e-Waste is a loose category of surplus, obsolete, broken, or discarded electrical or electronic devices. The processing of electronic waste in developing countries causes serious health and pollution problems due to lack of containment, as do unprotected landfilling (due to leaching) and incineration.
This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal. Because loads of surplus electronics are frequently commingled (good, recyclable, and non-recyclable), several public policy advocates apply the term “e-waste” broadly to all surplus electronics. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refers to obsolete computers under the term “hazardous household waste”.
Rapid technology change, low initial cost, and even 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 system, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied.
Surplus electronics have extremely high cost differentials. A single repairable laptop can be worth hundreds of dollars, while an imploded Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) is extremely difficult and expensive to recycle.
This has created a difficult free-market economy. Large quantities of used electronics are typically sold to countries with very high repair capability and high raw material demand, which can result in high accumulations of residue in poor areas without strong environmental laws.
Electronic waste is of concern largely due to the toxicity and carcinogenicity of some of its substances, if processed improperly Toxic substances in electronic waste may include lead, mercury, and cadmium.
Carcinogenic substances in electronic waste may include Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). Capacitors, transformers, and wires insulated with or components coated with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), manufactured before 1977, often contain dangerous amounts of PCBs.
When materials cannot or will not be reused, conventional recycling or disposal via., landfill often following. Standards for both approaches vary widely by jurisdiction, whether in developed or developing countries.
The complexity of the various items to be disposed of, the cost of environmentally approved recycling systems, and the need for concerned and concerted action to collect and systematically process equipment are challenges. One study indicates that two-thirds of executives are unaware of fines related to environmental regulations.
Electronic waste is often exported to developing countries. Increased regulation of electronic waste and concern over the environmental harm which can result from toxic electronic waste has raised disposal costs. This has had the unforeseen effect of providing brokers and others calling themselves recyclers with an incentive to export the electronic waste to developing countries.
To lower environmental and labour standards, cheap labour, and the relatively high value of recovered raw materials in China, Malaysia, India, Kenya, and various African countries, electronic waste is being sent to these countries for processing, sometimes illegally.
It is commonly believed that a majority of surplus laptops are routed to developing nations as “dumping grounds for e-waste”.
Guiyu in the Shantou region of China, and Delhi and Bangalore in India, have electronic waste processing areas. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal can cause environmental and health problems, including occupational safety and health effects among those directly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste.
Thousands of men, women, and children are employed in highly polluting, primitive recycling technologies, extracting the metals, toners, and plastics from computers and other electronic waste.
Such countries utilise methods that are not only more harmful, but also more wasteful. An expedient and prevalent method is simply to toss equipment onto an open fire, in order to melt plastics and to burn away unvaluable metals.
This releases carcinogens and neurotoxins into the air, contributing to acrid, lingering smog. These noxious fumes include dioxins and furans. Bonfire refuse can be disposed of quickly into drainage ditches or waterways feeding the ocean or local water supplies.