Electronic wastes, "e-waste" or "Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment" ("WEEE") is a waste type consisting of any broken or unwanted electrical or electronic device. Recyclable electronic waste is sometimes further categorized as a "commodity" while e-waste which cannot be reused is distinguished as "waste". Both types of e-waste have raised concern considering that many components of such equipment are considered toxic and are not biodegradable. Responding to these concerns, many European countries banned e-waste from landfills in the 1990s. As the price of gold, silver and copper continue to rise, e-waste has become more desirable. E-waste roundups can be used as fundraisers in some communities.
The European Union would further advance e-waste policy in Europe by implementing the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive in 2002 which holds manufacturers responsible for e-waste disposal at end-of-life. Similar legislation has been enacted in Asia, with e-waste legislation in the United States limited to the state level due to stalled efforts in the United States Congress regarding multiple e-waste legislation bills.
Due to the difficulty and cost of recycling used electronics as well as lacklustre enforcement of legislation regarding e-waste exports, large amounts of used electronics have been sent to countries such as China, India, and Kenya, where lower environmental standards and working conditions make processing e-waste more profitable.
California was the first state in the U.S. to implement legislation that makes it illegal to throw specific covered electronics in with municipal solid waste. The California Electronic Waste Recycling Act placed a fee on covered electronics sold in California that helped create an infrustructre. California went from only a handful of recyclers to over 60 within the state and over 600 collection sites that can be found on the states implemented website [www.erecycle.org].
Some activists define "Electronic waste" to include all secondary computers, entertainment devices electronics, mobile phones and other items, whether they have been sold, donated, or discarded by their original owner. This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling or disposal. Others define the reusable (working and repairable electronics) and secondary scrap (copper, steel, plastic, etc.) to be "commodities", and reserve the use of the term "waste" for residue or material which was represented as working or repairable but which was discarded by the buyer.
Debate continues over the distinction between "commodity" and "waste" electronics definitions. Some exporters may deliberately leave obsolete or non-working equipment mixed in loads of working equipment (through ignorance, or to avoid more costly treatment processes for 'bad' equipment). On the other hand, some importing countries specifically seek to exclude working or repairable equipment in order to protect domestic manufacturing markets. "White box" computers ('off-brand' or 'no name' computers) are often assembled by smaller scale manufacturers utilizing refurbished components. These 'white box' sales accounted for approximately 45% of all computer sales worldwide by 2004, and are considered a threat to some large manufacturers, who therefore seek to classify used computers as 'waste'.
While a protectionist may broaden the definition of "waste" electronics, the high value of working and reusable laptops, computers, and components (e.g. RAM), can help pay the cost of transportation for a large number of worthless "commodities". Broken monitors, obsolete circuit boards, short circuited transistors, and other junk are difficult to spot in a containerload of used electronics.
Until such time as equipment no longer contains such hazardous substances, the disposal and recycling operations must be undertaken with great care to avoid damaging pollution and workplace hazards, and exports need to be monitored to avoid "toxics along for the ride".
If treated properly, electronic waste is a valuable source for secondary raw materials. However, if not treated properly, it is a major source of toxins and carcinogens. Rapid technology change, low initial cost and planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast growing problem around the globe. 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. Electronic waste represents 2 percent of America's trash in landfills, but it equals 70 percent of overall toxic waste.
Due to higher reuse and repair capability, as well as lower environmental standards and working conditions, markets for used electronics have expanded in China, India, Kenya, and elsewhere. Generally, the cost of transport is covered by legitimate reuse and repair value. However, there is a disincentive to screen out electronic waste, which requires additional staff as well as environmental liability in the (developed) generator country. Demand is also strong where there is copper and aluminum and plastic smelting. Guiyu in the Shantou region of China, and Delhi and Bangalore in India, all have electronic waste processing areas. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal are causing environmental and health problems, including occupational safety and health effects among those directly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste. Trade in electronic waste is controlled by the Basel Convention. However, the Basel Convention specifically exempts repair and refurbishment of used electronics in Annex IX.
Electronic waste is of concern largely due to the toxicity and carcinogenicity of some of the substances if processed improperly. Toxic substances in electronic waste may include lead, mercury and cadmium. Carcinogenic substances in electronic waste may include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight, much of which is in the lead glass of the CRT. Capacitors, transformers, PVC insulated wires, PVC coated components that were manufactured before 1977 often contain dangerous amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls. Up to thirty-eight separate chemical elements are incorporated into electronic waste items. The unsustainability of discarding electronics and computer technology is another reason for the need to recycle – or perhaps more practically, reuse – electronic waste.
Electronic waste processing systems have matured in recent years following increased regulatory, public, and commercial scrutiny, and a commensurate increase in entrepreneurial interest. Part of this evolution has involved greater diversion of electronic waste from energy intensive, down-cycling processes (eg. conventional recycling) where equipment is reverted to a raw material form. This diversion is achieved through reuse and refurbishing. The environmental and social benefits of reuse are several: diminished demand for new products and their commensurate requirement for virgin raw materials (with their own environmental externalities not factored into the cost of the raw materials) and larger quantities of pure water and electricity for associated manufacturing, less packaging per unit, availability of technology to wider swaths of society due to greater affordability of products, and diminished use of landfills.
Challenges remain, when materials cannot or will not be reused, conventional recycling or disposal via landfill often follow. Standards for both approaches vary widely by jurisdiction, whether in developed or developing countries. The complexity of the various items to be disposed of, cost of environmentally sound recycling systems, and the need for concerned and concerted action to collect and systematically process equipment are the resources most lacked -- though this is changing. Many of the plastics used in electronic equipment contain flame retardants. These are generally halogens added to the plastic resin, making the plastics difficult to recycle.
In June 2008, a container of illegal electronic waste, destined from Port of Oakland in the US to Sanshui District in mainland China, was intercepted in Hong Kong by Greenpeace. E-waste is imported as a second-hand goods to Ghana.