electronic waste

Electronic waste is any discarded electronic devices that are no longer being used, from lamps and cell phones to refrigerators. Electronic waste is now the world’s fastest growing waste stream. Read the following two articles about e-waste and its disposal and impact and answer the questions in the worksheet. one article is a pdf and the other has a link below


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1. What materials make our smartphone screens unique and how do they work? (20 pts)
2. What rare elements are used in cell phones and where?(20 pts)
3. What is behind a touch screen? (20 pts)
4. Explain at least three environmental/ health impact of improperly disposed ewaste? 20
Electronic Waste and its Negative Impact on Human
Health and the Environment
Ramadile Isaac Moletsane
Carin Venter
Faculty of Applied and Computer Sciences
Vaal University of Technology
Vanderbijlpark, South Africa.
School of Computer Science and Information Systems NorthWest University
Vaal Triangle Campus, South Africa
Abstract—This paper reviews electronic waste and its disposal
methods. It also explores hazardous effects that e-waste have on
human health, animals and the environment; it contains, for
example, toxic metals. The ever-increasing growth of e-waste is
one of the biggest threats of the 21st century; it is therefore a
priority worldwide. There is no single best method to eradicate ewaste and related problems. Lack of suitable education, resulting
in low levels of awareness, drives improper management of ewaste. This study therefore concludes that awareness and
suitable education is the most important aspect that influences
appropriate and proper management of e-waste, i.e. good
(“green”) information technology practices.
Various studies showed that toxins from e-waste, released
into the air or water, increase the probability that disorders will
negatively impact on people’s health; it causes, for example,
skin diseases and under-development of the brain in children
[14, 15]. Literature put forward that there is limited awareness
on the negative effects of e-waste on peoples’ health and the
environment [2, 16]. Freeman [17] argue that low levels of
awareness about the negative impacts of e-waste lead to
unsuccessful efforts to adopt and practice green information
technology. Education is often advocated as a precursor to
awareness about GIT practices; however, only a few studies
have dealt with this matter to date [18]. So, perceived limited
knowledge about the harmful effects of e-waste on health and
environment motivates this study. The researchers aim to give
a concise overview of e-waste and its harmful effects, as well
as recycling and disposal of e-waste.
Keywords—Electronic waste, 21st century, toxic metal, human
health, environmen, recycling
Electronic waste [1] is rapidly becoming a worldwide
threat—it negatively impacts on earth, our only non-renewable
commodity [2]. E-waste gradually poisons the environment [37]. Planet earth has been “captured” by it and still,
approximately 300 million computers and 1 billion mobile
phones are produced yearly, as reported by TheWorldCounts
[8]. According to Reyes, et al. [9] the escalating volume of ewaste has become matter of urgency globally. E-waste
contaminates air and water; it has devastating consequences for
the environment, human health and livestock [10].
Electronic equipment, such as information and
communication technology [11] products, are developing and
evolving at an unpresented rate; consumers want to own the
latest ICT products, whilst manufacturers attempt to keep up
with these demands [11]. ICT products, that are still in good
working condition, are discarded by owners that rush to obtain
new and improved products [12]. Also, high demand for these
products lured in new market players; new manufacturers, for
example from China, manufacture and produce imitation, low
quality products that eventually has short life spans [13].
Discarding of unwanted ICT products results in e-waste, which
must be appropriately managed and disposed of; it also
increases the risk that humans, and the environment, will be
978-1-5386-3060-0/18/$31.00 ©2018 IEEE
This paper is structured as follows: the magnitude of ewaste and its major categories are discussed in Section II. In
Section III e-waste recycling and disposal methods are
discussed. Health and environmental dangers of e-waste are
discussed in Section IV, and a conclusion is provided in
Section V.
There is no comprehensive definition of e-waste. Each
country came up with its own definition thereof [19]. E-waste
is often used interchangeably with WEEE, i.e. Waste from
Electrical and Electronic Equipment [20]. The following
definitions are given in the literature: Grant, et al. [21] define
e-waste as any end of life “equipment which is dependent on
electric current or electromagnetic fields in order to work
properly.” Puckett, et al. [22] define e-waste as “a broad and
growing range of electronic devices ranging from large
household devices such as refrigerators, air conditions, cell
phones, personal stereos, and consumer electronics to
computers which have been discarded by their users.” SinhaKhetriwal [23] say that “e-waste can be classified as any
electrical powered appliance that has reached its end-of-life.”
