose problems. Although a number of responsible e-cyclers operate worldwide, activist groups such as Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network have questioned the legitimacy of these corporations’ procedures. These action groups argue that many e-cyclers knowingly ship electronic waste to areas of China, India, and Africa. Despite being illegal in most of these locations, e-waste shipments are imported by the ton into informal recycling centers, where workers use dangerous techniques to extract valuable metals from old electronics. [8] Some methods include using acid baths to recover metals, chipping and melting plastics without proper ventilation, removing electronic components from circuit boards over coal-fired grills, and disposing unsalvageable material in fields and riverbanks.[9]

Recyclers use wholesale distribution websites to covertly sell stockpiles of electronic waste to unauthorized overseas recycling operations. Once a buyer has been secured, large containers are shipped abroad and smuggled past customs officials. Companies are incentivized to send waste overseas, since lax environmental and labor standards lower the cost of separating out valuable electronic components and disposing of harmful products [4].

Damaging Effects of Improper E-Waste ManagementEdit

Health & Environmental RisksEdit

Electronics such as cellphones, laptops, TV’s, and batteries all contain materials that are harmful for humans if disposed of improperly. E-waste in landfills can threaten humans through leaching into the soil and groundwater. Lax labor standards in developing nations lead to dangerous working conditions and the direct exposure of processing center workers to hazardous materials.[4] Some of the compounds in these electronics and their associated risks are as follows:

Figure 1: Components of Electronics and their effects on humans and the environment
Element Uses in Electronics Effects on Humans Effects on Environment
Lead[10][11] Soldering of printed circuit boards, inside Cathode Ray Tube(CRT) displays. Damage to central and peripheral nervous system, can cause high blood pressure, damage to kidneys and liver. Can affect children’s cognitive and behavioral development. Lead can accumulate in plants and reduce the amount of absorbed light, stunting growth. Can kill populations of bacteria and fungi on leafs and soil. [12]
Cadmium[13] Used in some rechargeable batteries, semiconductors, and soldering. Respiratory and kidney problems due to body’s inability to process. Some compounds may be carcinogenic. Regulations prohibit agricultural procedures in soils with high concentrations. Cadmium can enter through polluted soil and water.
Mercury[10][14] Printed circuit boards, flat screens, wiring boards, and batteries. Attacks endocrine system, impairs neurological development in children, impairment of peripheral vision. Fish absorb mercury from sediment in water. Can affect animal immune systems and embryonic development. [15]
PVC[16][17] Commonly used in cabling and computer housings. When burned, release dioxins. Can be carcinogenic and affect development and reproduction of humans and animals. Can bind to dust and soil particles, problematic bio-retention.
Arsenic[18][19] Used in printed wiring boards, semiconductors, and solar cells, manufacturing of LCDs. Can cause nausea, vomiting, hypotension, anemia, headaches, and if consumed in high quantities, death. Seafood and fish easily absorb arsenic through exposure to water.

E-Cycling Improvement MeasuresEdit

Many players in the electronics industry have taken efforts to limit the negative effects of e-waste. Advancements in e-waste management have come from three main areas: consumer awareness, corporate programs, and legislation.

Increasing Consumer AwarenessEdit

Interest groups have formed to educate consumers on the dangers of improper electronic waste recycling and encourage them not to throw electronics in their typical waste bin. For example, E-cycling Central offers tools such as listings for companies that specialize in e-waste recycling and advertisements for electronics drop-off events.[20] The Electronics Take-Back Coalition ranks manufacturers recycling efforts and has created a scorecard to raise consumer consciousness and potentially impact buying decisions. [21] The Basel Action Network audits recycling companies through its e-Stewards program to inform consumers of reputable drop-off centers. [22]

Corporate E-Waste ReactionEdit

Figure 2: These companies have initiated programs to encourage e-waste recycling. [21]
Company Program Details
Lexmark Offers recycling of Lexmark printing products through mailback program, but consumers must pay for shipping. No transparency on recycling practices, and limited consumer awareness of the program itself.
Microsoft Partners with Goodwill for collection sites, making disposal easy and free, but no disclosure of recycling vendors.
Dell Leads the entire industry in number of collection sites and collection volumes. Runs a mail back program, plus drop-off partnership with Goodwill and Staples. Free printer, toner, and ink recycling with purchase of new printer.
HP Has mailback system that can be coupled with trade-in and cash back promotions. 3rd highest U.S. recycled equipment volume. Consumer Buyback and Planet Partners Recycling program – will take any HP product for free. Charge varying fee for disposal of products from other manufacturers.
Apple Mailback and in store trade-in program. Use incentives like 10% off the price of a new iPod with recycling of older version.
Staples Consumers can recycle any large item for $10 by just dropping it off at store locations. Smaller items like computer mice are accepted for free.

In April 2011, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released the e-Cycling Leadership Initiative, creating programs to curb the e-waste problem through corporate involvement. The Initiative set the goal of increasing industry-led e-cycling to one billion pounds annually by 2016, a three-fold increase from current levels. [23] Both manufacturers and retailers of electronics have established e-cycling campaigns. The extent of these programs, as well as their success, varies. Many focus on consumer mail-back of products, and some only accept electronics from certain manufacturers. Figure 2 presents a list of programs offered by several well-known corporations.

