Where does all the e-waste go?

Feature Story - 2008-02-22
Do you know what happens when you throw out your old electronic gadgets? Probably not, but considering they contain both toxic chemicals and valuable metals you'd think someone would know? Unfortunately our new report 'Toxic Tech: Not in Our Backyard' reveals the fate of millions of tonnes of e-waste generated each year is largely unknown.

A pile of electronic waste on a roadside in Guiyu.

The amount of old electronics or e-waste such as computers, phones and TVs being discarded every year is growing rapidly. In many countries it's the fastest growing type of waste as cheap prices mean replacing electronics is cheaper than fixing them, while low price often means low quality and a very short life spans.

As electronics increasingly become part of the throw away culture in many developed countries, amounts of e-waste have dramatically increased while solutions have often lagged far behind. Even in the European Union (EU) that has tighter regulation 75 percent of e-waste is unaccounted for. Of the estimated 8.7 million tonnes of e-waste created annually in the EU a massive 6.6 million tonnes of e-waste is not recycled.

In the US there is very little regulation of e-waste. Less than 20 percent of US e-waste is recovered for recycling. Worrying the recycling percentages for PCs (10 percent) and TVs (14 percent) are even lower. The imminent switch to digital TVs in the US and elsewhere will lead to a massive increase in the amount of redundant analogue TV's.

Even from the 20 percent of e-waste collected in the US much is exported  because the US is one of the few countries where it's still legal to export collected e-waste to Asia and Africa.

E-waste dumped in China, with a label clearly indicating it was collected for recycling in California.

The huge amount of e-waste not recycled can be accounted for by:

  • Storage: Often old electronics are stored in people's houses. This only serves to delay the day they are finally discarded and reduces the chances they could be effectively reused.
  • Landfill/Incineration: When mixed with domestic waste, electronics will most likely end up in a landfill or incinerated. Both methods allow toxic chemicals to pollute the environment.
  • Reuse and Export: Old computers and phones are often exported to developing countries for reuse or recycling. The vast majority are crudely recycled in e-waste scrap yards causing widespread pollution.

Digital Divide

Countries like India and China have long been a destination for e-waste dumping by unscrupulous traders looking to make a quick profit on e-waste from the US and Europe. Now the amounts of domestic e-waste generated by these countries is growing fast. In India only one percent of e-waste is collected for authorised recycling.

Across Asia and Africa informal recycling yards have sprung up where low paid migrant workers use primitive methods to extract valuable metals. This informal recycling creates massive environmental pollution and damages the health of workers and residents in the area.

Even well intentioned shipments of computers for reuse are being abused. In Ghana many traders report that to get a shipping container with a few working computers they must accept broken junk like old screens in the same container from exporters in developed countries. The broken junk and eventually even the working computers inevitably ends up dumped in Ghana where there is no infrastructure to safely recycle toxic e-waste.


One clear solution is for the major electronics companies to eliminate the worst toxic chemicals from their products and improve their recycling programs. Having generated demand for the latest new mobile phone or sleek laptop and made vast profits from sales of electronics it should not be a problem the companies are allowed to ignore.

Mobiles at a recycling plant. Only a fraction of old mobiles are recycled.

In 2006 more than one billion mobile phones were shipped worldwide. However, Nokia (the market leader) recycles just 2 percent of the phones it sells.

The major computer makers do little better, with currently an average recycling rate of just 9 percent. That means the major companies don't recycle over 90 percent of their old products.

To address the rising tide of e-waste all manufactures must offer free and convenient recycling of their products to all their customers. Where companies are unwilling to do this tough legislation is need to ensure electronics are safely recycled. Japan has effective recycling legislation and Sony reports that it collects 53 percent of it's old products in Japan. That's five times better than the global average for major PC makers and shows that solutions are already available.

Philips singled out for bad behaviour

While most companies accept responsibility for recycling their own products, and are improving their recycling programs for consumers, several TV companies are dragging their feet on recycling with the majority offering no recycling for old TVs in many countries. Of the TV companies, Philips stands out by publicly stating that recycling is the responsibility for the customer and government and consumers should pay for recycling, not the product makers. Behind the scenes Philips lobbies to avert legislation to make companies more responsible for recycling their own products.

Basically Philips is helping ensure the status quo remains, that has lead to such a large e-waste problem. We have delivered this report direct to Phillips and other companies to show how they need to stop hiding from the problem of e-waste.

E-waste: The good, the bad and the ugly

Since August 2006 we have been ranking the major electronics companies' efforts phase out toxic chemicals and improve recycling programs - both vital steps to tackle e-waste.

Many companies have made big strides to improve their products and recycling schemes since the introduction of the Guide. But no company has so far succeeded in offering an entire range of products free of the worst toxic chemicals or a comprehensive, free, global takeback scheme to ensure responsible recycling.

Take action

You can keep the pressure up by writing to the CEO's of the top computer firms to challenge them to produce a greener computer.


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