School of Public Health

Electronic Waste (PubH 6101)

Electronic Waste Home | November 2008 »

October 16, 2008


By Mark Engebretson

Electronic Waste Introduction
The amount of electronic waste is skyrocketing in the United States. This is due in large part to advances in technology. For example, as technology improves, the lifespan for electronic tools and devices—such as computers and cell phones—becomes shorter, resulting in more waste. Technological advances also have resulted in decreasing the demand for repair of electronic devices. Compared to the 1960s and1970s, it is nearly always less expensive to buy new than to have a defective product fixed.

tv.jpgIn addition, deregulation of the telecommunications is another reason for the growth in electronic waste related to phones.

While the electronic waste stream has increased dramatically in the last 10 to 20 years, efforts to regulate it and increase recycling efforts have been slow to develop.

Historical Background
Forty to 50 years ago as the television industry began to explode and production of color television programs began, TVs became a household staple. But they were relatively expensive. Many or most homeowners could only afford one and often families needed to finance their purchase. When a TV broke down, replacing it, often, was not an option. As a result, the demand for TV repair services was quite high (California Department of Consumer Affairs). These TV repairmen would often make house calls, replacing tubes and other components in damaged sets.

Today, however, the demand for TV repair is nearly non-existent and it is easier and cheaper for consumers to buy new televisions and dispose of defective ones. Even under warranty, it is often the case that defective televisions are replaced instead of repaired by the manufacturer or retailer.

phone.jpgThe forced divestiture of the Bell System from AT & T in 1984 also has had an impact on the increase of electronic waste in the form of telephones, wireless phones, and cell phones. Prior to the divestiture, AT&T and Bell leased their phones, made by subsidiary Western Electric, to customers. According to the Bell System Memorial website, Western Electric phones were built to last decades. If anything did go wrong with a phone, the local Bell company would send a repairman to fix it for free. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was typical for families to have only one phone in their home. Likewise, typewriters—yesterday’s word processors—were built to last. The relatively few families that owned typewriters expected them to last for years.

Obviously, a lot has changed.

How much waste?
Electronic waste is the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream (Greenpeace), largely because consumers so frequently upgrade their electronics, especially mobile phones and computers.


  • More than 1 billion PCs are now in use worldwide. Annual growth is 12 percent and it is projected that installed computers will approach 2 billion by 2014. (Gartner, Inc.)
  • The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005. (Greenpeace)
  • The GAO estimates that 100 million TVs, computers, and monitors are discarded annually.
  • In 2007 alone, 68 million TVs were thrown away. (Washington Post, April 26, 2008)
  • 2007 sales of mobile phone sales topped 1.1 billion worldwide, a 16 percent increase over 2006. (Gartner, Inc.)
  • Apple has sold more than 100 million iPods (Washington Post)

One reason for the increase in trashed TVs is the Feb. 17, 2009 government-ordered transition from analog to digital television. On that date, television stations can no longer broadcast using analog airwaves. In order to view television programming after Feb. 17, 2009, consumers will have to own a digital TV, subscribe to cable TV or satellite TV, or purchase a digital converter box for their analog television set.

The transition was ordered by the federal government in order to free up parts of the broadcast spectrum for public safety communications. In addition, some of the analog airwaves will be sold to companies to provide consumers with more advanced wireless services (such as wireless broadband).

Other consumer benefits include improved picture and sound quality. (Federal Communications Commission)

To assist consumers with older TV sets during this transition, the federal government is offering families up to two $40 coupons per household to offset the cost of digital converter boxes. The boxes cost between $40 and $100. As of October 17.4 million households have requested 29, 32.6 million coupons.  More than 13 million coupons have been redeemed.  (Digital TV Trainer)

The concern over the growth of electronic waste is due to the fact that electronics contain hazardous chemicals, including mercury in batteries, cadmium in displays and toxins in circuit boards. Older TVs and computer monitors with cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, contain four to eight pounds of lead. Such substances can be harmful when buried in landfills, potentially leaching toxins into groundwater supplies.

