Thursday, November 5, 2009

Electronic waste

Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) describes loosely discarded, surplus, obsolete, broken, electrical or electronic devices. The processing of electronic waste in developing countries causes serious health and pollution problems because electronic equipment contains some very serious contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. Even in developed countries recycling and disposal of e-waste involves significant risk for examples to workers and communities and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaching of materials such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.

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Rapid technology change, low initial cost, and with planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste around the globe. Dave Kruch, CEO of Cash For Laptops, regards electronic waste as a “rapidly expanding” issue. Technical solutions are available, but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied.

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In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics, while electronic waste represents only 2% of America’s trash in landfills. The EPA states that unwanted electronics totaled 2 million tons in 2005. Discarded electronics represented 5 to 6 times as much weight as recycled electronics. The Consumer Electronics Association says that U.S. households spend an average of $1,400 annually on an average of 24 electronic items, leading to speculations of millions of tons of valuable metals sitting in desk drawers. The U.S. National Safety Council estimates that 75% of all personal computers ever sold are now gathering dust as surplus electronics. While some recycle, 7% of cellphone owners still throw away their old cellphones.

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Increased regulation of electronic waste and concern over the environmental harm which can result from toxic electronic waste has raised disposal costs. The regulation creates an economic disincentive to remove residues prior to export. In extreme cases, brokers and others calling themselves recyclers export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, avoiding the expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes (the processing of which is expensive and difficult).

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Guiyu is the largest E-waste site on earth, and was first documented fully in December 2001 by the Basel Action Network in their report and documentary film entitled Exporting Harm. The health and environmental issues exposed by this report and subsequent scientific studies have greatly concerned international organizations such as the Basel Action Network and later Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Programme and the Basel Convention.

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