Electronic Waste

Electronic Waste

Author: Marvin Pfeiffer


We live in the age of globalisation, the 21st century, in which communication and exchange of
information has become more important than ever. We produce high technology devices like
smartphones, PCs and TVs in huge quantities. In our everyday life we do not get along
without household appliances like fridges or ovens. It is almost impossible to imagine life
without anything that has a plug or battery, basically anything that needs electricity.
Because of fast advancement in technology, devices are replaced frequently.[1] There is also the
phenomenon of planned obsolescence, which means planned decay. It is difficult to prove, but
many companies use small parts of lower quality in their products, so they break down shortly
after their warranty expired and the repair is often more expensive than to buy a new one.[2]
But what happens with the outdated or broken electronics? In fact in 2012 approximately 41.5
million tons of electronic waste were produced worldwide according to the UNO.[3] Until 2016
this number is expected to more than double to about 93.5 million tons.[4]

Origin and Destination of Electronic Waste and Its Impact

Is this so called “e-waste” recycled as it should be: Under controlled working conditions and
with a hundred per cent re-use? The following is going to discuss this question and try to
answer it. The next passages will focus on Europe, the USA, Ghana and China as they best
represent the world’s situation.

Europe and Ghana

Let us take Europe as an example: The EU Commission estimates that roughly 46% of
electronic scrap is recycled and 13% ends up in the household garbage. Still, 41% are
disposed of in other ways.[5] However, according to Greenpeace, as much as 75% of the total ewaste
generated in Europe is unaccounted for.[6] Although the Basel Convention, which all
countries in Europe have ratified, is intended to restrict the export of hazardous waste, which
includes e-waste[7], still 155,000 tons are illegally exported to developing and industrialising
countries from Germany alone.[8] E-waste is hazardous, because it “contains over 1,000
different substances, many of which are toxic, and creates serious pollution upon disposal”.[9]

One reason for this illegal export is a grey area in law, which prohibits the export of nonfunctional
devices, but allows it of used ones. It is impossible to control all containers leaving
Germany that hold electronics. According to statistics, less than every hundredth container is
inspected in the port of Hamburg, which is increasingly used to export e-waste.[10] Even when
problematic devices are found, it is difficult to prove how many devices are defect and how
many still work.[11] The greatest portions of it are old TV and PC monitors, which nowadays
are replaced by flat screens in many households. They need to be recycled separately and it is
cheaper to just ship them in containers to developing or new industrialising countries, where
no restrictions monitor the correct recycling. This European “e-waste” usually ends up in
Africa, for example in Ghana.
There the monitors are sold by tradesmen on the street, as seen, without trying them out. Even
the traders say that only 30-70% work. However, they have to buy containers as a whole and
cannot choose which ones they want to buy.[12]
The ones not working anymore are taken apart and dumped right away in enormous landfills,
where so-called “informal waste collectors” search for the last scraps of metal. Most of these
waste collectors are children, some as young as 5 years. Because most of the old electronics are
already taken apart, they even look for screws to collect and later sell them for little money, so their
parents can buy enough food to survive. [13]
Their only aids to get the scrap metal often are stones to open up devices and open fires in
which cables are burned to get the containing copper. Black smoke arises, because the plastic
cover of the cables and other materials that are used to kindle the fire, are burned. Greenpeace
analysed the arising smoke from burning the cables and proved that it contains all kinds of
chemical compounds in high concentration.[14] This smoke leads to headaches, fatigue, and in
most cases a short life for the people who live from and close to the waste. The smoke and
everything that cannot be used, piling up on the landfills, does not only have long term
damage for the collectors, but also harms nature and environment.[15]
Some of the waste could not be recycled in developed countries either, but there it would be
disposed of as toxic waste, like condensers and fluorescent tubes.[16]
Especially cities with big harbours and functioning international trade are targets of the illegal
trade of e-waste, because there it is easier to get through the security checks. As a
consequence whole “waste cities” like parts of Lagos in Ghana emerge.[17]

United States of America

In the US it is not much different from Europe: The e-waste is also exported to developing
countries; however the major difference is that the US government does not try to prevent and
control the export of e-waste. On the one hand the US Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) approves that e-waste is exported to less developed countries and states: “U.S. laws and
regulations are limited in their ability to prevent harmful exports of used electronics to
developing countries”[18] and on the other hand the USA is the only developed country that has
signed, but not ratified the Basel Convention.[19]
Although the EPA states that approximately 27% of e-waste gets into the recycling system
(the rest ends up in landfills)[20], “informed industry insiders have indicated that around 80% of
what comes through their doors will be exported to Asia, and 90% of that has been destined
for China.”[21] Even though this source is dated 2002 there are no indicators for a major change
in these numbers, because US law has not changed concerning the export of e-waste since