That concern is heightened when one considers that recycling efforts by states and local government are just now coming online. For example, only 11 states have passed laws to establish TV recycling programs. The EPA estimates that in 2005, the United States generated 2.63 million tons of electronic waste. But only 12.5 percent of that was collected for recycling. (Electronics TakeBack Coalition)

Furthermore, there is concern about where recycled electronics end up. According to the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, most of the millions of analog TV sets that will be discarded in America before the digital TV transition next year will end up in ditches in the developing world.

"We're allowing the developing countries to manufacture these products, we get to use them during their least toxic phase, and then we send them back to the developing countries for one of those most toxic phases,? says Sarah Westervelt, Basel Action Network. (Basel Action Network, March 16, 2008)

October 17, 2008

Legal Perspective

By Angela Morley

Basel Picture 1.jpg (Photo Credit: Basel Action Network)


Given the sheer amount of electronic waste collected each year and the expense of domestic recycling, it is no wonder that voluntary e-waste collection and recycling programs are limited in scope and effectiveness. Some level of regulation is needed to incentivize manufacturers, distributors and consumers to deal appropriately with existing electronic waste and reduce the level of hazardous material produced in future electronics. Grassroots efforts at the state and local level in the United States and international collaboration have been the primary motivators for change in how we deal with electronic waste. Education and awareness remain important elements in the effort to limit e-waste. Much progress remains to be made.

United States Legislation

State and Local Level

Efforts at the local and state level have motivated the enactment of electronic waste recycling acts in several states. (National Electronics Recycling Infrastructure Clearinghouse: Current Electronics Recycling Laws in Effect) Many other states are considering such proposals. California’s groundbreaking 2003 law aims to decrease the amount of hazardous material in certain electronics sold in CA. In addition, it mandates that distributors collect a fee from consumers at the point of sale to finance recycling efforts and directs the state to prefer environmentally friendly electronics for state use. (Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003: Covered Electronic Waste Payment System) In 2007, Minnesota passed the Minnesota Electronics Recycling Act, (Minn. Stat. §§ 115A.1310 to 115A.1330) which requires manufacturers of Video Display Devices (electronics containing a cathode ray tube or flat panel screen), to collect and recycle computers, fax machines, televisions and DVD players, among others. They must register with the state, pay a fee and work with a recycler serving Minnesota. (Minnesota’s Electronics Recycling Act: Overview and Update)

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.gif (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

CA Integrated Waste Mgmt.gif

Cooperation among States

Several groups of states have united to agree on a unified approach to managing electronic waste. For example, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa have joined together to develop the Midwest Regional Electronic Waste Recycling Policy Initiative. In the 2006 policy statement, intended to provide recommendations to Midwest lawmakers for a harmonized regional approach to the collection and recycling of electronic waste, the state agencies agreed that manufacturers should be responsible for collecting and recycling electronic waste (televisions and computers) in proportion to their sales. In addition, the states agreed that manufacturers must register with the state and provide an annual report to the state on their e-waste disposal program. States also agreed that the electronic waste collected must be handled in an environmentally appropriate manner. (2006 Policy Initiative)

Federal Level

Very little legislation has been enacted at the national level to limit the exportation of existing electronic waste and to reduce the quantity of hazard material in future electronics. Although the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages the recycling of electronics containing Cathode Ray Tubes (computer monitors and some TVs), there is no federal law mandating recycling of electronic waste. (United States Environmental Protection Agency: Legislative Recycling Mandates) The EPA has however promulgated the Cathode Ray Tubes Final Rule, which contains requirements for Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) exported for recycling. Export requirements state that domestic recyclers must notify the EPA of their intention to export to an alternate recycler as well as the quantity of CRTs they intend to export. The destination country must consent to receive the electronic waste. (Environmental Protection Agency Information on the Cathode Ray Tube Final Rule) Currently, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering some proposed legislation on e-waste. In July of 2008, U.S. Representative Gene Green introduced H.RES. 1395 to Congress. (Rep. Green’s Press Release) The bill, “[e]xpressing concern over the current Federal policy that allows the exportation of toxic electronic waste to developing Nations, and expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should join other developed Nations and ban the exportation of toxic electronic waste to developing Nations? has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. (H.RES. 1395) In addition, United States Representative Mike Thompson introduced H.R. 233, the “National Computer Recycling Act? in January of 2007. This bill,“[t]o establish a grant and fee program through the Environmental Protection Agency to encourage and promote the recycling of used computers and to promote the development of a national infrastructure for the recycling of used computers, and for other purposes? has been referred to the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials. While these bills may look promising, similar bills have been proposed and defeated over the last few years.