So, as there is no standard definition of e-waste. For this study,
e-waste is defined as all electric and electronic equipment
discarded or unwanted by the owner, regardless of working
state or not, that contains both toxic and valuable materials.
are applied to dispose through dumping, i.e. open dumping and
sanitary landfilling.
There were roughly six billion mobile phones in existence
worldwide in 2013 [24]. As a result, the volume of discarded
equipment is staggering; the United Nations Environmental
Programme and United Nations University [25] predict that ewaste, from discarded personal computers alone, will escalate
from 200% to 400% in South Africa and China, and to 500%
in India in the years 2007 to 2020. In India e-waste, from
mobile phones, is expected to increase 18 fold by the year 2020
[26]. In the European Union more than 3.8 billion units of
electronic equipment were placed on the market in 2009—it
includes 250 million personal computers [27]. Statista [28]
predicts that nearly 180 million tablet computers will have
been sold globally by 2019. 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste
was generated worldwide in 2016 [29]. Apart from the sheer
volume of e-waste, the more concerning problem with e-waste
is the rate at which it is increasing [30]. It is projected to
increase by a further 33% per year from 2017 onwards.
Fig. 1. Electronic waste recycling and disposal methods
Perkins, et al. [30] divide e-waste into the following three
categories: household applications, e.g. washing machines and
refrigerators; ICT equipment, e.g. personal computers and
laptops; and consumer equipment, e.g. televisions, portable
music players and mobile phones. Gaidajis, et al. [31] provide
a broader and more encompassing classification of e-waste—it
entails ten main categories, as shown in Table 1. The
classification is according to the European Union directives on
WEEE [32]. This paper focuses on the third category, i.e.
information technology and telecommunications equipment.
Table 1: Electronic waste ten main categories [33]
Large household appliances
Small household appliances
Information technology and telecommunications
Consumer equipment
Lighting equipment
Electric and electronic tools, but excluding large scale
stationary industrial tools
Toys, leisure and sports equipment
Medical devices
Monitoring and control instruments
Automatic dispenses
Nearly 75% to 80% of e-waste generated in first world
countries are shipped to Africa and Asia; it is done under the
disguise of “recycling”, “disposal” and even “donation” [30].
Fig.1 illustrates common methods then used to deal with the ewaste. Firstly, it is recycled in both the formal and informal
sectors. Secondly, current disposal methods include: thermal
treatment disposal and dumping disposal [34]. Two methods
A. Recycling Techniques of Electronic Waste
About 12.5% of the world’s e-waste are properly recycled;
the remaining 87.5% end up in landfills, are burned in the
open, or shipped to underdeveloped or developing countries
[10]. Gupta [35] states that about 95% of e-waste is processed
and recycled by the informal sector—it is characterized by
labor intensive work, lack of essential (or not any) technology,
unregulated and unregistered processes, as well as lack of
protective clothing and gear for the workers. Workers apply
dangerous methods, such as acid baths to remove or strip
metals from the components [2, 36, 37]. Kiddee, et al. [38]
found that, in Nigeria, metals of value are extracted from ewaste components, such as computers’ motherboards, using
(dangerous) acid; leftovers/residue are dumped on the ground
or into the streams. According to Perkins, et al. [30] only the
informal sector’s workers are exposed to toxic materials;
workers in state of the art recycling facilities are properly
protected from undue exposure. Workers in the informal sector
may inhale toxins and/or contaminated dust [39].
Unwillingness of informal recyclers to be regulated can be a
barrier to safe practices [39].
Onwughara, et al. [40] suggest that governments fail to
recognize and regulate informal recycling, and so amplify poor
health and working conditions of workers. Informal recycling
is a booming business, due to a number of reasons. For
example, informal systems influence e-waste collection
systems; recyclers usually go door to door to collect/buy ewaste from consumers of electronic products. Consumers are
often remunerated better by informal recyclers, than by formal
recycling collectors. This could be attributed to the high cost
associated with treatment of e-waste through formal streams. A
number of formal recycling businesses even closed down due
to lack of e-waste material to recycle in countries such as
Beijing [39]. According to Onwughara, et al. [40] the primary
objective of informal recycling is financial gain.
Typical informal methods to recover valuables from ewaste include manual disassembling and recovery of valuable
materials; acid extraction of metals; shredding; melting and
extrusion of plastics; burning plastics and residual materials;
and tonner sweeping [41]. Formal recycling currently lack
available techniques to recycle some of the components in an
environmentally friendly manner [31]. Formal recycling is
characterized by state of the art facilities; semi/highly skilled
workers; and strict regulatory laws. It is found mainly in rich
and developed countries; they have access to requisite
technology as well as workers, and are able to equip employees
with the necessary protective gear [18, 21].
The objectives of formal recycling are: firstly to minimise
the quantity of e-waste that needs treatment and limit release of
toxic emissions into the environment; and secondly to also
maximise the recovery of valuable metals such as copper,
aluminum and gold [40, 42]. Roughly 95% of valuable metals
can be recovered through formal recycling procedures and
techniques [43]. Mouton and Wichers [44] say that recycling
efforts are purely for financial gains and recyclers fail to
address environmental problems. Even after treatment of ewaste, a portion thereof still remains as residue—this needs
disposal in the form of either landfilling or incineration [42].
Neither of these is environmentally friendly [27, 31].
Formal recycling typically entails two types of facilities,
depending upon the nature of the method involved. In the first
instance, e-waste is dismantled and mechanically processed for
material separation and further processing. The second instance
involves a facility with metallurgical processes that are applied
to recover plastic and other materials [41]. Metallurgical
processes can be used to refine and upgrade metal containing
fractions. The dominant metallurgical method in recovering
non-ferrous metals and other valuable materials involves a
combination of pyro metallurgical processing copper smelters,
followed by electrolytic refining. According to Cui and Zhang
[45] the pyro metallurgical processing technique has been
applied in the market for at least 20 years. In this process the
crushed scraps are burned in a furnace or a molten bath to
remove plastics. There are only a few industries in the world
that recycle copper containing materials. The so-called
“integrated” smelters, which recycle many different kinds of
copper containing materials, include Boliden in Sweden,
Umicore in Belgium, Noranda in Canada, and Norddeutsche
Affinerie AG in Germany [46].
B. Disposal Methods of Electronic Waste
Sanitary landfill dumping and dumping on open dumps are
usually used as dumping disposal methods to dispose of waste
on a large scale. Tam [47] says that a landfill “is a waste
disposal site for the deposit of waste onto or into land,
including internal waste disposal sites, and a permanent site
used for temporary storage of waste, but excluding transfer
facilities.” Thermal treatment disposal can be done by open
burning or through incineration. Open burning releases all the
emissions directly into the air [48]. These open fires burn at
relatively low temperatures. The advantages of incineration,
over open burning, are that the toxicity in materials are reduced
to the level that is legible for landfilling dumping; and the heat
from incineration can be used to produce energy [42].
Incineration is usually employed in countries such as Japan,
where land is a scarce resource. It reduces the volume of ewaste considerably prior to landfilling of the ashes [47]. It is
likely to eradicate organic flammable e-waste materials [38]. It
also releases heavy metals into the atmosphere [27, 31].
Incineration simply reduces waste to between 30% and 50% of
its original size; it does not solve the problem of e-waste [10].
Sanitary landfilling is used as an alternative to open
dumping, even though it leads to emissions of carbon dioxide
[49]. Raghab, et al. [50] define sanitary landfilling as “a
method of disposing of refuse on land without creating
nuisances or hazards to public health or safety, by utilizing the
principles of engineering to confine the refuse to the smallest
practical area, to reduce it to the smallest practical volume, and
to cover it with a layer of earth at the conclusion of each day’s
operation or at such more frequent intervals as may be
necessary.” The downside is leachate [51]. According to Koda
[52] leachate forms as a result of a biochemical process that
takes place when rainwater filters through waste in a sanitary
landfill. Sanitary landfills, as modern landfills, replace
conventional landfills and solve leachate problems to a large
extent [42]. Fig. 2 shows a basic sanitary landfill.
Fig. 2 The basic sanitary landfill
In Fig. 2, A represents a methane gas recovery point; B is a
barrier of clay to prevent water and soil contamination and C is
a daily cover; a landfill must be covered daily and protected
from, for example, pests, mosquitos and rodents. D depicts
leachate collection, and E a ground surface. F is a refuse cell
that compact waste covered from daily activities.
Yasin and Usman [53] define open dumping as a land
discarding location where solid wastes are thrown away in a
way that does not safeguard or shield the territory or domain;
they are receptive to open burning, and visible to the nearby
community and scroungers. In this study open dumping is
defined as the worst e-waste management method; it exposes
the environment, humans’ health and livestock to possible
emissions of toxic fumes from the e-waste components.
