Thursday, November 17, 2011



What is e-waste?

E-waste is a term used to cover almost all types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) that has or could enter the waste stream. Although e-waste is a general term, it can be considered to cover TVs, computers, mobile phones, white goods (e.g. fridges, washing machines, dryers etc), home entertainment and stereo systems, toys, toasters, kettles – almost any household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply.

Why is e-waste growing?

E-waste is growing exponentially simply because the markets in which these products are produced are also growing rapidly as many parts of the world cross over to the other side of the ‘Digital Divide’. For example, between 2000 and 2005, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes a 22% growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in China1. Furthermore, China was the 6th largest ICT market in 2006, after the US, Japan, Germany, UK and France2. This is astounding when one considers that just ten years ago, under 1% of China’s population owned a computer3. Computers are only one part of the e-waste stream though, as we see that in the EU in 2005, fridges and other cooling and freezing appliances, combined with large household appliances, accounted for 44% of total e-waste, according to UNU’s Study supporting the 2008 Review of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive4

Rapid product innovations and replacement, especially in ICT and office equipment, combined with the migration from analogue to digital technologies and to flat-screen TVs and monitors, for example, are fuelling the increase. Additionally, economies of scale have given way to lower prices for many electrical goods, which has increased global demand for many products that eventually end up as e-waste.

How much e-waste is there?

Because so much of the planet’s e-waste is unaccounted for, it is difficult to quantify e-waste amounts. Moreover, the types of e-waste included in government-initiated analyses and collection programmes vary from country to country. Under the current version of the WEEE Directive, the EU has 10 distinct product categories, whereas in North America it is typically limited to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) products and televisions and in Japan to four product categories including TVs, air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines. 

The deviation in categorization of e-waste notwithstanding, reasonable estimates are in the order of 40 million tonnes p.a., which is enough to fill a line of dump-trucks stretching half way around the globe. A recent review of European legislation on e-waste, known as the “Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment (WEEE)” Directive (mentioned earlier), highlights that in 2005 in Europe alone, there were between 8.3 and 9.1 million tonnes of e-waste, tendency rising. In Australia, with an average of 22 electrical items per household, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that in the next two years, most of the 9 million computers, 5 million printers and 2 million scanners in Australian homes will be replaced9. In the US the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that the US generated 1.9 to 2.2 million tonnes of e-waste in 2005, with only 12.5% collected for recycling10.

Why is so much e-waste unaccounted for?

The US-EPA has estimated a 5 to 10% increase in the generation of e-waste each year globally. Perhaps even more alarming is that only 5% of this amount is being recovered11 – so where are the other 38 million tonnes? In Europe the review of the WEEE Directive by the United Nations University found that 25% of the total weight of the EU’s e-waste in 2005 was unaccounted for. Astoundingly, this finding clearly demonstrates that there was no scientific data available to explain where over 6 million tonnes of e-waste is going each year. So why is so much e-waste unaccounted for? – We don’t really know for sure. Enough is known to suggest a few explanations, such as illegal shipments to developing countries, like China and India; domestic ‘informal’ processing centres; as well as the e-waste that remains in the sheds, attics and storage rooms of sentimental owners.

E-waste – A global challenge

In summary one can clearly grasp and understand the e-waste problem is of global concern because of the nature of production and disposal of waste in a globalized world. Although it is difficult to quantify global e-waste amounts, we do know that large amounts are ending up in places where processing occurs at a very rudimentary level. This raises concerns about resource efficiency and also the immediate concerns of the dangers to humans and the environment. There is a long and often complicated chain of events in the e-waste problem, beginning from an idea that someone has for a new product and then its production, ending in its purchase and eventual disposal by the end user. By engaging with various stakeholders and relevant scientific wisdom within this chain of events, we are on the way to Solve the E-waste Problem (StEP).


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