click to zoom Sources: See Annex > Bibliography > Diagram Sources


China tried to prevent the imports of e-waste already in 2000, by banning them, but there
seems to be no improvement.[22] For one reason of course, because the US does not change
their export regulations, but probably also for the same reason as in Ghana: Because it is
impossible to control all containers. Corrupt port staff might be another reason.
Hu Tao, senior member of the research council of the Department of the Environment in
China, says “About 70% of the world wide electronic waste is brought to China”.[23] If this
number is only close to being correct, it means that large amounts of electronic waste must be
transported from Europe to China too, because Europe produces 10 million tons per year as
shown in the graphic, more than three times the amount of the US.
China is the second largest producer of e-waste worldwide after the US (as the EU is a union
and not a nation). Combined with the illegal import of e-waste this leads to extreme
problems, because China does not have the recycling capacities it needs to recycle all of the electronic waste
Officially, there are 84 companies that recycle adequately. However, alone in Guiyu, a town in
the northeast of Hong Kong over 5000 family businesses operate with more than 200.000
workers that recycle electronic waste.[24] They work without safety standards and control.[25]
A report of Greenpeace about recycling of electronic waste in China and India shows that
abnormal high concentrates of hazardous chemicals and metals were found not only in the
workshops, but also in streams, the ground and air near to them. Within the workshops, indoor
dust samples detected a tin concentration that was up to 1500 times higher than normal and an
antimony, copper and silver concentration ranging from 20 to 200 times the typical
PH tests by the Basel Action Network (BAN) of the surrounding of tubs that are used to
recover metals from chips with chemicals, measured a pH level of 0, which is the highest acid
In these towns water often needs to be brought from other areas, because their own water
sources are too polluted. The dumping, too, is not very different to that from Ghana: All parts
that cannot be used are thrown on dumping sites, where they cause damage to its
surroundings.[28] The only major difference seems to be that in China more chemicals are used
to recover metals even from circuit boards and chips. Because these chemicals are led into the
streams, the rivers are strongly polluted.[29]
In 2011 the central government issued an order to encourage manufacturers to collect e-waste
or to instruct subcontractors to collect it. However, there are no sources yet that estimate if this
step had any effect so far.

Steps the EU has taken to better Control the Movement of Electronic Waste:

The EU agreed to sign and ratify the Basel Convention to prevent the export of hazardous
waste, like electronic waste:

Basel Convention (full name: Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of
Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal):

This agreement is an international treaty of the UN, which 178 countries, have signed and ratified. Among others all members of
the EU. (The USA have only signed it as the only developed nation; the other two are
Haiti and Afghanistan)
The Convention “was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between
nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less
developed countries (LDCs)”. It came into effect in 1992.[30]

Two directives were passed contemporaneous in 2002 and became European law in 2003:

Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS):

RoHS limits the use of 6 materials (lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium,
polybrominated biphenyls, polybrominated dephenyl ether) to a very low percentage,
so they will not be set free if the electronics are not recycled properly.[31]

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE):

The aim of WEEE is to reduce the amount of electronic waste by expanding the
producer responsibility and assure an environmentally friendly recycling.[32]

Raw Material Scarcity and Rare Earths

The prevention of the export of electronic waste also has financial reasons. The containing
metals are worth a lot, and lost to the country if exported. As commonly known metals are
finite resources, so the availability of all metals cannot be guaranteed forever. Even though
Mr. Happel, the Business Manager of Metal Ports GmbH said in an interview that, basing on
the previous years’ stable metal prices, the metal prices would stay stable also in the
upcoming years with great certainty[33], this cannot be predicted long-term. For example the
copper price did in fact quadruple since 2002.[34]
E-waste also contains large amounts of precious metals, like gold. About 8% (320 tons) of the
worldwide gold extraction is used to produce electronics, but only about 15% of these 8% is
recovered.[35] Compared to indium, this rate is still relatively high, because the recycling rate of
indium is less than one per cent.[36] Statistics estimate that the availability of Indium will be
exhausted by 2017 (See Annex figure 3).
This danger becomes evident for rare earths, too. They usually are embodied in devices like
smartphones and electro motors in small amounts. In theory, they can be recycled, but it is too
expensive, because China sells them for less than the recycling cost.[37] It has a quasi-monopole
mining 95% of the available rare earths (See Annex figure 2). Mr Happel suggests that China
keeps its price below the recycling price on purpose in order to secure its markets. This is the
reason for a recycling rate of rare earths close to zero.[38]


