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Philip Bangerter, Global Director-Sustainability, Hatch Associates





 

E-Waste Education Course One


Highschool Level

Lecture 2: Digital Delights - Consumers and E-Products

      

   

Educational Aim
 

According to the European Commission, ‘E-Waste is the fastest growing component of municipal trash by a factor of three’.[1] In 2005 the United Nations Environment Program gave an estimate of 20 to 50 million tons of E-Waste being generated every year world wide.[2] Short-life equipment such as computers and mobile phones are the most problematic.[3] The number of personal computers worldwide, ‘increased fivefold – from 105 million machines in 1988 to more than half a billion in 2002’.[4] By 2005, more than 1 billion computers were being sold each year while 100 million computers reached the end of their useful lives, 75 million of which were landfilled.[5]

 

Learning Points

 

* 1. The volume of E-Waste is mainly due to the throw away ethic, which is partly driven by the potential for ‘... massive increase(s) in corporate profits, particularly when the electronics industry does not have to bear the financial burden of downstream costs’.[6]

* 2. ‘According to the US National Safety Councils (NSC) in Recycling of Selected Electronic Products in the United States... only 11% of the 20 million computers that became obsolete in the United States in 1998 were recycled’.[7]

* 3. ‘Government researchers estimate that three quarters of all computers ever sold in the U.S. are lying in basements and office closets, awaiting disposal. An estimated 63 million personal computers are expected to be retired... that's one computer becoming obsolete for every new one put on the U.S. market'.[8]

* 4. Due to the lack of definitive standards regarding recyclers, it is likely that many recycling rate estimates are overstated.[9] Most of the time, ‘recycled’ means ‘exported for recycling’, and often, most of the exported wastes are landfilled. In fact, the UK exported about 160,000 tons of E-Waste in 2003 and about 22% of all export wastes in some European countries are illegal, containing large qualities of hazardous post-consumer wastes.[10]

* 5. In the US, ‘the Department of Toxic Substances Control has determined that most electronic devices are toxic’.[11] African nations (and other developing countries), which are the primary destination of E-Waste, do not understand the hazards associated with E-Waste. ‘Consequently... almost all of the discarded imported electronic waste is thrown into formal or informal dumpsites, all of which are unlined, unmonitored, close to the groundwater and routinely set afire’.[12]

 

Brief Background Information


E-Waste is a global issue


In many cases, the end-of-life disposal volumes only tell a fraction of the story. One of the most materials intensive components of a computer is the 2 gram microprocessor, which requires materials of mass 1.26 kgms. It’s no surprise then, that ‘Santa Clara County in California, the birthplace of the semiconductor industry, contains more toxic waste sites than any other county in the United States’.[13]


Emerging technologies, such as high definition television technologies, can also indirectly contribute to E-Waste in the coming years. For example, there are ‘more than 500 million televisions are in homes, businesses, and institutions’ in the US.[14] It is likely that most of these standard definition televisions will be replaced by their high definition counterparts. The volume of E-Waste will only continue to increase in the near term, especially with the increasing number of people in developing countries coming ‘online’ with communication technologies, making E-Waste a global issue:


- Developing countries own a substantial share of e-products. For example, of the estimated 20-50 million tons of E-Waste discarded annually worldwide, Asian countries discard an estimated 12 million tons.[15] This share will continue to increase with the rapidly developing economies of China and India, who will have 178 million and 80 million new computers, respectively, out of the global total of an estimated 716 million new computer users by 2010.[16] This is an issue not only in Asia - for example, between the years 2000 and 2004, the number of fixed line telephones in Nigeria doubled. However, in that same period, the number of mobile phones in use rose from 35,000 to almost 9.2 million – an increase by a factor of about 260; and the number of internet users rose from about 107,000 to almost 1.8 million.[17]


- E-waste is often sent for recycling and refurbishing in developing countries where labour is relatively cheap, and, once there, can simply be landfilled. For example, 50-80 percent of the E-Waste collected for recycling in the US is exported, but ‘the E-waste recycling and disposal operations found in China, India, and Pakistan are extremely polluting and likely to be very damaging to human health. Examples include open burning of plastic waste, exposure to toxic solders, river dumping of acids, and widespread general dumping’.[18] Effectively, developed countries are passing the responsibilities, risks and hazards of E-Waste to developing countries.


Transfer of end-of-life problems to developing countries


The current situation involving the export of E-Waste from developed countries to developing countries for processing is outlined:[19]


Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world’s electronic products and generate most of the E-Waste, have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve – exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia... Indeed, informed recycling industry sources estimate that between 50 to 80 percent of the E-waste collected for recycling in the western U.S. are not recycled domestically, but is very quickly placed on container ships bound for destinations like China. Even the best-intentioned recyclers have been forced, due to market realities, to participate in this failed system… The open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air, and water and exposes the men, women, and children of Asia’s poorer peoples to poison… Vast amounts of E-waste material, both hazardous and simply trash, is burned or dumped in the rice fields, irrigation canals and along waterways.


