The term e-waste is loosely applied to electrical equipment that is near or at the end of its useful life. Typical products include computers, televisions, mobile phones, DVD players, stereos, photocopy and fax machines as well as "peripherals" such as batteries, printers and cartridges. However, there is no clear definition of e-waste. For example, it has not been determined whether the category should include microwave ovens and similar devices.


by Cassia Carvalho
translation by Sho Sakai

The term e-waste is loosely applied to electrical equipment that is near or at the end of its useful life. Typical products include computers, televisions, mobile phones, DVD players, stereos, photocopy and fax machines as well as "peripherals" such as batteries, printers and cartridges. However, there is no clear definition of e-waste. For example, it has not been determined whether the category should include microwave ovens and similar devices.

The computer revolution

Just as the atom was promised to be used safely, the initial hope was that the computer revolution would banish one of the plagues of the first industrial revolution by eliminating the problem of rivers and landscapes being contaminated by waste from factories. However, it turns out that the IT revolution, backed by a silent and clean industry driven by silicon chips, has its dark side.

Out of sight and far from the affluent West are landfills for hundreds of millions of computers, televisions, cell phones, stereos, refrigerators and other discarded electronic devices thrown away with increasing speed. The average U.S. computer user is currently replacing his machine every 18-24 months.

From the nooks of mainland China to the rapidly industrializing regions of India and Pakistan, a wide range of equipment is received and recycled under conditions that endanger the health of workers, their communities and the environment.

Most of the components of these devices are recouped by poor collectors and sold for reuse. But during the process, they and the environment around them are exposed to hazards arising from contact with heavy metals like mercury, lead, beryllium, cadmium and bromine leaving lethal residues in their bodies, soil and watercourses.

This is not the type of recycling that consumers have in mind when they dutifully place their computers in the local landfill. Industry experts say that between 50 and 80% of electronic waste collected for recycling ends up in boats with containers intended for e-waste dumps in Asia, where their toxic components end up in blood streams and watercourses.

The life cycle of computer material

Since the '90s the price of computers has plummeted and many have a computer at home and / or work. Although the lifespan of these products is estimated at 10 years, system upgrades, new requirements and the obsolescence of programs and components produce a more accurate lifespan of about 3 or 4 years.  The purchasing of new computer equipment is so cheap that you abandon or store a computer it when it hasn’t yet reached the end of its useful life to buy a new one, ignoring the huge environmental cost that involves both the production and the disposal of computers.

Every day Americans throw away more than 130,000 computers and 350,000 mobile phones, making e-waste the fastest growing type of waste, not only in the U.S., but in all developed countries.

"photos by Empa,".

E-Waste's composition 

More important perhaps than the amount of electronic waste is what it actually contains. Modern electrical equipment, for example, is often made of hundreds of different compounds and materials. Many of these components form up hazardous waste. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic are used in electronic equipment, their plastic components have brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and toxic materials found in printer cartridges, to name a few. The threats to human health and to the environment also include the toxic smoke from recycling and leaching processes in landfills and rivers and the desertification of land mining for the extraction of natural resources.

The management of e-waste

There are valuable materials that can be extracted to be reused in the manufacture of electronic products, such as gold and platinum. The problem with e-waste is that the dismantling, separation and processing of these components is difficult and expensive. The hazardous nature of electronic waste along with the associated regulations and the high costs of landfills regularly make the shipping of e-waste abroad a cheaper alternative to reuse and recycling.

In general, developed countries export to developing countries, sometimes under the pretext of aid for the recovery of scrap or refurbishment and resale.
Adopted in 1992, the Basel Convention was started in response to the outrageous international traffic of hazardous waste. More than 150 countries have ratified the Convention. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that refused to ratify it. The Basel Action Network is designed to stop this dumping from rich to poor nations.

The biggest 'Importers'

A lot of e-waste exports end up in Guiyu, China, a recycling centre where peasants heat up circuit boards over charcoal fire to recover lead, while others use acid to burn pieces of gold. According to reports from nearby Shantou University, Guiyu has the highest level of dioxin to cause cancer in the world and high rates of miscarriages. We see women sitting by the fire burning laptop adapters, with rivers of ash draining out of the houses.

Currently, the largest "electronic graveyards" are on the coasts of China and India. There, where environmental policies are less strict, workers (men, women and children) toil daily recycling metals that can be reused, extracting copper from the coils of CRT monitors, gold from some electrical contacts and separating the usable from the unusable without any safety measure, for US $1.50 per day.

