Electronic waste

Other Names:
Scrap computers
Environmental hazards from obsolete computers
Hazardous E-wastes

Electronic waste comprises everything from old computers, photocopiers and stereos to telephones, cables and light bulbs.


In Germany in 1992, the annual volume of electronic rubbish amounts to 800,000 metric tonnes. There is a proposed new law under which computer manufacturers will be obliged to take back old machines and dispose of them in an environmentally friendly way. IBM has been scrapping old machines for two years in Germany, but it charges customers for the service. 6 million items of electronic equipment will have been disposed of in the UK by 1995, including 120,000 photocopiers, 800,000 personal computers, 1.3 million televisions, and two million microwaves.

In the USA, more than 10 million computers are being discarded each year. If the pace continues, some 150 million computer carcasses will reside in landfills by the year 2005. The disposal costs alone could be $1 billion, ignoring the landfill space required (1 hectare of land dug to a depth of over 2 kilometres). However, 50-80% of US electronics waste is exported to China, Pakistan and India. Some of these E-wastes are processed under conditions that are detrimental to both human health and the environment; eg open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards, and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead laden cathode-ray tubes.

Cell phones, though small, are becoming a waste and pollution problem in the industrialized world due to planned obsolescence. The average cell-phone ownership period is about 18 months. Waste experts are expecting millions to enter the waste stream in the coming decades. Cell phones are full of "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals" or PBTs, which can accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and do all sorts of exciting damage to organs, nerves, and cells. Cell phones contain lead, cadmium, nickel and brominated fire retardants; once pulverized in the landfill these can contaminate air and groundwater.

India imports and produces large quantities of electronics scrap. None gets landfilled; the small recyclers release their toxic effluents from acid washes into the storm drains.

Broader Problems:
Hazardous wastes
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 15: Life on Land
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST