What is e-waste?

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The term "e-waste" is an abbreviation of "electronic and electrical waste". A key part of the definition is the word "waste" and what it logically implies – that the item has no further use and is rejected as useless or excess to the owner in its current condition.

E-waste includes almost any household or business item containing circuitry or electrical components with either power or battery supply.

Although e-waste is a general term, it can be considered to denote items such as TV appliances, computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, white goods - for example, fridges, washing machines, dryers - home entertainment and stereo systems, toys, toasters and kettles.

The definition of e-waste that has been agreed by StEP is:

"E-Waste is a term used to cover items of all types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by the owner as waste without the intention of re-use."

A full StEP White Paper defining the meaning of e-waste was published by StEP on 2nd June 2014 and can be accessed by clicking here.

 

The six waste categories

It is widely agreed that e-waste covers six waste categories:

Temperature exchange:

Temperature exchange equipment, more commonly referred to as cooling and freezing equipment: refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps

Screens, monitors:

televisions, monitors, laptops, notebooks, and tablets

Lamps:

fluorescent lamps, high intensity discharge lamps, and LED lamps

Large equipment:

washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment, and photovoltaic panels

Small equipment:

vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers, scales, calculators, radio sets, video cameras, electrical and electronic toys, small electrical and electronic tools, small medical devices, small monitoring and control instruments

Small IT and telecommunication equipment:

mobile phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers, telephones

There are differences in the original function of each category. These include weight, size and material composition as well as the life-span.  Furthermore, between the categories there are differences in the quantity and quality of e-waste, resulting in varying economic values and potential environmental and health impacts through inappropriate material recycling. Consequently, the collection and logistical processes involved and the recycling technology differ for each category, in the same way as consumer attitudes vary, when disposing of electrical and electronic equipment.

 

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams

The Global E-waste Monitor 2017 shows that e-waste has grown to 44.7 million metric tonnes annually. But only 20% of the e-waste generated is documented to be collected and recycled. The fate of 76% (34.1 million metric tonnes) is unknown, but likely dumped, traded or recycled under inferior conditions. Much e-waste also remains in the sheds, attics and storage rooms of its owners or gets disposed of with the normal household bin.

E-Waste is growing exponentially because global consumer demand continues to increase. Moreover, technology uptake and shorter replacement cycles are contributing to the growth of e-waste.

As many parts of our expanding world cross over to the other side of the ‘Digital Divide’, the contemporary consumer demands the means to enjoy an easier more comfortable lifestyle. But that very understandable demand creates a downstream problem of safe disposability.

 

The great global challenge

The e-waste problem is of global concern because of the nature of production and disposal of waste in a globalized world.

It is difficult to quantify global e-waste amounts, but it is known that large volumes end up in places where proper recycling facilities are not yet established and rudimentary methods are used to recover valuable components while hazardous components are disposed of in often uncontrolled landfills. This raises concerns about resource efficiency as well as the immediate concerns of human health and the environment. However, many countries have recognised that need to properly recycle e-waste and are working on implementing sustainable solutions. International cooperation and coordination are supporting this process in order to ensure the opportunities different circumstances are offering can be used to ultimately facilitate global recycling chains.