E-Waste: A Global Hazard


E-Waste: A Global Hazard Devin N. Perkins, BS, Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, MS, Tapiwa Nxele, MS, and Peter D. Sly, MD


Fro ter (D Ch Re (PD

Th of do



Background: Waste from end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment, known as e-waste, is a rapidly growing global problem. E- waste contains valuable materials that have an economic value when recycled. Unfortunately, the majority of e-waste is recycled in the unregulated informal sector and results in significant risk for toxic exposures to the recyclers, who are frequently women and children.

Objectives: The aim of this study was to document the extent of the problems associated with inappropriate e-waste recycling practices.

Methods: This was a narrative review that highlighted where e-waste is generated, where it is recycled, the range of adverse environmental exposures, the range of adverse health consequences, and the policy frameworks that are intended to protect vulnerable populations from inappropriate e-waste recycling practices.

Findings: The amount of e-waste being generated is increasing rapidly and is compounded by both illegal exportation and inappropriate donation of electronic equipment, especially computers, from developed to developing countries. As little as 25% of e-waste is recycled in formal recycling centers with adequate worker protection. The health consequences of both direct ex- posures during recycling and indirect exposures through environmental contamination are potentially severe but poorly studied. Policy frameworks aimed at protecting vulnerable populations exist but are not effectively applied.

Conclusions: E-waste recycling is necessary but it should be conducted in a safe and standardized manor. The acceptable risk thresholds for hazardous, secondary e-waste substances should not be different for developing and developed countries. However, the acceptable thresholds should be different for children and adults given the physical differences and pronounced vulnerabilities of children. Improving occupational conditions for all e-waste workers and striving for the eradication of child labor is non-negotiable.

Key Words: children’s environmental health, developmental toxicology, electronic waste, e-waste, heavy metals

� 2014 Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Annals of Global Health 2014;80:286-295


The adverse consequences for health and the ecology of exposure to waste products from human consump- tion have long been recognized. A relatively recently recognized hazardous waste product comes from dis- carded electrical and electronic equipment (EEE).1

Such products contain costly components that have economic value if recycled. However, EEE also con- tains potentially hazardous substances that may be directly released or generated during the recycling process, generating what is known as e-waste. The

14-9996/ª 2014 Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

m the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social De- minants of Health, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland NP, M-NBD, TN); World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for ildren’s Health and Environment, Queensland Children’s Medical search Institute, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia S). Address correspondence to P. D. Sly.; e-mail: p.sly@uq.edu.au

e authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest. Staff members WHO are responsible for the views expressed in this publication, which not necessarily represent the decisions, policy, or views of WHO.


creation and release of hazardous byproducts often occurs in the so-called “informal” sector of e-waste recycling where modern industrial processes are not used and where worker protection often is inadequate. Unprotected exposure to e-waste is not advisable for any individual. Of exposed groups, children are particularly vulnerable to many of the components in e- waste. In this article, we will review the scope of the problem associated with discarded EEE and compo- nent recycling, outline the regulatory approaches to minimize adverse health effects, and highlight current areas for improvement.

The Scope of the Problem: Defining, Quantifying, and Tracking E-waste EEE includes items that have either a battery or a power cord. E-waste generated from discarded EEE is commonly divided into 3 main categories: large household appli- ances (refrigerators and washing machines), information technology (IT) and telecom (personal computers, moni- tors, and laptops), and consumer equipment (TVs, DVD players, mobile phones, mp3 players, and leisure and sporting equipment).2 Equipment components including batteries, circuit boards, plastic casings, cathode-ray tubAnna l s o f G l o b a l Hea l t h 287

activated glass, and lead capacitors also are considered to be e-waste.2 There are varying estimates as to the amount of domestic, regional, and global e-waste produced. Ac- cording to StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative), the 2012 global generation of e-waste totaled 45.6 million metric tons.3 The United Nations Environmental Pro- gram (UNEP) approximated that the amount of e-waste produced in 2012 is enough to fill 100 Empire State buildings and averages to more than 6.8 kg (15 lb) for every living person. The global population is nearly 7 billion but although there are only 4.5 billion toilets worldwide, there are estimated to be at least 6 billion mobile phones.2,4 In 2012 alone, China reportedly generated 11.1 million tons of e-waste and the United States produced 10 million tons.5 This means that, on average, each American generates 29.5 kg of e-waste compared with the less than 5 kg per person in China. These numbers likely underestimate the actual total amounts of e-waste.

