The problem associated with electronic waste

The problem associated with electronic waste



            Globalisation coupled with advance in Information Technology (IT) has been instrumental in the significant growth of the EEE (electrical, electronics and equipment) industry (Tsydenova & Bengtsson 2011). This has been especially the case over the past two decades when the IT field started having a huge impact on various sectors of the economy. Presently, IT hardware and software impact on virtually all the technical, economic, social, and natural environment. This is the case owing to a phenomenal growth in internet use, which has, in turn, helped to reduce the prices of electronic goods. Presently, e-waste has been identified as the fastest growing waste stream globally, enjoying nearly 4 percent rate of annual growth (WHO 2016). The considerable demand for EEE products while helping to drive the global economy, has also proven to be a key challenge in efforts to appropriately dispose of electronic waste (e-waste) generated by this industry. Considering that e-waste is now a global problem given its negative effects on health and the environment, there is a dire need to identify sustainable solutions to this problem. 


            According to the United States Congress (2008), e-waste is “the term used to describe electronic products at the end of their useful lives” (p. 4). Examples of e-waste include televisions, computers, stereos, VCRs, cell phones, and stereos, among other commonly used electric and electrical products.  Although we lack a standard definition of e-waste, several definitions have been accepted globally, and they have also been applied under varied settings.  The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) defines e-waste as “any appliance using an electric power supply that has reached its end-of-life” (UNEP 2007). The definition of e-waste based on the EC (European Commission) Directive 2002 has found the most widespread definition.  In this case, the EC defines e-waste as “electrical or electronic equipment, which is waste … including all components, sub-assemblies and consumables, which are part of the product at the time of discarding” (European Commission, n.d; cited by Bernan Press 2004, p. 15). Variations in the definition of e-waste could possibly explain the disparities evidence in the identification of e-waste flows, as well as in quantifying its generation.  By and large, nearly half of the e-waste (50%) is as a result of household appliances, while e-waste from ICT equipment accounts for 30% of all e-waste, with consumer electronics contributing about 10% of the e-waste.  E-waste differs in terms of composition based on product category of line. In general, e-waste contains mover 100 different substances that can be categorised into either the “non-hazardous” or “hazardous” categories. By and large, electronic products encompass non-ferrous and ferrous metals, glass, wood, plastics, ceramics and concrete, and printed circuit boards, among others items. Steel and iron account for nearly 50% of the e-waste while plastics accounts for about 21% (UNEP 2007). 

E-waste problems

            Electronic products frequently contain a number of bio-accumulative, toxic, and persistent substances. Examples include such heavy metals as nickel, lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury. Over the past two decades, there has been a significant increase in the quantities of heavy metals from e-waste (Smith, Sonnenfeld & Naguib Pellow, 2006). It is also important to note that public awareness regarding the potential hazards of these heavy metals has been rather low.

            E-waste poses a number of main issues as follows:

High volumes

            Electrical and electronic goods are characterised by a shorter lifespan mainly due to rapid obsolescence. This, coupled with the increase in demand for new technology has resulted in a significant increase in the volumes of EEEs generated annually. This also means that there is a consequent increase in the volume of e-waste generated every year (Basel Action Network 2011). 

Toxic design

            According to Tsydenova and Bengtsson (2011), e-waste can be categorised as -waste having undesirable environmental and health effects. Montrose (2011) opines that e-waste accounts for nearly 40% of the heavy metals in landfills.

Complexity and poor design

            E-waste presents with considerable challenges when it comes to the issue of recycling (Smith, Sonnenfeld & Naguib Pellow, 2006). This is because e-waste contains numerous materials that are blended, screwed, soldered, bolted, glued, or snapped together.  Since non-toxic materials are often attached to toxic materials, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate these two, thereby complicating the process of reclamation. If at all one wishes to realise responsible recycling, this calls for costly and sophisticated technologies to ensure that the materials have been separated safely. The process is also highly labour intensive (Basel Action Network 2011).

Labour issues

            E-waste is faced with a number of labour issues such as occupational exposures, domination by the informal sectors, thus causing environmental and health problems, as well as lack of labour rights and standards.  

Lack of financial incentives

            E-waste provides limited financial incentives to cover the costs involved in ensuring that the process is managed properly. However, increases in the price of such components as copper and gold found in e-waste could yet presents new opportunities for players in the industry (Widmer et al. 2005). Moreover, as the quantities of e-waste continue to rise, there has been a resultant increase in the number of e-waste recyclers entering the sector (Raghupathy et al. 2010).

Lack of regulation

            Many states either lack sufficient regulations that this new waste stream demands, or the existing regulation are poorly enforced (Basel Action Network 2011).

Health problems of e-waste

            As noted earlier, e-waste is both a difficult and complex type of waste in terms of recycling. Local residents and workers are exposed to various toxic chemicals of e-waste through dust ingestion, oral intake, inhalation, and dermal exposure. According to Lepawsky and McNabb (2010), dust ingestion and inhalation poses various possible occupational hazards such as silicosis. They act as especially noteworthy routes of human exposure to such heavy metals as copper,  lead, chromium, and cadmium, among others  (Nimpuno & Scruggs, 2011), mercury as well as other heavy metals and carcinogens (Lepawsky & McNabb, 2010). Prakash and Manhart (2010) have also identified electrical shocks as yet another occupational hazard associated with e-waste. Generally, there are various forms of health risks that emanate form exposure to e-waste, including respiratory irritation, pneumonitis, and difficulty in breathing, convulsions, tremors, coughing, coma, and death (Yu, Welford & Hills, 2006). Workers handling e-waste are further exposed to other types of hazards that could result in chronic ailments like skin diseases, asthma, and physical injuries (Raghupathy et al. 2010). According to Yang et al. (2011), particulate e-waste matter drawn from recycling areas might also cause oxidative stress, inflammatory responses, and DNA damage.

Impact of e-waste on environment

            Most of the electronic waste is disposed off in land fills, and this increases the likelihood that toxic metals such as mercury will leach into groundwater. Most of the e-waste generated in developed countries finds its way into the developing and third world countries where an informal sector that deals with e-waste has emerged. However, the rudimentary processes and techniques used to dismantle and dispose of e-waste could result in several environmental impacts. Atmospheric and liquid releases find their way in bodies of groundwater, air, water, and soil. This poses a threat to sea and land animals (Frazzoli et al. 2010).  Sthiannopkao and Wong (2013) in a study conducted to assess the environmental effects of e-waste in Guiyu, China, established that levels of carcinogens in rice, paddies, and duck ponds surpassed international standards. Also, the study established that levels of lead, cadmium, nickel, and copper in rice paddies exceeded international standards. The study further found that road dust contained heavy metals such as copper and lead at levels that were 100 times and 300 times higher than the control sample drawn from village road.


            In order to deal with the problems posed by e-waste on both human health and the environment, the following measures are recommended:

Legislation: poor implementation of policies in handling e-waste has contributed to the escalation of the problem. It is important therefore that respective governments and non-governmental agencies develop effective and sustainable polices to address the existing gaps on e-waste management especially on the matter of exporting and importing of e-waste

Redesigning the manufacturing process: It is important that manufacturers of electrical and electrical goods  embrace waste reduction techniques and sustainable product design such as the use of renewable materials to minimise e-waste.


            E-waste presents us with challenges of global significance. Notably, e-waste contain toxic substances that pose a threat to human health and are a danger to the environment when disposed of inappropriately. To deal with these problems, it is important to adjust the current approaches in the manufacture of electrical and electronic goods so that the process is sustainable, thereby minimising volumes of e-waste. Also, policies should be enforced to control the standards of e-waste exported or imported.



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