Electronic Waste and Its Regulation

  • Shirley ThompsonEmail author
Reference work entry
Part of the Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology Series book series (ESSTS)


Design for environment (DfE)

The various design approaches geared at reducing the overall environmental impact of a product, process, or service, considering environmental impacts across the product’s life cycle.


The process of recycling the components in used or discarded electronic equipment.

Electronic waste, e-waste, and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)

Old, end-of-life, or discarded appliances using electricity and includes computers, consumer electronics, fridges, etc., which have been disposed of by their original users.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR)

Entails making manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of the products and packaging they produce based on the “polluter pays principle.”

Persistent and bioaccumulative toxins (PBT)

Compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation. Toxins that do not break down quickly persist in the environment, bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue, with potentially significant impacts on human health and the environment.

Toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP)

A soil sample extraction method for chemical analysis employed as an analytical method to simulate leaching through a landfill.

Definition of the Subject and Its Importance

Electronic waste (E-waste) includes computers, television sets, mobile phones, and any other information technology or appliance with a plug, destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal [1, 2]. E-waste is identified most often with information or communication technology, such as computers, tablets, and cell phones as well as computer monitors and televisions, but also includes four other categories, namely (1) cooling and heating equipment (e.g., refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps), (2) lamps, (3) large equipment (washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment, and photovoltaic panels), and (4) small equipment (microwaves, ventilation equipment, appliances, and electrical tools) [1].

Electronics have a large negative impact on earth at their end of life due to both their quantity and toxicity. E-waste has the fastest growth of any type of refuse, double the rate of plastic refuse [1]. E-waste is about 4% of the total solid waste stream in North America but is growing twice or as much as triple the rate of other waste streams, including paper, yard waste, food, and others with an annual growth rate of 3–4%, [1]. The rise in e-waste quantities is driven by falling prices in electrical devices, coupled with companies encouraging customers to buy the latest version of their model at rapid intervals, making old devices obsolete in short order with incompatible software. In 2016, the world generated 44.7 million metric tons (Mt) of e-waste and experts foresee a further 17% increase – to 52.2 million metric tons of e-waste by 2021. Only 20% were recycled through appropriate channels sanctioned by industry regulators [1].


The escalating demand for the latest electronic technology is causing two serious global problems: creating both a shortage of mineral resources [2], and posing human and environmental health risk in the mining, production, disposal and recycling of electronics that quickly become electronic waste (e-waste) [3]. Electronics, including computers, use heavy metals (e.g., Cu, Pb, Cd, Cr) and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans); these elements unless carefully recycled can be released into the environment [4, 5, 6, 7].

With rapid improvements in technology, most cell phones, computers, and other electronics become e-waste in less than two years, rather than at the end of their functional life cycle of approximately 10 years [1, 2, 8]. This e-waste is a complex waste problem due to their volume, toxicity, and the product design that is disposable, rather than recyclable. Computers quickly become obsolete as technology rapidly changes.

Each new innovation in electronic technology doubles its obsolescence rate, without increasing its repairability or recyclability [8]. The consumer, targeted by advertising, finds buying new electronics cheaper and more convenient than upgrading their old ones. Thus, computers and cell phones quickly become waste with only a small percent being recycled.

There are different rates of generation and collection around the world. The highest per capita e-waste generators (at 17.3 kg per inhabitant) in 2017 were Australia, New Zealand, and the other the nations of Oceania, with only 6% formally collected and recycled. Europe (including Russia) is the second-largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant, with an average of 16.6 kg per inhabitant, with the highest collection rate at 35% [1]. The Americas generates 11.6 kg per inhabitant and collects only 17%, comparable to the collection rate in Asia 15%. However, at 4.2 kg per inhabitant, Asia generates only about one third of America’s e-waste per capita. Africa, meanwhile, generates 1.9 kg per inhabitant, with little information available on its collection rate [1].

Electronic waste is a complex waste, made up of more than 30 compounds, many of which are hazardous substances. The presence of hazardous substances in electronic equipment makes landfilling or incinerating environmentally unsuitable for discarded computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment. The use of toxic metals and other chemicals in electrical equipment results in environmental and health risks when e-waste is manufactured, incinerated, landfilled, burned, or melted down during recycling [5, 6].

It was estimated that for 2016 that 80% was estimated to be incinerated, landfilled or recycled in backyard operations or remain stored in people's households [1]. The European Union Commission estimates that consumer electronics are responsible for 40% of the lead found in landfills.

Electronic waste, including computer waste, emits billions of kilograms of toxic materials into the air, water, and soil, most of which are persistent and bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs). Computers use heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans) [5, 6, 7] that unless carefully recycled are released into the environment. A cathode ray tube (CRT) is no longer the most common type of computer monitor currently but many of these remain, containing typically four pounds of lead to protect users from the tubes’ X-rays [1]. Lead is a teratogen and reproductive hazard. As well, lead causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system, and kidneys in humans. Circuit boards and batteries also contain lead, in addition to smaller amounts of mercury and hexavalent chromium, nickel, bromine, and zinc. E-waste can contain mercury switches or nickel batteries [6, 7]. Leaching of heavy metals and other toxics can occur during landfilling, thereby contaminating the soil and groundwater beneath a site and the surrounding area. In 2016, 80% of e-waste was estimated to be either incinerated, landfilled, or recycled in informal (backyard) operations, or remain stored in our households [1].

Processing Electronic Waste

Electronics can be reused, remanufactured, recycled, or recovered. The value of recoverable materials in 2016’s e-waste is estimated to be worth US $55 billion based on gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, and other high-value recoverable materials. In total, 2016’s e-waste is worth more than the 2016 Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world. E-waste typically requires some mechanical treatment to dismantle the components and recover the materials including metals, plastics, and glass, although some developed countries use thermal treatment [8, 9]. E-waste recovery with hydrometallurgy or pyrometallurgy generally needs energy input, followed by remanufacturing, recycling, and reuse [2].

Each product of these e-waste categories has a different lifetime profile, with different waste quantities, economic values, as well as potential environmental and health impacts, if recycled inappropriately. Consequently, the collection and logistical processes and remanufacturing or recycling technology differ for each category, as do the consumers’ attitudes when disposing of the electrical and electronic equipment [1].

E-waste is not 100% recoverable or recyclable due to product design, social behavior, product design, recycling technologies, and the thermodynamics of separation [10]. For example, with 1000 kg of waste lithium batteries, approximately 180 kg Fe, 90 kg Cu, 30 kg Al, 70 kg plastics, 120 kg Co, 15 kg Li, and 1 kg Ni could be recovered but 300 kg materials of heavy pollutants and plastics were not [11, 12]. Thus, 70% of material is recovered and 30% of material is wasted. Lithium batteries, as well as cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays (LCD), are highly integrated components, needing extensive treatment and separation. Aiming at a closed-loop supply chain, the existed recycling process can reclaim most valuable compounds from the components with good purity [13, 14].

Policies can encourage reuse as well as recycling. Recycling is the series of activities by which discarded materials are collected, sorted, processed, and used [1, 15]. Although recycling reduces virgin material use, additional energy is required to be used to reform them into manufactured products [1, 16]. Some design rules for effective recycling are using one type of plastic per product (make plastics recycling more effective); marking all plastic parts (easy recognition of type); avoiding contamination of fractions by limit of stickers and wire fixtures; and ensuring that glass can be easily separated from other materials to increase recycling yields [16].

Regulation of Electronic Waste

In 2017, 66% of the world’s population, including the residents of 67 countries, are governed by national e-waste management laws. This percent is up from 44% in 61 countries in 2014 – an increase caused mainly by India’s adoption of legislation last year [1]. However, the national e-waste management regime in place does not always correspond to enforcement and setting the measurable collection and recycling targets essential for effective policies. Without national e-waste legislation in place, e-waste is treated as any other waste, leading to a high risk that toxic e-waste is improperly managed, sometimes scavenged for, copper or gold by informal enterprises without proper worker protections. Meanwhile, the type of e-waste covered by legislation differs considerably throughout the world, highlighting the need for harmonization [1].

National e-waste policies and legislation establish the financial and economic model, standards, and controls to govern e-waste. In order to solve the e-waste problem, the European Union (EU) established a Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE Directive) in 2002 [17, 18, 19]. A statistical measuring framework on e-waste called the Partnership of Measuring ICT for Development [1] provides a common methodology to calculate the collection target of the EU-WEEE Directive [1]. However, only 41 countries quantify their e-waste generation and recycling streams officially, and “the fate of a large majority of e-waste (34.1 of 44.7 Mt) is simply unknown.” Without better statistics on e-waste, it is impossible to measure the effectiveness of existing and new legislation to show any potential improvements in the future. Such data is also needed to better track illegal international movements of e-waste from richer to poor regions in the world.

In 2017, 4.8 billion people or 66% of the world population are covered by national e-waste policies up from 44% in 2014 [1]. However, the existence of policies or legislation does not necessarily imply successful enforcement or the existence of sufficient e-waste management systems. Additionally, the types of e-waste covered by legislation differ considerably from country to country [2]. With national differences in measuring and legislating e-waste, analyzing e-waste recycling rates across different countries can be like comparing apples to oranges. Many of the countries have already adopted extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations in Europe, which hold producers legally responsible in four ways for their products. Producer responsibilities , under EPR regulations, have: (1) economic responsibility to pay all or a portion of end-of-life management, (2) physical responsibility to take possession of their products after the consumer discards it, (3) information responsibility to provide mandatory product labeling such as component or material lists, and (4) financial liability for environmental damage and clean-up costs from disposal of hazardous products [6, 14, 20]. Generally, EPR policies have three characteristics: (1) a focus on end-of-life waste management to encourage redesign for environment, (2) a shift of physical and/or financial responsibilities from taxpayer or consumer to producer, and (3) an explicit target for waste reduction. Mandated programs force producers to manage material streams [16]. Consumers of WEEE products must have the opportunity to return waste items, without charge, to collection facilities with the producer responsible for product recovery.

Extended producer responsibility extends the “polluter pays principle” to consumer products, requiring “that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investments” [1]. EPR policy places responsibility for a product’s end-of-life environmental impacts on the original producer and seller of that product requiring producers: to take back their products and to meet recycling rate targets. This approach provides incentives for producers to optimize their internal logistics and recycling systems to minimize costs, create value, and integrate eco-design into business routines. Those changes should include improving product recyclability. Reusability, reducing material usage, downsizing products, lowering energy consumption and decreasing greenhouse gas production, reducing dependency on virgin materials these environmental improvements serve to: spur new business enterprises, generate new job opportunities, and provide financial savings to companies when they improve their design, production, and distribution processes [17]. However, the ability to gain competitive advantage is restrained by the domination of collective compliance structures across the EU, over whose costs producers regard as difficult to manage or influence.

E-waste is hazardous waste prohibited by the Basel Convention from transboundary movements, so that each country, even small ones, needs to resolve e-waste problems within their boundaries [2, 18]. Highly efficient recycling technologies are also still lacking, owing to distinct variations in regional legislation, technical capacities, and consumer participation. Used computers are “gray market” equipment being exported without the full necessary documentation. This equipment is rarely tested or repaired before export to countries where dismantling takes place in unsafe conditions, or the equipment is simply dumped. Without criteria for the reuse of IT appliances (e.g., testing, minimal capacity, etc.), this environmental injustice can continue. Very little consumer-based electronic waste has true reuse value, and claims of export for reuse should be scrutinized carefully. Although Canada prohibits waste export to non-OECD nations, this occurs disguised as computer donations for reuse.

The USA and Canada have, rarely, if ever, mandated strict guidelines for product manufacturing. Guidelines are needed for both how the product is produced and what types of materials are used. Perhaps as a result of the lack of political pressures to develop new waste management strategies amidst relatively plentiful landfill accommodations. Policy makers in North America are reluctant to require sustainable product management. However, some electronic companies have voluntary takeback programs, even though no law requires it, to ensure the electronics is appropriately recycled or disposed of [1].

Future Directions

The need to reduce the impact of electronics through reduction, carbon neutral manufacturing and use, remanufacturing and recycling must be addressed. Policies can encourage redesign for reuse and upgrading for longevity, as well as recycling. Computers can be redesigned to have less material (de-materialization), facilitate upgrading through modularity, last longer, expend less energy and pollution in their production and use, and be disassembled for reuse and recycling with ease after their useful life. Apple indicates in their 2017 report that manufacturing is 77% of their footprint, with 60% being electricity used to make its products.

Design for the Environment (DfE) promotes consideration of design issues related to environmental and human health over the life cycle of the product. Material selection, energy use, extended component life cycles, disassembly, reprocessing, remanufacturing must all be considered [1, 2, 19]. DfE has eight axioms to: (1) manufacture without producing hazardous waste, (2) use clean technologies, (3) reduce product chemical emissions, (4) reduce product energy consumption, (5) use non-hazardous recyclable materials, (6) use recycled material and reused components, (7) design for ease of disassembly, and (8) reuse or recycling at end of life [25]. Principles of ecodesign require products to be flexible, reliable, durable, adaptable, modular, dematerialized, and reusable. As applies to computers, improving environmental factors can improve performance as well: work on optimization of environmental performance often spurs creativity and brings innovative design solutions into the product development process which allows improvement of its overall performance [26].

Designing for the environment (DfE) and implementing green production processes makes economic sense when life cycle environmental costs are required to be paid by the producer. DfE has producers considering “at the development phase of a products life cycle, the environmental impacts through enhancing the product design which includes resource consumption, both in material and energy terms and pollution prevention.” Environmental considerations in product design include: waste minimization, reuse or recyclability, material conservation, pollution reduction, lower toxicity and “eco-design” [16]. Six principles of Design for the Environment DfE are efficiency, appropriateness, sufficiency, equity, systems, and scale [1, 15]. However, without extended producer responsibility internalizing environmental costs, manufacturers are typically unwilling to improve product and environmental quality if it costs more or compromises costs, quality, and scheduling constraints [14, 15]. Firms are only willing to spend 0.1% more on a product to improve environmental quality [15]. Thus, usually design takes on the character of being a problem-solving activity for a component rather than product development from its conceptual stage [15, 16, 17].

To ensure that even small and remote countries and areas can recycle, an integrated mobile recycling plant can provide highly efficient recycling for whole-unit dismantling [19]. This recycling plant can combine processes of dismantling, crushing, and multilevel separation to waste monitors and printed wiring board recycling. An ecological efficiency assessment revealed that integrated mobile recycling plant could solve e-waste problem for small countries or cities with good environmental performance and meet requirements of environmental protection and human health [19].


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Natural Resources InstituteUniversity of ManitobaWinnipegCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • A. C. (Thanos) Bourtsalas
    • 1
  • Nickolas J. Themelis
    • 2
  1. 1.Earth Engineering Center, Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Columbia UniversityEarth and Environmental EngineeringNew YorkUSA

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