The sheer volume of e-waste is problematic, but more concerning is the rapid increase of this complex, global waste stream. E-waste is one of, if not the, fastest growing source of waste worldwide.1,3,6,7 The 2012 UN report projected that by 2017 global e-waste will increase a further 33% from 49.7 million to 65.4 million tons per annum.8

E-waste from cell phones in India alone is expected to in- crease 18-fold by 2020.3,9 The total amount of e-waste produced is exponentially increasing because of multiple factors. Consumer demand and a high obsolescence rate lead to frequent and unnecessary purchases of EEE.10 For example, new cell phone models are released at highly regular intervals. Not only do cell phone models evolve, but the accessories, such as chargers, often change with each new model. Short innovation cycles and low recycling rates contribute to rapidly rising quantities of e-waste. The acceptable consumer life span of EEE has been dropping, causing significant additions to e-waste. The average life span of computers has reportedly dropped in recent years by 50% from 4 to 2 years.3,11 Computers and cell phones are used for a wide variety purposes, including educational campaigns where a laptop is provided to each student. Computer access and skills are valuable to education but such initiatives also have the unintended consequence of adding to the global burden of e-waste.

E-waste is a global, interregional, and domestic problem. Of the 20 million to 50 million tons generated yearly, it is estimated that 75% to 80% is shipped to countries in Asia and Africa for “recycling” and disposal.12 Loopholes in current e-waste regulations allow for the export of e-waste from developed to devel- oping countries under the guise of “donation” and “recycling” purposes. The Parties to the Basel Conven- tion on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (The Basel Convention),13 launched The Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE) to facilitate environ- mentally sound management of used and end-of-life

computing equipment. Among other tasks, PACE has provided guidelines on what functionality computers and computer components, including batteries, should have to be considered usable computers and, as such, suitable for donation.14 According to PACE, a charitable dona- tion is the “transfer of computing equipment or its components, that are not waste, for their intended direct reuse for purposes of charity without any monetary re- wards or benefits, or for barter.”13,15 The UNEP Guidelines on Environmentally Sound Testing, Refur- bishment and Repair of Used Computing Equipment provide a set of principles for donations of functioning used computing equipment. These principles are to:

1. provide a useful product; 2. provide an appropriate product; 3. ensure and verify availability of technical support in

recipient community; 4. test, certify and label functionality; 5. ensure availably of training in recipient community; 6. ensure full transparency, contract, notification, and

consent prior to delivery; and 7. export in accordance with applicable national and

international controls.15

If followed as closely as possible, these principles could drastically minimize the amount of end-of-life computing equipment that is mislabeled and exported as donated “functional used computing equipment” that is really waste.15

Distinguishing between types of e-waste is essential. The Basel Convention technical guidelines on trans- boundary movements of e-waste and used EEE differ- entiate waste streams based on functionality and the need or potential for repair (Table 1).16 To test the functionality of used EEE, specifically computing equip- ment, one can conduct a Power on Self Test (POST).15

The final destination of nearly 70% of e-waste is either unreported or unknown.17 Approximately 25% (2.1 million tons) of the estimated 8.7 million tons of e- waste produced in the European Union (EU) each year is collected and recycled in formal processing plants where workers are protected by modern industrial standards. The remaining 75% is added to the “hidden flow” of untraced and unreported e-waste.10 The European Environment Agency estimates that up to 1.3 million tons of discarded EEE are exported from the EU annu- ally mostly to Africa and Asia.6 In 2005, 18 European seaports were inspected and 47% of waste bound for export was not being exported legally. In 2003, 23,000 metric tons of undeclared e-waste from the United Kingdom was illegally exported to India, Africa, and Asia.18 Eighty percent of e-waste generated in the United States reportedly contributes to the global “hidden flow” of e-waste; it is not registered meaning it is either unof- ficially exported, dumped into landfills, or incinerated.19

The 20% of e-waste generated in the United States that is formally recycled includes the “official” export of e-waste

Table 1. Classifying the Multiple Types of E-waste

Type of Stream Description Classification

New and functioning EEE New products or components being

delivered and shipped between

different countries.

This stream is classified as “non-waste”

by default (new products for


Used and functioning EEE suitable for

direct reuse

The equipment needs no further repair,

refurbishment, or hardware


This stream can be classified as “non-

waste”; however, in some countries

export/import restrictions apply.

Used and nonfunctioning but

repairable EEE

Equipment that can be repaired,

returning it to a working condition

performing the essential functions it

was designed for. Testing is required

to determine this condition.

Classification of this stream is under

discussion by Basel Parties, as the

repair process may result in hazardous

parts being removed in the country of

repair, thus possibly resulting in

transboundary movement of

hazardous waste. Some countries

would classify this stream as “waste”;

others classify it as “non-waste.”

Used and nonfunctioning and

nonrepairable EEE

The common form of “e-waste.” Can

be mislabeled as “used EEE.”

Should be classified as “waste.”

WEEE EEE that is waste within the meaning of

the Waste Framework Directive

context, including components and


Should be classified as “waste.”

