EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

5.5. E-waste stream management


5.5. E-waste stream management

examples of e-waste: computers, printers, etc.
Examples of e-waste

There are reasons to separate the electronics waste stream:

  • rapid growth of the electronic manufacturing volume, market, and rapid change in technology resulting in new products
  • complexity of electronic products, which requires special approach in recycling
  • use of rare and precious metals and compounds, many of which should be recovered
  • presence of toxic chemicals and other substances of environmental concern
  • opportunities of efficient material and component reuse

Electronics recycling, computers for instance, is essentially a process of breaking down the final product back to components (some of which can be reused) and initial raw materials (such as copper, gold, silver, other metals, plastics). Because of significant load of technological product with heavy metals and toxic compounds (e.g., mercury, cadmium, lead, flame retardants), discarded electronics are classified as hazardous waste. Hence, recycling also requires strict measures of environmental safety.

Reading Assignment:

The following article provides a concise overview of current practices to handle electronic waste in the United States and specifically investigates the health implications and policies required to mitigate the negative impacts. The article contains statistic data on specific parts and components in electronics that are subject to recycling and shows their linkage to chemical resource lifecycles:

Seeberger, J., et al., Special Report: E-Waste Management in the United States and Public Health Implications, Journal of Environmental Health, vol. 79, pp. 8-16 (2016). 

This paper is available online through the Penn State Library system. Students regitsred for the course can also access it in Canvas.

Try to find the answers to the following questions, while reading: 

  1. What chemical elements used in electronic products present the highest risk to the public health?
  2. Can we assume from the EPA data in Figure 2 that e-recyclng industry grew in the US and technologies became more efficient?
  3. What kind of policies need to be adopted to streamline safe disposal of the electronic waste?

There are companies and government programs that take on the challenge of responsible recycling of electronic products; for example, this one (Liquid Technology):

Click for transcript.

MARK SIDWELL: Did you know that each year the United States generates over three million tons of e-waste? Here at Liquid Technology, we're dedicated to helping companies manage their e-waste while protecting the environment from hazardous materials. The majority of e-waste comes in the form of obsolete desktop computers and servers. Our process starts with the demanufacture of such equipment. Here you can see one of our recycling technicians taking apart a server. All of the different components of the server, such as power supplies, case fans, CPUs, RAM, circuit boards, and cables, are removed by hand. When possible, we try to remarket these materials. Once this process is finished, everything is then sorted into bundles and sent to our downstream recycling partners for further processing. There everything is shredded and sorted into raw materials such as copper, aluminum, ferrous and non-ferrous steel, light and dark plastic, or gets sent further downstream where it is smelted to extract metal such as gold and silver. CRTs and LCDs get sent directly to our downstream partner. There they are disassembled by hand to prevent any hazardous waste from entering the environment. Liquid Technology is an EPA-recognized computer recycler and is ISO 14001 certified. We have a strict no export, no prison labor, and no landfill policy and only use certified e-Stewards as our downstream partners. Contact us today for more information about how we can help your company manage its e-waste.

However, currently existing programs of sorting / disassembly are hardly sufficient. The problem is that current computer and other electronic products are not designed to be recycled. End-of-life disassembly and recovery of pure materials is a tedious and expensive process. Few companies manage to build an effective infrastructure for electronic recycling. Even if responsible recycling practices exist, they hardly keep up with growing market for electronics and accelerating e-waste accumulation pace.

Unfortunately, there are businesses that find it more profitable to export the electronic waste overseas to developing countries. This practice, highly non-sustainable on the global scale and harmful to local population and environment, is an ugly illustration of shifting the environmental burden from one part of the global system to another:

For example, this video contains graphic illustrations of such irresponsible “recycling”.

Click for transcript.

PRESENTER: --decisions. What computer should we buy? And probably even more challenging-- what should we do with the old ones?

When it comes to disposal, a lot is at stake. Despite recent improvements, electronics are still made with toxic materials. For example, monitor glass and circuit boards contain large quantities of lead, which cause birth defects, nervous system disorders, and brain dysfunction, especially in children. Other very-toxic metals, such as mercury, beryllium, and cadmium, are found in the equipment as well. The plastics also are a problem, as they contain highly-polluting flame retardants.

Apart from the environmental and health impacts, there are other risks. Unless we take great care to totally erase our very-confidential data stored in our computers, digital assistants, and cell phones, our privacy is at risk. Businesses become vulnerable to the loss of intellectual property or confidential customer data, which can lead to criminal and civil liabilities that can cost millions.

Most individuals and companies want to dispose of their e-waste responsibly, so they seek out an electronics recycler or asset recovery company. Unfortunately, all too often these e-waste recyclers are not recyclers at all.

SARAH WESTERVELT: We've all seen these claims of electronics recyclers and asset recovery companies who will tell you they are diverting this equipment from landfills, they're in compliance with all regulations, and they are using environmentally sound recycling. But the fact is that US and Canadian regulations do not adequately cover this toxic waste stream. So we have plenty of companies who are simply loading up seagoing containers and sell it to the highest bidder, frequently to countries in Africa and Asia. So they're getting rich at the expense of your goodwill, and your data security, and ultimately human health and the environment.

PRESENTER: Few had witnessed the cyber age nightmare in China until the Basel Action Network-- BAN-- had set an investigative team to Guangdong Province in 2001. Since it began receiving its first load of imported e-waste about 12 years ago, the Chinese township area of Guiyu has been transformed from a small rice-growing village into a bustling, sprawling junkyard for much of the world's electronic waste. BAN revisited the scene again in 2008, only to find that things had gotten far worse.

In the Guiyu area, one can find whole villages of migrant workers from China's rural regions living among the piles of e-waste. They sort computer components and openly burn them in fields or large indoor fireplaces, releasing toxic smoke and ash. Toner powder is inhaled as it's swept by hand from cracked, discarded printer cartridges. Thousands of people are employed cooking circuit boards over coal-fired burners, breathing in the lead tin solder vapors for hours on end as they pluck the chips off the boards.

The chips are then taken in buckets to primitive acid stripping operations along the riverways where hot acid baths are used to extract tiny fractions of gold while workers breathe the toxic fumes and flush residues right into the river. Computer monitors are cracked open, and leaded glass is dumped into old irrigation ditches.

All of the well water in Guiyu is now contaminated. Samples taken by BAN in the local river revealed levels of lead 2,400 times the World Health Organization's threshold level for drinking water. And since BAN's first visit, scientists have conducted further analyses of human hair, water, sediments, and rice, and have recorded some of the highest levels of dioxins, brominated flame retardants, heavy metals, and other pollutants ever discovered anywhere on earth.

BAN's next investigative assignment took them to Lagos, Nigeria, a sprawling metropolis and port for much of West Africa. Computers and other IT equipment increasingly arrive on African shores from Europe and America, ostensibly to be sold in the marketplace to be re-used. Exporters can claim that this practice extends the lives of computers, helps the poor, and allows them to bridge the digital divide.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of computers, televisions, monitors, and printers that arrive in Lagos each month were found to be nonfunctional and non-repairable. They end up stacked in cavernous warehouses, or more often dumped near residential areas and burned, releasing persistent highly-toxic pollutants into the air and water.

JOHN OBORO: I would tell you that we have greater percentage of those that cannot be used than those that can be used. Honestly speaking, I would say 75% of these items are not usable.

OLADELE OSIBANJO: The gases are very hazardous. There are no shields. They contain toxic components. They are quite carcinogenic substances. And the incidence of such terrible diseases like cancer is very high now in Nigeria. Hazardous waste should not go from developed to developing. So the exporting country must put in strict controls and follow their own regulatory regime. If we are talking of a global village, a common future, a common destiny for all the peoples of the world, it is only fair-- morally right-- to be sure that all sides are safe at the end of the day.

PRESENTER: It's not difficult to learn the identities of those that are careless about the eventual impact of their techno trash. Brand names and institutional asset tags sometimes remain on the equipment. But even when tags have been peeled off, it can be shocking to find what is hidden below the surface.

As part of its investigation into the origins of e-waste found in Nigeria, BAN purchased secondhand hard drives in the market and sent them to a cyber investigative service located in Zurich, Switzerland.

GUIDO RUDOLPHI: It's child's play to recover them. And so after only a little bit of time that you have to invest, you can find a lot-- a tremendous lot of data on those files from the former users.

For the companies it's very risky. They cannot track back what they are distributing all over the world. You find confidential material on those hard drives, calculations, CVs from employees, private mail-- so, a lot of stuff that really, really shouldn't get out of their hands.

PRESENTER: The trade in toxic wastes leaves the poor people of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison, a choice that nobody should have to make. In 1989, the global community came together in Basel, Switzerland to sign an international treaty designed to stop the international dumping of toxic waste. And in 1995, the Basel Convention passed a full ban on the export of hazardous wastes, including electronic waste from developed countries to developing countries.

All 27 European countries have already made it illegal to ship toxic waste to developing countries for any reason. But to date, the US is the only developed country in the world that has not ratified the Basel Convention. And in fact, the United States and Canada continue to actively work to undermine the waste export ban.

Meanwhile, unscrupulous recyclers have taken advantage of the uneven playing field and freely export massive volumes of electronic waste each year while their governments look the other way. It was for this reason that BAN together with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition created the e-Stewards initiative.

SARAH WESTERVELT: The federal government has been horribly negligent by failing to control toxic waste exports to developing countries. So we've had to turn to the best players in the industry who are willing to go well beyond compliance. e-Stewards are North American recyclers and asset recovery companies who have agreed to the highest level of responsible recycling and reuse.

PRESENTER: One of these companies is Redemtech, based in Columbus, Ohio.

ROBERT HOUGHTON: We've built our business around doing the right thing socially and environmentally. Since we need to operate safe and secure facilities, pay our associates a living wage, we've invested in technology to ensure that every bit of customer data is reliably eradicated and that every pound of e-waste is properly recycled. I'm encouraged that when people learn about the toxic trade in scrap electronics they want to work with responsible recyclers.

But it's not easy telling the good from the bad. e-Stewards are willing and able to prove that they're operating responsibly. And people that care must insist on that accounting.

PRESENTER: Now, thanks to the e-Stewards Initiative, finding a globally-responsible electronics recycling or asset recovery company is easy. The next task is to enlist all consumers, large and small, to do the right thing and agree to make exclusive use of these leaders and avoid the laggards in the industry. The real answer surely lies not in passing our electronic waste to those least able to deal with it, but in responsibly refurbishing or recycling it here at home.

So, what are possible sustainable solutions to address the root of the e-waste problem?

  • Design devices with environmentally benign components and chemicals.
  • Design computers and other fast-rotating systems easily recyclable (to cut cost and increase process efficiency).
  • Design “product-of-service” programs. This is exemplified in the book Cradle-to-Cradle as follows:
    "Instead of assuming that all products are to be bought, owned, and disposed of by “consumers”, products containing valuable technical nutrients – cars, televisions, carpeting, computers, and refrigerators, for example – would be preconceived as services people want to enjoy. In this scenario, customers would effectively purchase a service of such a product for a defined user period – say, then thousand hours of television viewing, rather than the television itself. They would not be paying for complex materials that they won’t be able to use after a product’s current life. When they finish with the product, or are simply ready to upgrade to a newer version, the manufacturer replaces it, taking the old model back, breaking it down, and using its complex materials as food for new products." [McDonough and Braungart, 2002]

Currently in the US, many states have active policies to regulate the e-waste. Different models suggest imposing fees to finance e-waste recycling onto various entities – consumers, manufacturers, municipalities. There are also different mechanisms to facilitate collection and processing of the e-waste. Some examples are given in the following reading:

Supplemental Reading:

Want to learn more? This following article provides a detailed overview of materials to be recovered from the consumer electronics and methods involved in management of this growing waste stream:

Solid Waste Technology & Management, Christensen, T., Ed., Wiley and Sons., 2011. Chapter 11.2. “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment”, Bigum, M. and Christensen, T.H., pp. 960-968.

This book is available online through PSU Library system.

Check Your Understanding

Apparently, present-day computers are not perfectly designed for end-of-life recycling. Can we estimate the efficiency of recycling of an average desktop computer?

According to the approach outlined in Section 5.3 of this lesson, can you calculate the efficiency of recycling of an average desktop computer based on the following data?

Input and output data for desktop computer recycling
Input / Output Component mass
input mass of the computer placed in the recycling bin 6000 g
useful output mass of salvaged old components for reuse fan 100 g
wires 300 g
power supply 1000 g
memory chips 100 g
cpu 200 g
optical drive 500 g
mass of salvaged raw materials for making new components Cu 200 g
Al 300 g
steel 600 g
Precious metals (Au, Ag) 1 g
recyclable plastics 900 g

Click for answer.


Efficiency can be estimated as

h = total mass of all useful output materials / total mass of material submitted for recycling = =(100+300+1000+100+200+500+200+300+600+1+900) g / 6000 g x 100% = 70% ]