According to Xakalashe [33] nearly 15% of thrown away
computers end up in landfills in Hong Kong. 92% of unwanted
laptops end up in landfills; a mere 8% are recycled in the
United States of America (USA). Approximately 133,000
personal computers are discarded daily in the USA [54]. The
different methods used to dispose of e-waste fail to solve the
problems associated with e-waste and none of the methods
discussed solve the problem of e-waste.
In this section the environmental and health-related
problems caused by e-waste, specifically in light of the
methods and techniques mentioned in the previous section, are
discussed. Sources of exposure to e-waste are categorized as
follows: informal recycling, formal recycling and exposure
from toxic compounds remaining in the environment, i.e.
environmental exposure [21]. People often do not have
sufficient knowledge in this regard; they are unaware of the
potential dangers that e-waste pose to the environment and
their health [27].
A. Environmental Problems Presented by Electronic Waste
The Oxford Dictionary [11] defines an environment as
“surroundings, especially as they affect people’s lives, the
natural world of the land, sea and air.” And so, environmental
dangers of e-waste can be classified under land dangers, air
(aerial) dangers and water dangers [21].
According to Deng [55] activities involved in the recovery
of precious metals form e-waste can cause severe pollution
when highly toxic heavy metals are released into the water,
land and atmosphere. Soil contamination from aerial deposition
or irrigation is likely to pollute crops [56]. A study conducted
in China revealed that soil contamination from aerial
deposition is the main source of toxic metals contamination,
such as cadmium lead and mercury, in rice [57]. Crops in or
close to areas that are contaminated with e-waste are likely to
absorb and accumulate toxic metals from e-waste and then
pose potential health risks to humans and animals [58].
Open burning, to recover copper from wires, releases
hydrocarbons in the air; it causes air pollution. Ha, et al. [59]
showed that e-waste workers in Bangalore, India breath dust
laden air containing cadmium, lead and other toxic metals.
Many e-waste contaminants are spread into the air and via
dust. This is a major source of exposure to humans and affects
them through ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption [60].
Water pollution refers to toxic metals that could leach
through the soil into underground water streams of local
communities. Luo, et al. [61] found that land farm soil as far as
two kilometers from e-waste sites were found to be
contaminated with dioxins and dibenzofurans. Gupta [62]
found that dumping of acid “leftovers” and sludge into the
rivers, after informal treatments of waste, lead to water scarcity
for households; the water became contaminated. Water then
had to be transported from afar towns to cater for the Guiyu
population in Hong Kong. Contamination such as this
endangers not only people, but also wildlife that relies on the
water for sustenance.
Summary of the negative environmental impacts presented
by electronics; refer to Table 2. Humans (and animals) cannot
live outside of the environment, and without food produced in
the environment. It supports all living beings with life. It is
therefore crucial that we all work together to protect our planet.
For this we must be equipped with the right knowledge and
become aware.
Table 2 Environmental effects of electronic waste [35]
Source of E-waste
Process Followed
Cathode Ray Tubes
Breaking, removal
of copper yoke and
Chips and other
gold plated
Chemical stripping
using nitric and
hydrochloric acids
along river banks.
Printed circuit
De-soldering and
removing chips
Plastics from
computer and
Shredding and low
Dismantled printed
circuit boards
Open burning of
waste boards
Open burning to
recover copper
Heavy metals like
lead, barium leach
into ground water
and release toxic
discharged directly
into water acidify
the river destroying
fish and flora.
dioxins, beryllium,
cadmium and
mercury are
emitted in the
Emissions of
dioxins, heavy
metals and
hydrocarbons in the
Tin and lead
contamination of
Hydrocarbons and
ashes including
PAHs discharged
into air, water and
B. Electronic Waste Effects on Humans and Livestock
Literature indicates that some of the hazardous elements of
e-waste, i.e. mercury, cadmium, lead and phosphorous, can
leach into the soil; it contaminate water and soil [21, 63]. Also,
uncontrolled burning and disassembly of e-waste may
negatively affect those involved in the processing thereof, and
also people in surrounding communities. When e-waste is
disposed of in or onto landfills, or burned, it poses health risks
to humans and livestock; this is due to the hazardous materials
it contains. When e-waste lands in/on landfills it exposes all to
ecological toxins, resulting in elevated chances of developing
chronic diseases e.g. cancer and neurological disorders [64].
According to Fu, et al. [57] ingestion of relatively low
doses of toxic metals can result in development of
malfunctioning organs and chronic syndromes over a long
period of time. Grant, et al. [21] argue that people can be
affected by toxic materials from e-waste through contact with
contaminated soil, water or dust, or through pre-exposed food
sources including meat. Generally, and most likely, exposure
to hazardous components occur through inhalation, ingestion
and dermal contact [65]. Fig.3 presents some of the health
hazards caused by e-waste.
Chip resistors and
Relays and
switches , printed
circuit boards
Plastic housing of
protection of
untreated and
galvanized steel
plates, decorator or
hardener for steel
Cabling and
computer housing
Brominated flame
Front panel of
cathode ray tubes
Plastics including
Fig. 3. Effects of heavy metals form electronic waste on human health [34]
Landfills containing e-waste will contaminate underground
water [48]. Eventually, it will contaminate fresh waterways and
will ultimately be consumed by humans and livestock [27].
Poly-halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons were found in food
produced nearby e-waste treatment sites in the Zhejiang
province in China [66]. Liu, et al. [67] reported evidence of
polybrominated diphenyl ether and polychlorinated biphenyl in
soil, plants and snails from town of Guiyu and the surrounding
area. Organic material in landfills decomposes and percolates
through soil as landfill leachate—it results in liquid that drains
from the landfill [38]. A preliminary study showed that lead
levels in homes of e-waste workers were between 4 and 23
times higher than families that do not have contact with an ewaste worker. So, e-waste workers unintentionally transport
toxic metals contamination with them from work to home, and
this increases exposure to their family members. Table 3,
shows the source of health dangers to humans caused by ewaste.
Table 3 Sources of health effects caused by electronic waste [35]
Source of E-waste
Solder in printed
circuit boards, glass
panels and gasket
in computer
Health effects
Damage to central
and peripheral
nervous systems,
blood systems and
kidney damage.
Affects brain
development in
Accumulates in
kidney and liver,
causes neural
teratogenic and
toxic irreversible
effects on human
Chronic damage to
the brain,
respiratory and skin
disorders due to
bioaccumulation in
Disrupts endocrine
system functions.
bronchitis and
DNA damage
Burning produces
dioxin. Dioxin
problems, immune
system damage and
interfere with
Short term
exposures causes:
muscle weakness,
damage to heart,
liver and spleen.
Lung cancer,
inhalation of fumes
and dust causes
chronic beryllium
There is no single method that can eradicate the e-waste
problem. Recycling and e-waste workers suffer from exposure
to toxins, regardless of whether they work in the formal or
informal sector. It is just the level of exposure that differs.
Formal (relatively safer) recycling/disposal cannot compete
with informal ones. Underdeveloped and developing countries
may benefit if both sectors can work together, rather than to try
to put an end to the informal sector. For example, the informal
sector may play a feeder role to the formal sector, with material
or e-waste to process. This will be beneficial if, and only if, the
informal sector is sufficiently rewarded through government
incentives, for instance. Otherwise, the formal sector may fold,
given the profitability of informal sector. On the other hand,
formal recycling/disposal methods are not a panacea, they also
run the risk of exposing e-waste toxins into air, soil and water.
Combinations of e-waste management methods can be used to
mitigate the e-waste impact on the environment, human health
and animals. E-waste is here to stay given the growing
population of the world, and the demand for new products and
technological developments. People must therefore be suitably
educated in this regard. Education, as precursor to awareness,
is therefore recommended; for example governments must
encourage the introduction of modules aimed at educating
students at tertiary institutions about the harmful effects of ewaste, e-waste management and green information technology
Education is most important in the underdeveloped and
developing countries; they are too unaware of the existence of
the problem, and they are home to most of the world’s e-waste.
Because of the prevalence of ICT equipment, tools and
platforms, such as mobile learning and social media, people
with digital and mobile literacy can take advantage of these
mediums to educate themselves. However, this cannot replace
traditional means of transferring knowledge, such as radios.
Society is segmented in terms of literacy in this regard and not
all have access to digital platforms. In addition, we should
become aware of and seek new ways to “green” all life stages
of electronic products. Education on the negative impact of ewaste on the environment, humans and animals should be
made part of the curriculums in schools and institutions of
higher learning. Investments must also be made to develop
new and better practices to manage of e-waste, such as
innovative product design, extended producer responsibility,
standards and labelling. Manufacturers and producers must
ensure greening of equipment throughout their life stages.
I wish to thank my guide Dr. Carin Venter, North-West
University for guiding my work.
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