Some electronics manufacturers have also attempted to reduce the amount of hazardous waste contained in their products. Companies such as Apple, Dell, and Lenovo transitioned to arsenic and mercury-free LCD monitors in 2009. Rechargeable batteries no longer contain a Nickel-Cadmium compound. Lower risk lithium-ion batteries are the new market standard.[24][25][26]


Lobbying by interest groups such as the Basel Action Network and Greenpeace has led to electronic waste legislation. In 1992, the Basel Convention of 175 countries produced a treaty that restricted the exportation of electronic waste. The United States, however, was one of three participating countries who did not ratify the treaty. [27] More recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the exportation of certain electronic parts without government permission. The EPA has also funded grants to groups such as the United Nations University to explore more effective ways to manage e-waste. [28]

As of 2011, 25 states have enacted legislative measures of their own. The majority of these laws place the responsibility on electronics manufacturers, stating that they must pay for proper e-cycling of their products. Signed in 2003, the California state law sets a consumer fee, an Advanced Recycling Fee (ARF) on certain electronics that is then redistributed to recycling companies for proper processing. [29] In Arkansas, legislation dictates that the state government's Department of Environmental Quality must regulate disposal of electronic goods in landfills. [30] Figure 1 outlines the current legislation in the United States.

Social Considerations Conflicting with E-waste ProblemEdit

IPhone 4S compared to iPhone 3GS

"Must-Have Culture" & Planned ObsolescenceEdit

In the United States, consumers have developed a "Must-Have" culture. This culture is characterized by an insatiable desire for the newest, most advanced technologies. The average American household now owns 24 consumer electronics devices. [31] Despite owning functional units at home, Americans still crave the thinner phones, larger televisions, and faster computers advertised constantly in the media. The willingness to purchase new consumer electronics before the end of a current model's functional life cycle has exacerbated the e-waste epidemic. Psychologists suggest that social phenomena such as the theory of informational cascades may govern the prevalence of consumer electronics fads. [32]

A key component of this consumer culture stems from the planned obsolescence strategies of many technology-based corporations. Planned obsolescence is a business strategy wherein companies plan for a limited product life-cycle [33]. By using this strategy, businesses entice consumers into buying a newer version of an old product. While this method can be profitable for businesses, it is a driving force behind rising e-waste levels.

Ethical ResponsibilityEdit

Some consumers and businesses in developed countries feel that it is not their ethical responsibility to worry about the consequences of e-waste in developing nations, citing the economic impact of the industry in these regions. These opponents argue that informal e-cycling in areas of China and India creates job opportunities otherwise unavailable to local residents, similar to the economic effect of sweatshops in low income countries. [34] They argue that waste stimulates the economy of those areas, although it may come at the expense of resident and environmental well-being.

Financial Burden of E-CyclingEdit

A debate exists surrounding who should bear the financial burden of e-cycling: electronics manufacturers, consumers, or government. Various interest groups have opposed state and federal e-waste legislation, arguing that these efforts are unfairly biased. In July 2009, the Consumer Electronics Association filed a lawsuit against the New York City Government for its passing of an e-waste law. The CEA claimed the law was unconstitutional because it violated due process and manufacturer rights to equal protection under the law. The law required manufacturers to provide free, door-to-door pickup of e-waste from consumers. After an umbrella New York State e-waste law imposed milder regulations, the sides reached a settlement and the court dismissed the case. [35] Manufacturing companies themselves have also threatened lawsuits against legislation in states such as Washington, complaining that the financial responsibility is unfairly high. [36] The Reason Foundation, an activist group, claims that imposing e-waste regulations on manufacturers limits the innovation capabilities of these corporations. [37]

Consumers also struggle with the cost of proper e-cycling. Many refuse to pay recycling fees when they can deposit their e-waste in traditional trash cans at no cost. Government subsidizing of e-cycling has opponents as well, with arguments that the state and federal government system cannot currently afford e-waste management without cutting more valuable programs.

Lack of Consumer ParticipationEdit

The vast number of consumer electronics in households today has left consumers questioning how to discard used electronic goods. Many simply hold on to their electronic devices instead of disposing of them. Approximately 9% of electronics sold from 1980-2004 in the United States are still in storage awaiting disposal. [38] Although the recycling of materials such as plastics, glass, and paper has become commonplace, many do not know that electronics are recyclable goods. In 2010, the recycling rates of newspapers and aluminum cans in the U.S. were 72% and 50% respectively. Meanwhile, only 15% of electronic devices and equipment are recycled. [39]


Examining e-waste and current e-cycling practices leads to several lessons that apply to many other sociotechnical intersections. One such lesson is that technological advancement can have unintended consequences that bring about social responsibilities. High-tech innovators intended to improve lives through their consumer electronics products, and yet these goods have brought about an e-waste problem with negative health and environmental effects thousands of miles from where their products were used. This creates a complex social responsibility to ensure that proper e-cycling limits the dangers of electronic waste.

Engineers and technology experts must always consider the full life-cycle of their innovations to avoid these unexpected side effects. Manufacturers can decrease the dangers posed by discarded consumer electronics through reducing the amount of harmful materials contained in these devices. Also, they can extend the life cycle of products and shed planned obsolescence strategies in order to reduce the amount of e-waste. This is generalizable to many cases outside of health and environmental risks from e-waste disposal. Chips and circuits intended for personal computers can become components of third-world land mines, and out-of-use satellites tools for illegitimate armed groups, if their complete life-cycle is not carefully considered and planned. [40]

The web of forces impacting electronic waste demonstrates the inextricable ties between technology and society and reinforces that all stakeholders in technology must not lose sight of the context of their actions. Consumers need to consider whether the "must have" culture propelling their electronics buying decisions is appropriate. Manufacturers, end-users, and government must find an appropriate balance of the financial responsibilities of e-cycling. Awareness of health and environmental concerns posed by e-waste involves education and social activism. Yet all the while, technological changes and improvements can enhance e-cycling efficiency and decrease harmful byproducts. Only when there is mutual adaptation between technology and society can innovation reach its greatest heights.


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