In conclusion it can be said that globalisation does affect the disposal of electronic waste, but
mainly in negative ways. The rich developed countries often export their e-waste to
developing countries. The waste is dumped there and left for the poor to take apart at the
expense of their health. Whole cities become “waste cities”, where their inhabitants live next
to and even on the dumping sites.
These people get to feel the disadvantages of globalisation.
Because the developed countries do not want to pay for the disposal or recycling of their
waste they should not make the poor suffer for it.
The developed countries have to be aware of their responsibility and solve the problems they
are responsible for.
Solutions have to be found to protect the environment and humans from the dangers of
electronic waste, but also so that the majority of its elements can be recycled, if not all of
them. If we go on wasting and dumping these natural resources there might come a time not
so far in the future, when some sources are carried to end and not all metals are available
There are some new approaches, for example that producers of electronics have to take back
their products and recycle them or give them to sub-contractors for recycling.
Science is developing new methods, too, for example to recover rare earths with the help of
bacteria, but this technology is still in its infancy.
As long as it is not possible to recycle all e-waste properly more money should be invested to
find new methods not only to protect the poor from the masses of waste, but also so we can
rely on our resources in the long term.

[1] http://www.reportlinker.com/p0611168-summary/Global-E-Waste-Management-market -.html date of access: 24th February 2013

[2] oekom Verlag (2012) – Rohstoffquelle Abfall - Wie aus Müll Produkte von morgen werden. In:Schridde, Stefan: Geplante Obsoleszenz - Gebaut, um kaputtzugehen. S. 56-61 date of access: 24th February 2013

[3] http://www.ftd.de/unternehmen/handel-dienstleister/:rohstoffland-deutschland-das-grosse-geschaeft-mit-dem-elektroschrott/60151755.html date of access: 24th February 2013

[4]  http://www.reportlinker.com/p0611168-summary/Global-E-Waste-Management-market -.html date of access: 24th February 2013

[5] http://www.sueddeutsche.de/wirtschaft/eu-will-wiederverwertung-neu-regeln-edler-elektroschrott-1.1420515 date of access: 24th February 2013

[6] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2008/9/chemical-contamination-at-e-wa.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[7] http://www.basel.int/Portals/4/Basel%20Convention/docs/text/BaselConventionText-e.pdf date of access: 25th February 2013

[8] http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/eu-will-mehr-elektroschrott-sammeln/6087354.html date of access: 24th February 2013

[9] http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[10] http://www.electronic-research.de/elektroschrott.html#comment-921 date of access: 24th February 2013

[11] http://www.hamburg.de/contentblob/2215030/data/merk-eexport.pdf  ; DVD Atlas der Globalisierung „Toxic City – Deutscher Giftschrott für Ghana“ ardvideo.de 2012 date of access: 24th February 2013

[12] Atlas der Globalisierung – Toxic City – Deutscher Giftschrott für Ghana

[13] Atlas der Globalisierung – Toxic City – Deutscher Giftschrott für Ghana

[14] Atlas der Globalisierung – Toxic City – Deutscher Giftschrott für Ghana

[15] Atlas der Globalisierung – Toxic City – Deutscher Giftschrott für Ghana

[16] Interview with Mr Happel question 6

[17] Atlas der Globalisierung – Toxic City – Deutscher Giftschrott für Ghana

[18] http://www.epa.gov/international/toxics/ewaste/index-uew.html#ewastetabs date of access: 24th February 2013

[19] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basel_Convention date of access: 24th February 2013

[20] http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wp-content/uploads/Facts_and_Figures_on_EWaste_and_Recycling.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[21] http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[22] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/electronics/the-e-waste-problem/where-does-e-waste-end-up/ date of access: 24th February 2013

[23] http://german.china.org.cn/business/txt/2012-08/13/content_26221847_2.htm date of access: 24th February 2013

[24] http://german.beijingreview.com.cn/german2010/Focus/2012-08/01/content_472706_2.htm date of access: 24th February 2013

[25] http://german.china.org.cn/business/txt/2012-08/13/content_26221847.htm date of access: 24th February 2013

[26] http://www.greenpeace.de/fileadmin/gpd/user_upload/themen/umweltgifte/Exeterfull.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[27] http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[28] http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[29] http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[30] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basel_Convention date of access: 24th February 2013

[31] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restriction_of_Hazardous_Substances_Directive ; http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32002L0095:EN:HTML date of access: 24th February 2013

[32] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_Electrical_and_Electronic_Equipment_Directive ; http://www.weee.de/wp-content/uploads/WEEE_2002_96_EC_Norm.pdf date of access: 24th February 2013

[33] Interview with Mr Happel question 4

[34] http://www.finanzen.net/rohstoffe/kupferpreis date of access: 24th February 2013

[35] http://www.heise.de/newsticker/meldung/Elektroschrott-Die-reine-Goldverschwendung-1633647.html  date of access: 24th February 2013

[36] http://www.3sat.de/page/?source=/nano/bstuecke/80697/index.html  date of access: 24th February 2013

[37] Interview with Mr Happel question 3

[38] Interview with Mr Happel question 3