©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN). Accra, Ghana, 2009

Environmental and health problems

Some 70% of heavy metals that pollute landfill sites come from improperly disposed electronic equipment. The mercury and cobalt, for example, are toxic by inhalation, ingestion and contact, and chromium is toxic by inhalation and ingestion.

All workers in the electronics industry suffer from health deterioration from exposure to toxic compounds such as chromium (used on the metal covers) which is carcinogenic; another is cadmium (used in rechargeable batteries, contacts and connections monitors, cathode ray tube), which affects the kidneys and bones, mercury (used in flat panel displays within the lighting system) damages the brain and nervous system; lead (contained in a ray tube monitors cathode and welds) causes intellectual impairment, damage to the nervous, reproductive and circulatory system. There are also BFR (used in circuit boards and plastic sheeting) that are neurotoxic and can impair learning and memory. And the list goes on, adding up other toxic substances like the solvents.

Companies know the conditions in which they operate, hence the rotation in positions for welding and repair of circuit boards. Many factories annually shift their workers in those positions due to high concentration of lead fumes, as the air extraction systems are weak or nonexistent.

Problems from the extraction

The history of electronic waste begins in the extraction of raw materials needed for the technology components. Naturally, this chapter of history is not directly responsible for problems related to electronic waste, it simply adds to the tragedy of excessive consumption and the careless disposal of electronic waste.

The coltan

In the eastern mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) there is coltan and niobium, as well as gold, diamonds, copper and tin. Coltan, short for columbium-tantalum, is in soil dating back three billion years ago. Niobium is used to manufacture the capacitors to handle the electrical flow from cell phones. Cobalt and uranium are essential for the nuclear, chemical and aerospace industry and war weapons. About 80% of world reserves of coltan are in Congo.

Their unique properties are superconductivity, ultra-refractory (minerals able to withstand very high temperatures), excellent condensing and high corrosion resistance, making them a privileged material suitable for extraterrestrial use in the International Space Station and future space platforms and databases.

For the control of these scarce minerals there is a war that has lasted 10 years and has killed more than 5.4 million people (only 200,000 of direct war violence). Powerful corporations want to control the mining in the region despite all the violence and the fact that they are destroying the second largest green area of the planet after the also threatened Amazon. 

Due to the large and growing demand for electronics in the Western world, coltan is also in great demand. This economic catalyst has made many militant factions in the DRC participate in a bloody civil war in competition for control of lucrative mining operations and cheap coltan. The over-consumption of electronics feeds the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Both adults and children work in stressful working conditions. While many workers argue that the coltan industry provides an income stream to support themselves and their families, the amazing concentration of the nation's dependence on the industry can have dangerous consequences. If the demand for coltan drops, or resources are exhausted, many workers will be left without fundamental skills such as agriculture, threatening the population of the DRC.

Some Alternatives

Reuse and recycling are not the only way to deal with electronic waste. The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) provides a much more responsible manufacture of electronic products. Removing hazardous inputs increases the accountability of producers throughout the life cycle of their products (e.g. through legislation), requiring producers to take back its products (and implement environmentally and socially responsible solutions), which also requires a better initial design (the incorporation of greater longevity, ability to upgrade, repair and reuse). This will minimize environmental impacts at each stage of the life of a product.

But if we buy from the manufacturers basic 'boxes' containing core components and, at the same time, producers, as part of a long-term agreement service, ensure regular maintenance of the machine and install updated devices when they become available, the 'life expectancy' of computers would then extend to five or more years.

To adopt such an approach it would be necessary to postpone indefinitely the survival strategy of manufacturers to plan short-term obsolescence of their products and to determine the consumer’s preference of relentless new electronic equipment.

However, there remains the difficult task of making people consume in moderation and sobriety. We are filling ourselves with junk due to an almost indiscriminate 'teenager' consumption mentality that generates social and ecological injustices: we discard and hide the trash ‘in the world’s backyard’ where it’s not seen, causing serious pollution problems and perpetuating abusive and unfair practices against workers from economically depressed areas.

The excessive consumption of western society, coupled with the inefficiency of the relevant agencies to recycle and reuse all types of waste, is a lethal combination for our planet and us.

©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN). Guiyu, China



















E-WASTEの最大の受け入れ先は中国のGuiyuだ。この地域では、農民が鉛を取り出すために炭火を使って基盤を焼き、金を取り出すために酸を使う。Guiyu地区の 隣にある山東大学の調査によると、Guiyu地区はダイオキシンによる汚染率が世界一で、流産の率もきわめて高い。我々が訪れた時には、ラップトップのアダプターを灰で汚染された川沿いで焼いている女性を見かけた。








The coltan(コルタン)