Environmentally Sound Management of E-Waste

Environmentally Sound Management of E-Waste

Author: Sunil Herat

Global sales of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE)
have risen significantly during the last few years. In particular, items such as computers, mobile phones, and many other information technology products are now providing the impetus to rapid development in some emerging economies and in the developing world. Rapid uptake of information technology around the world coupled with the advent of new designs and technology at regular intervals in the EEE manufacturing sector is causing the early obsolescence of many of these EEEs. This results in the generation of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste).

It is estimated that the world generates around 20–50 million tonnes of e-waste annually, most of it from Asian countries. A recent report released by the UN [1] predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers in South Africa and China will have increased by 200–400% and by 500% in India compared with levels in 2007. It also states that by 2020 the amount of e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about seven times higher than it was in 2007 in China and 18 times higher than it was in 2007 in India. There are growing concerns that most of the e-waste generated in developed countries is ending up in developing countries, which are economically challenged and lack the infrastructure for environmentally sound management (ESM) of e-waste and thus suffer from adverse socio-economic, public health, and environmental impact of toxic compounds in e-waste.

E-waste contains a number of toxic metals, as well as valuable and scarce resources. Hence, to prevent adverse impact on public health, e-waste requires specific handling and treatment. Unfortunately, in many developing countries low collection rates of e-waste, improper collection, poor transport, storage, and treatment are very common. As a result, open burning and dumping of e-waste and illegal exports are becoming common practices in these countries.

High quality end of life (EoL) standards that incorporate collection, storage, transport, recovery, treatment, and disposal of e-waste could contribute significantly towards ESM of e-waste, thereby protecting the environment and the health and safety of people, as well as saving the valuable resources in EEE.

Developing Standards

Standards are less binding than the legislation, although they can complement it. For example, standards can be used to operationalize the targets required by legislation. On the other hand, although clear requirements for Eol management of e-waste can be set with standards, prescribing very specific technologies or practices should be avoided in order to stimulate innovation.

Defining E-Waste

At the outset, it is very important to define what e-waste is. There is considerable debate over the precise definition of e-waste. It is important to emphasize that e-waste not only consists of information and communication technology, for example, computers and mobile phones, but also consists of white goods, for example, air conditioners and cooling devices. Hence, standards should include a clear definition of e-waste.
Furthermore, as e-waste is generated from various types of EEEs, different methods of collection and treatment are required. Hence, each standard should clearly specify the type of e-waste it applies to.

Roles of Stakeholders

In addition to defining e-waste, the standards should also identify the roles of each stakeholder involved in the EoL management of specific types of e-waste. ESM of e-waste requires strict cooperation of all EoL operators and the optimization of the entire EoL chain. For example, high quality recycling may fail if the upstream collection operations are not done properly and e-waste is damaged during collection, storage, and transport. Hence, standards are required for all operators involved in the EoL chain including collection, transport, storage, preparation for reuse and treatment, and disposal of non-recyclable fractions. Systems approach is the key when setting the requirements for standards. Although each requirement should help improve the performance of the EoL operators in a specific stage of e-waste management, such as collection, storage, transport, and treatment, they should also maximize the environmental and economic performance of other operators in the entire EoL chain.

EoL standards for e-waste should be reviewed periodically to keep up to date with the most recent scientific research and technological advances. Hence, EoL standards should stipulate a practical review period of four or five years. One of the important preconditions for a successful e-waste standard is to achieve a balance between effectiveness and efficiency of EoL operations in seeking to achieve high environmental performance at acceptable costs.


General Requirements
As a general requirement, all EoL operators should comply with local, national, and international legislation applicable to their operations. They should have a thorough knowledge of applicable legislation and have the ability to track changes and to obtain information on new and upcoming legislation. Appropriate handling is essential during collection, storage, transport, and treatment of e-waste.
All EoL operators should be required to handle e-waste in a way that prevents damage to the equipment that may preclude reuse or appropriate recycling. EoL operators should therefore be required to demonstrate that they have the necessary trained staff to properly handle e-waste, have the infrastructure in place to enable the careful handling of e-waste, and they have put in place measures to prevent damage.

A properly maintained and operated environmental, health and safety management system (EHSMS) should be required for all e-waste EoL operators. This system should allow the operators to identify and realize potential areas for improvement and to continuously improve their performance. EoL operators should be obliged to have the relevant insurances to cover damages to third parties, including environmental damages, impact on the health of workers, neighbors and their properties, and clean-up of the site operations.

Specific Requirements

Collection standards should stipulate that collectors ensure that collection facilities are close to consumers and that periodical household collections of e-waste are conducted.

To enable reuse and effective treatment, standards should require operators to collect, store, handle, and transport e-waste in a way that:

  1. prevents damage to e-waste during the operations to avoid pollution resulting from breakage, leakage, or corrosion;
  2. does not hinder the removal and specific treatment of hazardous materials and components in subsequent down-stream operations; and
  3. supports the sound reuse and recycling of e-waste, as well as the appropriate disposal of materials that cannot be treated otherwise.

Standards for storage and collection should also stipulate that transport vehicles and containers must be equipped to achieve the above targets and that storage sites are equipped to prevent pollution resulting from damage, leakage, and corrosion.

To minimize the environmental impacts of e-waste, standards should stipulate the priority for 3R practices (reduce, reuse, recycle), such as prevention, preparation for reuse, and reuse and recycling. Reuse of EEE offers significant environmental and social benefits. However, limits or targets for minimum energy efficiency of equipment for reuse should also be considered when setting EoL standards. Operators should also be required to avoid incineration and disposal of the recyclable fraction of e-waste. Because e-waste containing hazardous materials requires specific treatment, EoL standards should clearly define the hazardous materials and specify that these be handled by state-of-art recycling facilities.

References and Further Reading

[1] UNEP and UNU, Sustainable Innovation and Technology Transfer Industrial Sector Studies: Recycling – From E-Waste to Resources. United Nations Environment Programme, Paris, France, 2009.

[2] L. Akenji, Y. Hotta, M. Bengtsson, S. Hayasi, EPR policies for electronics in developing Asia: adapted phase-in approach, Waste Manag. Res. 2011, 29, 919–930. DOI: 10.1177/0734242X11414458

[3] S. Herat, P. Agamuthu, E-waste: a problem or an opportunity? Review of issues, challenges and solutions in Asian countries, Waste Manag. Res. 2012, 30, 1113–1129. DOI: 10.1177/0734242X12453378

[4] I. C. Nnorom, O. Osibanjo, Overview of electronic waste (e-waste) management practices and legislations, and their poor applications in the developing countries, Resour. Conserv. Recyc. 2008, 52, 843–858. DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2008.01.004

[5] F. O. Ongondo, I. D. Williams, T. J. Cherrett, How are WEEE doing? A global review of the management of electrical and electronic wastes, Waste Manag. 2011, 31, 714–730. DOI: 10.1016/j.wasman.2010.10.023

[6] O. Osibanjo, I. C. Nnorom, The challenge of electronic waste (e-waste) management in developing countries. Waste Manag. Res. 2007, 25, 489–501. DOI: 10.1177/0734242X07082028

Dr. Sunil Herat is a Senior Lecturer in Waste Management at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. His research interests include solid-waste management in developing countries, implementing cleaner production practices, and how different countries deal with the problem of used electrical and electronic equipment waste with a special interest in developing countries.

Dr. Herat has published numerous research papers in international peer-reviewed journals on various aspects related to e-waste. He has also presented at international conferences and appeared in a number of media interviews. He is an expert on e-waste under the United Nations Regional 3R Forum of Asia program.

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