EEE, electrical and electronic equipment; WEEE, waste electrical and electronic equipment. (Adapted ref 16)

288 E -Wa s t e : G l o b a l Ha za r d

to India and China.19 Official e-waste exports from the United States encompass donated, and often defunct, EEE.10

The practice of developed countries exporting e- waste to developing countries has become commonplace for a variety of reasons. High labor costs and stringent environmental regulations for hazardous waste disposal in developed countries encourage the exportation of e- waste to less developed and less regulated countries. Importing e-waste for recycling may provide some short- term economic benefits. However, many developing countries lack the technology, facilities, and resources needed to properly recycle and dispose of e-waste.10 Re- cyclers in developing countries that receive e-waste from other countries frequently rely on rudimentary tech- niques to extract valuable materials from e-waste.10 E- waste is physically dismantled by using tools such as hammers, chisels, and screw drivers.20 Printed circuit boards are heated and components are removed.20 Gold and other metals are recovered from the stripping of metals in open-pit acid baths.20 Plastics are chipped and melted without necessary and protective ventilation.20

Burning electrical cables, often in open pits and at relatively low temperatures, to retrieve copper is one of the most common crude recycling practices. Such prim- itive techniques may appear efficient to the untrained and less equipped recyclers, but they do not ensure environmental protection or occupational safety. In fact, these rudimentary methods may lead to the recovery of

materials that are only worth a fraction of the total po- tential economic return. When developed countries export e-waste for recycling, the opportunity to establish more safe, clean, and efficient techniques is lost.

Sources of Exposure E-waste recycling can lead to direct or indirect exposure to a variety of hazardous substances that are contained in EEE or formed and released by unsafe recycling practices (Fig. 1). Direct exposure entails skin contact with harmful substances, the inhalation of fine and coarse particles, and the ingestion of contaminated dust. In- dividuals who directly engage in e-waste recycling with poor protection incur high levels of direct, occupational exposure.3,21,22 Unsafe recycling techniques used to regain valuable materials often increase the risk for haz- ardous exposures. There often is a lack of suitable off-gas treatment during such recycling processes, particularly smelting.

Plastics are burned, often at low temperatures, to either dispose of computer casings or to retrieve metals from electronic chips and other components. Incinera- tion releases heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury.3,21,23 The toxic fumes released by these tech- niques often contain polyhalogenated dioxins and furans generated by incomplete combustion at low termper- atures.3,18,23 Polystyrene form, rubber, tires, crop residue, or biomass may be used as fuel for these fires and can cause harmful exposures, independent of the burning

Figure 1. Potential Hazardous E-waste Exposures

Anna l s o f G l o b a l Hea l t h 289

e-waste. Additionally, the working materials used in rudimentary recycling can be injurious.3 Working mate- rials include cleaning solvents and reagents such as cya- nide and other strong leaching acids. Acid leaching can lead to direct contact with liquid acid and the inhalation of acid fumes.24 “De-soldering” of circuit boards to recover rare and precious metals can release lead-saturated fumes. The combination of toxic byproducts, working materials, and the actual e-waste may lead to adverse health outcomes.

Environmental contamination that is the result of improper e-waste recycling can lead to indirect exposures through contamination of soil, air, and water around e- waste recycling sites. Water contamination has been documented in areas surrounding e-recycling towns in China; metal-contaminated sediments and elevated levels of dissolved metals have been reported in rivers in and around the e-waste recycling town of Guiyu.3,25,26 The release of hazardous chemicals into the environment can lead to bioaccumulation, food contamination, and widespread ecological exposure.3,21,22 Children may be exposed in schools, playgrounds, or homes that are near an e-waste recycling site. Concern surrounding trans- placental and breast milk exposure is high, although no

direct data on the levels of exposure exists.3,21,22,27

Environmental contamination and resulting ecological exposure requires intensive research not only because hazardous e-waste recycling materials have the ability to spread far distances but they also possess high environ- mental persistence capabilities. With longer half-lives, these substances have the ability to remain in the envi- ronment for extended periods.28 Ecological exposure may have long-term and widespread health risks.3,23,29

An additional source of indirect exposure to toxi- cants resulting from improper e-waste recycling processes is “take-home exposure.”3 This exposure pathway refers to secondhand exposure to hazardous substances incurred, especially by children, when the substance is brought into the home on clothing, materials, or other objects that have been contaminated with harmful res- idue from e-waste recycling.30 Take-home exposure has the capacity to cause low-level, chronic, and long-term exposure.

E-waste Recycling: Formal and Informal Sectors The final destination of discarded EEE is frequently not in the same country or even on the same continent where the

290 E -Wa s t e : G l o b a l Ha za r d

Please follow and like us: