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Effects of Electronic Waste

Electronic waste comprises of electronic appliances that are discarded when they become inappropriately abundant due to their short lifespan. Currently, the production of electronic waste globally is estimated to be between 20-25 million tons annually, most of these wastes coming from Europe, United States and Australia. The development and miniaturization of efficient cloud-computing networks may reduce the electronic waste. Electronic wastes comprise of valuable elements, for example, metals like copper and platinum group as well as contaminants of the environment like lead. This chemical composition of electronic waste changes with the change in technology and cause pressure to the electronic companies to try finding the alternatives for the environmentally harsh materials.

Most of the electronic wastes are largely deposited in the landfills because an effective reprocessing technique, which can be used to recover materials that have minimal impacts on the environment, is quite expensive. It is evident that countries that are much developed export the electronic wastes to less developed countries, where they recycle these wastes with techniques including burning or strong acid dissolution. These less developed countries put little or no measures of human life protection as well as the environment. These little measures affect the health of electronic waste workers through inhalation and contact through skin. In addition, the community, at large, is exposed to contaminants. The associated electronic wastes contaminants are also believed to be in some of the agricultural or general products manufactured for export.

Consumers and businesses at times may hesitate to release the used electronic devices because the device may be functioning and have some value. The users pay some fees, if they want their used electronics appliances recycled or refurbished at the domestic level. These recyclers charge certain fees, in order to cover for the costs that are associated with recycling and refurbishing, which on several occasion is more than the revenue obtained from the recycled commodities.

The costs of recycling often are not a profitable undertaking, due to several reasons. First, it is labor extensive to recycle a used commodity since the equipment has to be separated from other components, including the plastics and metals. Second, for obtaining salable commodities, ingredients such as the metal and plastic scrap must be processed further to obtain the recyclable compositions, and this processing typically is expensive. Lastly, there are additional expenses incurred when the toxic components are being disposed (such as mercury-containing lamps). Selling of these items for export brings in added revenue. The majority of used electronic equipment donated towards the recycling or reuse purposes are usually exported, which is done responsible or irresponsible attitudes. Responsible recyclers normally test electronics subject to recycling, in order to determine the components in a position of being reused and separate them into their components as commodities before exportation. These recyclers argue that they operate at a disadvantaged competitive environment as compared against companies that export untested units.

Exporting of used electronic equipment from USA has great returns for the country. For instance, export results in a viable, productive way of using the secondhand electronic devices to developing countries. This practice is known under the term of “bridging the digital divide”, whereby the electronic equipment is purchased at 1/10th of the price as compared to a new electronic unit and consequently contribute to an extended life cycle of the electronic products, thus, preventing a possibility of environmental damage. A study by United Nations University found that the phase of manufacturing a new device uses about 80 percent of the natural resources that are used during the life cycle of computers; thus, extension of the lifetime of computers provides for a reliable environmental service. In addition, there are demands for these electronic wastes in developing countries for recycling purposes to obtain the raw materials which are contained in electronic appliances. The high technological recycling facilities that are available in developed countries, such as Belgium, can successfully extract these precious metals or other commodities that can be sold. Recycling using the high technological processes provides for essential environmental benefits in that metals are extracted from the used electronic devices, which imposes less impact towards the environment than from mining. For instance, U.S. Geological Survey stated that a metric ton of a computer scrap device could contain more precious metals as compared to 17 tons of ore, whereas expose considerably lesser levels of harmful chemicals common to ores, such as sulfur and mercury.

Several issues have been put in place in the past years concerning the toxic substances such as lead, which have resulted into adverse health effects, leached from discarded electronic products, especially when they are improperly disposed off.


Electronic waste s comprises of any discarded appliances that use electricity. These appliances are electronic goods such as computers, television sets and phones. The rapid growth of computing is the main factor that is driving the great production of electronic waste. For instance, there is a possibility that, in the next five years, approximately one billion computers will have to retire (Ladou & Lovegrove, 2008). There is a distinction between chemical and physical component of electronic waste from other forms of industrial waste, since electronic waste contains both the materials that are of value and hazard. The hazardous materials require to be handled in a more refined way in order to minimize the environment effects and risks to human health. These electronic wastes, if put under recycling technique, can recover components that are reusable like copper and other precious metals. However, because of the lack of facilities, as well as high costs of labor, rich countries avoid recycling this waste; as a result, they landfill the wastes or mostly export these wastes to poor countries. The poor countries, on the other hand, tend to recycle these wastes using techniques that are primitive putting little caution towards safe protection of the environment (Cobbing, 2008). The act of exportation of electronic wastes is illegal under Basel convention of 1992 (UNEP, 2009), but this has continued through legal operations that have led to harsh environmental effects drawing attention from a number of organizations including the scientific community. For example, as at June 2006, more than five hundred scientific articles were in place dealing specifically with the electronic wastes and their effects on the environment.


The world production of electronic waste is estimated to be between 20 to 50 million tons annually by 2006 (UNNEP), which represents 3% of the municipal waste production estimated to be 1636 million tons per year globally (OECD, 2008). It is calculated that computers and mobile phones would contribute 5.5 million tones of the streaming electronic wastes in 2010 (Cobbing, 2008), which will rise to 9.8 million tons by 2015. It is expected that that electronic waste from the rich countries will constitute 8% to the municipal waste volume (Widmer et el., 2005).

This contribution to the electronic waste accumulation, E (kg/year), annually would depend on its mass (M measured in kg), as well as the number of pieces in service (N), and lastly the unit’s average lifespan (L measured in years). Thus,

E= MN/L (kg/year).

Computers that show an average lifespan of three years have a greater proportion of the electronic waste than those appliances that have an average lifespan of ten to twelve years (Betts, 2008).

The production of electronic waste will change globally as development of new technologies and growth in economies take centre stage. The quantity of computers and other electronic wastes items for a given country is strongly related to the country’s GDP, since it is argued that electrical and electronic products are important parts of the functioning of all economies. This measure of distribution can be done better by implicating the production of electronic waste to the distribution of electronics among the population as a function of wealth. This exponential relationship of wealth and number of computers indicates that the number of computers will have a faster increase per 100 people in rich countries, as compared to poor countries for a given GDP. This agrees with the fact that the average electronic waste growth in Europe is rapidly increasing at a rate of 3 to 5 percent, as compared to an average increase of 2.6 percent in GDP (Hischier et al, 2005). An indicative of the number of computers to the total electronic waste production will see the Eastern Europe and China becoming the major producers of electronic wastes, in 10 years to come.

The composition of an electronic waste chemically depends on the type and age of the item discarded. Most of these wastes composes of metal mixtures such as copper aluminum and iron, normally attached or mixed with various types of ceramics (Hoffmann, 1992). All electronic wastes virtually contain components that are concerned to be of value like copper. The items with valuable components become important to the environmental impacts as they provide the base of recycling as occurring in many poor countries. This may bring intern results to the risking of human health and pollution of the environment. The concentration of the precious metals in these items is more than a tenfold higher than the commercially mined minerals (Betts, 2008). Although recycling removes a good number of contaminants, a good amount of contaminants still concentrate in landfills or at the centre where electronic wastes are being recycled. At these places, the wastes adversely affect the environment and human health. Despite the recycling, it is clear that the electronic waste production is the major contributor to the large amount of copper that is emitted to the environment annually (Bertram et al, 2002). Most electronic wastes are not recycled, because they tend to be along with household waste that does not require any special treatment. 80% of the total items collected are exported to poor countries (Schmidt, 2006).

Those electronic equipments that the original purchaser no longer uses may be reused effectively, thus extending their lifespan. Reuse is the predominating source of most electronic waste in a number of poor countries (Puckett et al., 2005), which accept donations in the form of equipment that is considered as obsolete in wealthy countries. Well-meaning donors in the West often ship old but functional electronic appliances to developing countries. Unscrupulous companies in wealthy countries use donated electronic equipment as a loophole within the provisions of the Basel Convention, whereby they export functioning, a well as non-functioning electronic devices (Ladou & Lovegrove, 2008). Brokers who make arrangements for the exports of functioning products, tend to pad containers for exports with irreparable waste; this may account as high as 75% of overall shipments. Most of the wastes end up in informal dumps or landfills. (Schmidt, 2006).