Toxic substances in E-Waste


The US Department of Toxic Substances Control determined that most electronic devices are toxic based on just a few of the 1000 different substances in E-Waste, such as lead, tin, copper, antimony, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium/chromium VI, plastics including PVC, brominated, chlorinated and phosphorous-based flame retardants, brominated organic compounds, phthalate esters and esters of long-chain organic acids, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), barium, beryllium, toners, phosphor, arsenic, and additives, all of which can be poisonous to people and wildlife.[20]


There exists the potential to release these toxic substances into the industrial and natural environments at all stages of E-Waste processing.[21]


With the exception of some plastics, the recycling rate for almost all of these substances in Australia is nil.[22] About 70 percent, of heavy metals in US landfills comes from E-Waste.[23] Currently, one of the most threatening substances is lead, of which only 5 percent is recycled in Australia.[24] Specific examples include:


- ‘... glass cathode ray tubes... contain an average of 4 pounds of lead. Multiply that by the 315 million computers expected to become obsolete in the United States by 2004, and there is 1.2 billion pounds of lead to worry about. The color monitors of most computers contain a CRT that fails federal toxicity criteria for lead and is classified as hazardous waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’..[25]


- An expected 312,000 pounds of lead will come from the more than 500 million stockpiled mobile phones in the US.
[26]


Printed circuit boards are usually the main source of precious metals in e-products. ‘A ton of circuit boards yields approximately 10 ounces of gold’.[27] Specifically, an average mid-1990s computer contains 0.25-1 grams of gold, as well as platinum and silver. In 1996, about 55 percent of a PC could be recovered, with the recovered components valued at $34.[28] However, to reduce materials costs, computer manufacturers are now relying more heavily on plastics, which carry their own set of toxicity and recyclability issues. As of 2000, computers contained about 90 percent fewer precious metals than they did in 1996.
[29]


Health Impacts


The physiological and health impacts on humans and animals of many of the toxic substances contained in E-Waste are discussed:[30]


- Reproduction: damage to both male and female reproductive systems, including interfering with development of the testes; reduction in semen production and quality; abnormal morphology of sperm; low egg hatchability; and reduced fertility rates.


- DNA:
damage in lymphocytes, fetal and developmental toxicity; growth retardation; abnormal brain development, which can result in intellectual impairment; and possible long-term impacts on memory, learning and behaviour.


- Nervous System: damage to the central nervous system (CNS) and blood system, including CNS depression and neurotoxicity; immune system suppression, including inhibition of a key blood cell enzyme.


- Organs: damage to the brain, including swelling; liver, including liver necrosis; kidney, including renal toxicity; thyroid; pancreas; lymph nodes; spleen; and bone, including bone toxicity.


- Skin: contact dermatitis; skin lesions; carcinogenic, including tumour promotion and lung cancer; anaemia; CBD (a currently-incurable, debilitating disease that can sometimes be fatal); and mortality.


- Hormonal System: disruption to endocrine systems including the oestrogen, androgen, thyroid hormone, retinoid and corticosteroid systems; inhibition of human androgen hormone reception; and ability to mimic natural oestrogen hormones, leading to altered sexual development in some organisms.


- Other: hypertension (high blood pressure); cardiovascular and heart disease; respiratory tract irritation, including irritation of the nose, mouth and eyes.


 

References

1. Schmidt, C.W. (2002) ‘E-junk explosion’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no. 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


2. Brigden, K., Labunska, I., Santillo, D. and Allsopp, M. (2005) Recycling of Electronic Wastes in China and India: Workplace & Environmental Contamination, Greenpeace International, p. 3. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/india/press/reports/recycling-of-electronic

-wastes.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)


3. Greenpeace (n.d.) What is e-Waste?. www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/

toxics/hi-tech-highly-toxic/e-waste (viewed 1 May 2006) (Back)


4. Worldwatch Institute (2005) When your computer becomes toxic trash, Worldwatch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/goodstuff/computers (viewed 15 May 2006) (Back)


5. Department of Environment and Heritage (2005) Electrical and electronic product stewardship strategy, DEH, p. 6. http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/waste/electricals/index.html (viewed 12 May 2006) (Back)


6. Puckett, J. et al (2002) Exporting harm: the high-tech trashing of Asia, Basel Action Network, p. 5. http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf (viewed 1 May 2006) (Back)


7. Schmidt, C.W. (2002) ‘E-junk explosion’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no. 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


8. Worldwatch Institute (2005) When your computer becomes toxic trash, Worldwatch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/goodstuff/computers (viewed 15 May 2006) (Back)

9. Schmidt, C.W. (2002) ‘E-junk explosion’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no. 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


10. Puckett, J. et al (2005) The digital dump: exporting re-use and abuse to Africa, Basel Action Network, p. 8. http://www.ban.org/BANreports/10-24-05/documents/

TheDigitalDump.pdf (viewed 12 July 2006) (Back)


11. Earth Tones (2006) Environmental Internet and phone company weighs in on e-waste, Environmental News Network. http://www.enn.com/press.html?id=272 (viewed 27 April 2) (Back)


