By Jorge Luis Filio Flores

This article is a compendium of previous research on electronic products’ lifecycle with an emphasis on the environmental impacts caused by the mismanagement of its value chain, specially from the excluding of the impacts arising from mining activities. The growing concern for the correct disposal of e-waste led to the creation of the following global conventions that set the basis for the main methods of retrieval and revalorization of such waste: Basel Convention, E-waste assessment Tanzania CPCT, Rotterdam Convention.

E-waste is often misunderstood as comprising only waste of computers and related IT equipment. However, a diverse range of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is put on the market in most countries and eventually become waste.

Basel Convention, the definition and categorization of e-waste. Before starting the discussion on electronic waste, we have to understand the regulatory framework that encompasses global efforts for the correct management of these wastes, specially the Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is a global environmental treaty that strictly regulates the trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes. Parties to the Convention are obliged to ensure environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, particularly in their disposal. The Convention, adopted on 22 March 1989, came into force on 5 May 1992 and many countries ratified it in the same decade.

This document stipulates three main interdependent and mutually supportive goals, namely: trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes should be reduced to a minimum; hazardous wastes should be treated and disposed of as close as possible to their source of generation; hazardous waste generation should be reduced and minimized at the source.

To achieve these goals, the Convention aims to control the trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes, monitor and prevent illegal trafficking and to provide assistance for the environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes.

E-waste is included in Annex VIII to the Convention under the following entry for hazardous waste:  “A1180 Waste electrical and electronic assemblies or scrap containing components such as accumulators and other batteries included on list A, mercury-switches, glass from cathode-ray tubes and other activated glass and PCB-capacitors, or contaminated with Annex I constituents (e.g., cadmium, mercury, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl) to an extent that they possess any of the characteristics contained in Annex III (note the related entry on list B B1110).”

e-Waste and WEEE. Shortly after this definition of e-waste was set in the Convention, a new one appeared, proposed by the European Union, that of WEEE. Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) or e-waste for short is a generic term embracing various forms of electric and electronic equipment that have ceased to be of any value to their owners. In this article, we use the terms WEEE and e-waste synonymously and in accordance to the EU WEEE Directive.

The existing nomenclature for e-waste derives from the global coding of ICT products. To have a standard system for naming e-waste is key for the development of an inventory that could serve national and subnational governments to better manage its recycling systems. It is relevant to mention that actual publications do not entire include the mining of the materials used for electronic devices in the mass flow of the product.

Lifespan for different ICT equipment. Since standard lifecycle data on electronic devices is limited, average lifespan data obtained through field research is used instead. The example illustrated here corresponds to a United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) research in Tanzania on this subject. The data is presented in the next table:

Device Average lifespan (years)
Desktop Computers 4.8
Laptop computers 3.3
CRT screens 4.3
LCD screens 3.4
Printers 4.2

Average lifespan of ICT equipment. UNIDO

E-waste contains more than 1000 different substances, many of which are toxic, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants that create dioxins emissions when burned. About 70% of the heavy metals (mercury and cadmium) in US landfills come from electronic waste; it is also estimated that consumer electronics make up 40 % of the lead in landfills. These toxins can cause brain damage, allergic reactions and cancer.

Recycling: the alternative. E-waste contains considerable quantities of valuable materials such as precious metals. Early generation PCs used to contain up to 4 g of gold each, however this has decreased to about 1 g today. The value of ordinary metals contained in e-waste is also very high: 1 ton of e-waste contains up to 0.2 tons of copper, which can be sold for about 1000 USD at the current world price (as of 2007). Recycling e-waste has the potential therefore to be an attractive business. The following pie chart depicts the composition of different ICT devices.

According to the European Topic Centre on Resource and Waste Management (ETC/RWM), the following materials are the most commonly found in electrical and electronic equipment, in terms of component by weight of the total weight of WEEE: iron and steel (50 %), plastics (21%), non-ferrous materials or precious metals (13%), copper (7%). Therefore, it is sound to consider the economic opportunities provided by the commercialization of e-waste. This idea becomes more plausible when the different participants of the lifecycle of the product are clearly identified. This appears to be the best solution for tackling one of the biggest problems that come from the current rapid acquisition of electronic devices: tons of e-waste with end of life (EoL) correct disposal.

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