Recycling of electronic wastes is characterized by destruction and disassembly of equipments with an aim of recovering a new material (Cui and Zhang, 2008). The recycling process can recover about 95 percent of a useful material from a computer and about 45 percent a cathode ray tube. The recycling processes function well in areas where high technological recycling processes are used, for example, in Japan, as a result, minimizing the environmental impacts. The ecological benefits of recycling, however, lower impacts than the landfill of electronic wastes have incinerated. Valuable materials are normally recovered from the electronic wastes by a process known as bio-metallurgical process (Cui and Zhang, 2008). This process is widely attractive due its low cost, and it has a high specificity of the elements that are on target.

A Case Study of Guiyu Recycling Centre in China Region

Recycling has been occurring in the city of Guiyu, in Guangdong region of China, since 1995. It is the largest Electronic-waste recycling site in the world. Most of the city’s population of 150,000 consists of immigrants. A greater percentage of family members has dedicated themselves to the operations of E-waste recycling. According to (Deng et al., 2007), wind carries matter to the Delta Region of river Pearl, with an estimated population of 45 million people. The migrants and the villagers use environmental techniques that are not sound, to recycle electronic-wastes. The techniques include open burning to reduce volumes and recover the metals, manual removal and heating of components from circuit boards and open-acid digestion, so as to extract the precious metals. The acid-waste rich in metals is then released into the soil or waterways. Workers struggle without masks, goggles and gloves, as well as melting solder from printed circuit boards over makeshift coals. These unsound techniques have led to environmental contamination and caused the following effects:

Soils and terrestrial environment.

According to a study by Leung et al in 2007, the soils at the place where leaching was carried out to extract metals, now has 4250 ng/g PBDEs. Soils from the Electronic-waste workshop regions have polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PDCC/Fs). According to Shen et al.(2009), the PCBs and PAHs concentrations have reached 100, 330 and 20,000 ng/g, in that order. Reports also indicate that PBDEs transferred from soils to plants. Despite the bioaccumulation is as small as 0.01 ng/g, plant uptake may encourage entry of hazardous contaminants into food chains. This follows the analysis of rice samples in Eastern China that showed concentrations of Pd and Cd to be 0.2mg/kg; 2-4 times, in excess of the maximum allowed concentration of foodstuffs in China.

In the same town, it was revealed that PBDEs in chicken tissues measured levels 18 ng/g, which gave a conclusion that the toxins may soon cause a threat to ecosystems and human beings.


The WHO recommends a certain percentage intake of dioxins, but the contamination has resulted to 15-56 times the recommended intake. Higher levels of dioxins were found in placentas and hairs, as well as human milk. This showed that humans are taking up dioxins from water and foodstuffs, and this could cause serious health risk. According to a research by Qu et al in 2007, electronic-waste workers and people who reside in Guiyu had their blood serum (BPDE) measuring a concentration around 126 ng/L, or35ng/L respectively. This was high as compared to results from people of the neighboring town, who measued just 10 ng/L. High concentrations of PCBs in breast milk could be based on exposure since people get exposed to PCBs from drinking water, food and air contamination.


Human beings ingest, inhale and absorb, through the skin, dangerous air contaminations since electronic waste contaminants get into the human body the through dust. Mielke and Reagen in their 1998 book state that the air samples taken near Guiyu, had polychlorodibenzo-p-dioxins of 65 and 2765 pg/m3, which is the highest level of atmospheric dioxins ever reported. There has been PBDEs total concentrations of 16,575 pg/m3 near Guiyu, which is 300 times higher as compared to Hong Kong.


In conclusion, electronic waste is characterized by unusual chemical composition and the difficulties involved in measuring in determining its flux and mass are both global and local scales since it is omnipresent. Electronic waste has degraded the environment in poor countries and has affected the health of the people negatively. Since the sites are heavily contaminated, cleansing is unbearable. Employing standard remediation technologies will only help to reduce the negative effects of these contaminants. Knowledge on ecological effects of the contaminants, the remedial options of some contaminants and the human health risks is limited. Electronic wastes like Sb and Li are not environmentally pollutant. Electronic waste that was conducted in Guiyu led to contamination of the entire region. Even a small fraction of electronic waste can cause hundred tons of Cd and Pb, PCB and Hg. Some of the products that are manufactured and consumed locally in electronic waste processing region may contain higher levels of contaminants. Well-off countries have the advantage of controlling the negative effects of electronic waste because. However, this issue, if not properly mitigated, will affect the quantity and quality of manufactured goods and foods imported from poor countries in a negative way.

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