12. Puckett, J. et al (2005) The digital dump: exporting re-use and abuse to Africa, Basel Action Network, p. 6. http://www.ban.org/BANreports/10-24-05/documents/

TheDigitalDump.pdf (viewed 12 July 2006) (Back)


13. Worldwatch Institute (2005) When your computer becomes toxic trash, Worldwatch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/goodstuff/computers (viewed 15 May 2006) (Back)


14. Biddle, D. (2000) End of Life Computer & Electronics Recovery: Policy Options for the Mid-Atlantic States, 2nd edn, MACREDO, p. 10. http://macredo.org/publications/e_recovery.pdf (viewed 19 May 2006) (Back)


15. Greenpeace (n.d.) What is e-Waste?. www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/

toxics/hi-tech-highly-toxic/e-waste (viewed 1 May 2006) (Back)


16. Ibid (Back)


17. Puckett, J. et al (2005) The digital dump: exporting re-use and abuse to Africa, Basel Action Network, p. 11. http://www.ban.org/BANreports/10-24-05/documents/

TheDigitalDump.pdf (viewed 12 July 2006) (Back)


18. Puckett, J. et al (2002) Exporting harm: the high-tech trashing of Asia, Basel Action Network, p. 4. http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf (viewed 1 May 2006) (Back)


19. Puckett, J. et al (2002) Exporting harm: the high-tech trashing of Asia, Basel Action Network, p. 1-2. http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf (viewed 1 May 2006); Government Accountability Office (2005) Electronic waste: strengthening the role of the Federal Government in encouraging recycling and reuse, United States Government, p. 29. http://www.federalsustainability.org/initiatives/eps/GAO-06-47.pdf (viewed July 9 2006) The Office confirms that this is in fact the case in the US. (Back)


20. Ibid, pp. 9-10; Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd (2001) Computer & peripherals material project, p. 30. http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/publications/waste/electricals/

computerreport/index.html (viewed 10 May 2006); Earth Tones (2006) Environmental Internet and phone company weighs in on e-waste, Environmental News Network. http://www.enn.com/press.html?id=272 (viewed 27 April 2); Worldwatch Institute (2005) When your computer becomes toxic trash, Worldwatch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/goodstuff/computers (viewed 15 May 2006); Brigden, K., Labunska, I., Santillo, D. and Allsopp, M. (2005) Recycling of Electronic Wastes in China and India: Workplace & Environmental Contamination, Greenpeace International, p. 3. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/india/press/reports/

recycling-of-electronic-wastes.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006); Environment Victoria (2005) Environmental report card on computers 2005: computer waste in Australia and the case for producer responsibility, pp. 8-9. http://www.envict.org.au/file/EWaste_blue_report_card.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)


21. Brigden, K., Labunska, I., Santillo, D. and Allsopp, M. (2005) Recycling of Electronic Wastes in China and India: Workplace & Environmental Contamination, Greenpeace International, p. 3. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/india/press/reports/recycling-of-electronic

-wastes.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)


22. Department of Environment and Heritage (2005) Electrical and electronic product stewardship strategy, DEH, pp. 8-9. http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/waste/electricals/index.html (viewed 12 May 2006) (Back)


23. Earth Tones (2006) Environmental Internet and phone company weighs in on e-waste, Environmental News Network. http://www.enn.com/press.html?id=272 (viewed 27 April 2); Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition cited in Schmidt, C.W. (2002) ‘E-junk explosion’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no. 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


24. Department of Environment and Heritage (2005) Electrical and electronic product stewardship strategy, DEH, p. 8. http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/waste/electricals/index.html (viewed 12 May 2006) (Back)


25. Schmidt, C.W. (2002) ‘E-junk explosion’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no. 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


26. O’Meara Sheehan, M. (2003) The hidden costs of the e-economy, Worldwatch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org/live/discussion/81 (viewed 15 May 2006) (Back)


27. Broughton (1996) cited in Biddle, D. (2000) End of Life Computer & Electronics Recovery: Policy Options for the Mid-Atlantic States, 2nd edn, MACREDO, p. 22. http://macredo.org/publications/e_recovery.pdf (viewed 19 May 2006) (Back)


28. Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (1996) cited in Biddle, D. (2000) End of Life Computer & Electronics Recovery: Policy Options for the Mid-Atlantic States, 2nd edn, MACREDO, p. 26. http://macredo.org/publications/e_recovery.pdf (viewed 19 May 2006) (Back)


29. Biddle, D. (2000) End of Life Computer & Electronics Recovery: Policy Options for the Mid-Atlantic States, 2nd edn, MACREDO, p. 22. http://macredo.org/publications/e_recovery.pdf (viewed 19 May 2006) (Back)


30. Brigden, K., Labunska, I., Santillo, D. and Allsopp, M. (2005) Recycling of Electronic Wastes in China and India: Workplace & Environmental Contamination, Greenpeace International, p. 3. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/

india/press/reports/recycling-of-electronic-wastes.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006); Environment Victoria (2005) Environmental report card on computers 2005: computer waste in Australia and the case for producer responsibility, pp. 8-9. http://www.envict.org.au/file/EWaste_blue_report_card.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)