Frequently Asked Questions - What is e-waste?

E-waste, or electronic waste is a term used to describe old, end-of-life or discarded appliances using electricity. It includes computers, consumer electronics, fridges, etc which have been disposed of by their original users. E-waste contains both valuable and hazardous materials which require special handling and recycling methods.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams, growing at three times the rate of municipal waste globally. The ICT industry is expected to generate 53 million tonnes of e-waste by 2012. Moreover, developed countries routinely export their e-waste to developing countries, often in violation of international law. Greenpeace estimates that 50-80% of e-waste that is collected for recycling is exported to developing countries in Asia and Africa. With the amount of e-waste being produced increasing by as much as 500% over the next decade in some countries, sustainable management is clearly a priority.

Conflict minerals are minerals mined in areas where there is armed conflict or human rights abuse, with profits often funding ongoing conflict. For example, coltan is a mineral that is mined for use in consumer electronics, such as mobile phones, DVD players, video game systems, and computers. It has been cited as a source of financing for military conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bromimated flame retardants (BFRs) are common in most household appliances and furniture. They have been in use since the 1970s, and are most abundant in consumer electronics. Some of the more cost-effective varieties have been shown to be hazardous to the health of humans and animals. The chemicals leech out of articles they have been applied to over the product’s lifetime, as well as while the product is being recycled, or sitting in a landfill. The chemicals find their way into water supplies and bioaccumulation occurs.

Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) were commonly used in television and computer displays, prior to the prevalence of plasma and LCD screens. CRT displays are a large contributor to e-waste, as they are exceedingly difficult to recycle. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States considers CRTs to be hazardous waste (unless recycled), due to the large amount of lead and phosphors used in their construction (in addition a high level of brominated fire retardant). If they are not disposed of or recycled properly, these hazardous chemicals can easily be released into the environment.

Planned obsolescence is a marketing strategy, often used by producers of electronic devices. The strategy entails designing a product in such a way as to have a limited life-span (limited either by the device being rendered obsolete by a new model, or by it ceasing to function). This is done with the intent to compel the consumer to buy the new model, or replace the non-functioning one. This marketing strategy has obvious consequences for the environment, as it leads to the production of an inordinate amount e-waste.

Computer refurbishing is generally a better strategy for reducing e-waste when compared to computer recycling. In the case of refurbishing, computers are used for their component parts, as opposed to recycling, which commonly crushes computers to separate the various materials inside. The latter has a far greater potential for releasing any toxins present in the electronic devices, and allowing them to leach into the environment, or be inhaled by the recyclers themselves.

Take-back laws are designed to reduce the amount of e-waste by requiring producers to bear some of the cost and responsibility for safely disposing of electronic devices at the end of their life-spans. In addition to this primary goal, the laws also encourage better product design (for products that are easier to recycle), more efficient means of recycling, and appropriate product pricing (one that takes disposal costs into account).

With the rising concern about climate change there is an increasing focus on the amount of electricity that ICTs consume. The more gadgets we have, especially mobile devices that require charging, the greater the demand for electricity. At present, around the globe, the fuel being used to meet much of the demand for new electricity generation is the worst from the point of view of carbon emissions: coal. However, it’s not the everyday use of ICTs that’s driving their electricity demand.

Though people might focus on the direct use of electricity by devices – because that’s the part of the system they can “see” – in terms of the overall life cycle of ICT devices, more energy will have been used during their production. In fact, as the direct energy use of electrical goods reduces, so the energy consumed in production becomes more significant19. For example, the memory chip in a laptop computer can take more energy to produce than the laptop itself will consume over its three-year service life. This is another reasons why extending the life cycle of ICTs is important for environmental sustainability.

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