EPA logo.gif

Limitations on Legislation: Exporting E-Waste

More and more states have enacted legislation to reduce the implementation of hazardous materials in electronics and require recycling of electronic waste. Problem solved? Not even close. Despite state regulations and federal recommendations on e-waste recycling, many argue that U.S. recyclers are merely exporting electronic waste to lesser developed countries rather than recycling domestically. The Basel Action Network, “the world’s only organization focused on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade (toxic wastes, products and technologies) and its devastating impacts,? contends that “between 50 to 80 percent of the E-waste collected for recycling in the western U.S. [is] not recycled domestically, but is very quickly placed on container ships bound for destinations like China.? (Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia) So where are all the recycling fees collected by U.S. recyclers going? The answer is not entirely clear. One can fairly assume that exporting the electronic waste to poorer countries is much cheaper than actually recycling it in the United States. From this one can infer that electronic waste recycling fees might be sustaining a lucrative electronic waste dumping trade. Thus, for states that do not have explicit mandates that the waste be recycled within the state itself, recyclers are not deterred from shipping the electronic waste to other areas of the world. In fact, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent Congressional watchdog agency, recently released a report on the exportation of hazardous electronic waste. The title of the report explicitly states the GAO’s conclusion, “Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation.? (GAO-08-144) In the report, the GAO noted that electronic waste from the United States exported to Asian countries can be broken down under hazardous conditions. EPA regulations limited to CRTs, the ability of companies to circumvent the CRT regulations, and lack of enforcement were all cited by the GAO as reasons why U.S. hazardous electronic waste regulations are insufficient to deter export of hazardous wastes. (GAO Summary of GAO-08-144) In response to the findings, the GAO recommended that Congress extend the regulations to cover exported electronics that do not contain CRTs, ratify the Basel Convention (please see below) and enhance tracking mechanisms for exported electronic waste.


International Actions

Basel Action Network

Much progress has been made on an international level to limit the export of hazardous electronic waste into lesser developed countries and to reduce the amount of hazardous substances used in the manufacture of electronics. As previously mentioned, the Basel Action Network was created to address these issues on an international level, and has worked to promote education and legislation on the topic of electronic waste. In 1989 the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted in Basel, Switzerland and became enforceable in 1992. According to the Basel Action Network, the Convention was established to address hazardous waste trafficking. The Basel Convention requires that shipments must be made with consent of the receiving country, and requires that environmentally friendly means are used to dispose of hazardous waste. In 1998, the Basel Ban was implemented, which, generally speaking, banned the export of hazardous electronic waste from the wealthiest countries, including the United States, to other countries. (Basel Action Network Country Status Chart) The United States has not ratified the Basel Ban.

Basel High-Tech Trash.jpg (Basel Action Network: Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia)

European Union

In 2003, the Parliament of the European Union enacted the Directive on Waste and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). The Directive intends to prevent electronic waste and reduce waste disposal. Article 5 aims to increase the level of electronic waste collection, and Articles 6 and 7 require producers and distributors to set up and finance systems to treat, recover and recycle e-waste. Standards, inspection protocols and penalties are included, and the Directive allows consumers to return electronic waste to distributors free of charge.

Basel Picture 2.jpg (Photo Credit: Basel Action Network)

October 18, 2008

The Economic Lifespan of Technology

By Matt Deyo-Svendsen

Here are pictures of two different ways to recycle electronic waste. One takes a little thought. The other takes millions of years.

(Photo credits: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

The following is a brief discussion of various market forces affecting the lifespan of technology. A by-product of this increasingly disposable commodity affects people trapped in unstable economic conditions.

