E-waste and techno trash

Posted: 28 September 2007

Huge quantities of hazardous electronic wastes (E-wastes) are being exported to China, Pakistan and India where they are processed in recycling operations - burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead laden cathode ray tubes - that are extremely harmful to human health and the environment.

  • US consumers will throw out about 10 million old computers this year. About two-thirds of these will be shipped to Asia for dismantling by rural villagers. The computers all contain mercury and lead, and the resulting toxic waste has become a threat to villagers' health and environment (see: US toxic techno-trash flooding Asia).

  • The US exports 50 to 80 per cent of its e-waste for recycling.

COMPUTER COMPONENTS

In general, electronic computer equipment is a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic, such as chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, toxic metals, photo-active and biologically active materials, acids, plastics and plastic additives.

Toxic materials in computer components include:

  1. lead and cadmium in computer circuit boards
  2. lead oxide and barium in computer monitors' cathode ray tubes
  3. mercury in switches and flat screens and
  4. brominated flame retardants on printed circuit boards, cables and plastic casing.
  5. The comprehensive health impacts of the mixtures and material combinations in the products are often not known.
Workers in chip manufacturing are reporting cancer clusters, birth defects and miscarriages. In addition, new evidence is revealing that computer recycling employees have high levels of dangerous chemicals in their blood.


  • Unlike the European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia, the United States is the only developed country in the world that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention, a United Nations environmental treaty which has adopted a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the world's most developed countries to developing countries. Further, the US has actually exempted toxic E-waste from its own laws governing exports, simply because the material was claimed to be destined for recycling.

Recycling e-waste, China
Recycling e-waste, China
Recycling e-waste, China. Photo © Greenpeace
  • The latest estimate is that it would take about $25 per computer to ensure that the US electronic waste doesn't end up in a dump in China.

  • Semiconductors, the brains behind modern electronics, benefit the environment in many ways - for example by allowing people to telecommute and save a pollution-generating trip to the office. Yet producing a 2-gram memory chip requires 630 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals - more than a kilogram (or 2 pounds) worth.

Related links:

US toxic techno-trash flooding Asia.

Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes

Basel Action Network (BAN)

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC)

Greenpeace Toxics Campaign Web site