The Decreasing Lifespan -or- Planned Obsolescence

Hardware technology is constantly changing. According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors on an inexpensive microchip has doubled every 18 months since the 1960s. As processing speeds increase, software applications can be developed that require more processing speeds and RAM. This includes the operating systems that link our hardware machines to our software applications. Not all of the added speed and power are conserved for applications. Operating systems have become so large that they simply cannot run on old machines. Now we have Windows Vista which won’t run on any machine. We have come a long way.

(Photo credit: Journal of Hazardous Materials)

New technology has been introduced to other parts of the computing machine outside of the motherboard. One clear example is the shift from CRT monitors to LCD monitors. The plot (above) is the shipments of new monitors in California alone (source: Journal of Hazardous Materials). CPU sales increase every year on the graph. Have the clever computer salesman found first-time consumers in the computer market? To some extent, yes. Yet many of these machines are merely replacements for unfashionable machines. Despite what the Microsoft sales rep will tell you, the word processor or game of Solitaire did not change in any major functionality on any year on this graph. The look and speed of the computer simply became unfashionable. Thus, many of these sales are mere replacements. The unfashionable computer is either reused, recycled or trashed.

The Breakdown of Trash (or the Lack Thereof)

e trash
(Photo credit:

 Country  E-waste generated (tons year^–1)
Switzerland 66,042
Germany 1,100,000
UK 915,000
USA 2,124,400
Taiwan 14,036
Thailand 60,000
Denmark 118,000
Canada 67,000


We will begin with the trashed components. The table above is an estimate for the number of tons per year generated by select industrialized nations in 2005. Some of the European countries include appliances in their totals (what do you do with an old dryer anyways?). These numbers are not terribly surprising, given Moore’s Law of cheap, faster microprocessors in one and a half years. These raw totals give us an idea of how much waste is generated annually, but is not a very good indicator of how much material could have been recycled.

To gain better insight into what can be recycled, consider the following breakdown of what makes up a computer:

Component Percentage composition
Metals 60.2
Plastics 15.21
Screen (CRT and LCD) 11.87
Metal–plastic mixture 4.97
Pollutants 2.7
Cables 1.97

Source: Osibanjo, Waste Management Research

Once a computer is produced, the specialized machine is difficult to return to its original forms. Many metals and plastics can be recycled, yet things such as pollutants are, well, pollution. Because computers are so specialized in their functionality, it is the duty of producers to ensure quality in the products they produce. One small faulty circuit can lead to the disposal of an entire system.

Reuse -or- Trickle-Down Technology

Other options exist for consumers once a piece of technology is deemed old. Unfashionable computers are often shipped to developing countries where technology sectors of the economy are smaller than more industrialized nations. Reused computers are a great resource for some of these countries.

The following map is a snapshot of technology traffic from a limited sample of internet retailers:

(Photo credit: GAO Report).

Some of these computers, monitors, cell phones and appliances will actually be put to good use. Yet some of these shipments include broken, burned, fried and damaged materials. These non-functional computers are only valued at the precious metals that can be stripped from their innards.

The Human Cost of Electronic Waste

This brings us back to the GAO report, mentioned in the previous section. As motherboards are broken for metal or wires are stripped for copper, damaging pollutants are exposed to the environment and whoever happens to be doing the destruction. “Items with cathode-ray tubes (CRT) are particularly harmful because they can contain 4 pounds of lead, a known toxin.? In such operations, the idea of providing proper equipment for the workers is often ignored, including tools and gloves. “In some cases, workers burn the plastic coating off wires to recover copper and submerge circuit boards in open acid baths to extract gold and other metals. Unsalvageable computer parts are often burned in the open air.? The irresponsible disassembly of technology will be discussed in further sections.


(Photo credit: Patralekha Chatterjee)
Chatterjee, Patralekha. “Health costs of recycling .? BMJ. 16 august 2008. Volume 337.

“ELECTRONIC WASTE: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation?. GAO Report. August 2008.

Kang, Hai-Yong; Julie M. Schoenung. “Estimation of future outflows and infrastructure needed to recycle personal computer systems in California.? Journal of Hazardous Materials. 2006. pp. 1165–1174.

O. Osibanjo and I.C. Nnorom. “The challenge of electronic waste (e-waste) management in developing countries.? Waste Management Research. 2007; 25; 489

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa).