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How E-waste Works


E-waste Regulations
Women in Guiyu, China, sort wire that has been torn from discarded computers. The wires are sorted during the day and burned at night, releasing carcinogenic hydrocarbons and dioxins near areas where many families live.
Women in Guiyu, China, sort wire that has been torn from discarded computers. The wires are sorted during the day and burned at night, releasing carcinogenic hydrocarbons and dioxins near areas where many families live.
Photo courtesy Basel Action Network 2001

If you don't want to damage the environment, are you supposed to transform your storage closet into an electronics graveyard? Never fear, the slow but steady mechanisms of social consciousness have been grinding at this one for a while now, and movement is starting to happen. Input about e-waste regulations are coming from a number of fronts, including grassroots organizations, governing bodies and industrial leaders.

Many organizations have recognized the potential for e-waste dangers for years. However, the issue recently came to the forefront of media in 2002, when Basel Action Network's (BAN) documentary "Exporting Harm" was released. BAN works to reduce the harmful effects of exporting e-waste and promotes sustainable solutions to worldwide waste issues. So-called recyclers and scrap brokers were buying e-waste from developed regions throughout the world and dumping it in developing nations. In some parts of these countries, people were dismantling electronics on street corners, instead of in recycling facilities.

Picture something like this: Mountains of discarded TVs and computer monitors tower above the rutted streets of a low-income urban community. In order to make a living, hundreds of people work in the shadow of this heap of e-waste. Some people tend fires which burn and remove the plastic from copper wires, putting out billows of noxious smoke. Other workers swirl circuit boards in tubs of nitric and hydrochloric acid to release the solder and precious metals -- at the same time releasing gas that stings their eyes. Plastic chips, obtained from smashing devices like keyboards and computer casings, are broken into tiny pieces and carefully sorted before they too are burned and melted together into a sellable chunk. And at the end of the day, all the byproducts that have no further useful purposes, like charred circuit boards and used acid compounds, usually are dumped in open fields and rivers or are burned.

These are a few examples of the recycling processes that still occur on a daily basis in some developing regions. But, as mentioned earlier, many countries are passing new laws to try to halt the process and fix the problem.

For example, the European Union has a series of directives and regulations aimed to increase the recovery, reuse and recycling of e-waste and put the burden of recycling on the manufacturer. The hope is that this will decrease e-waste and e-waste exports, and encourage manufacturers to create new, greener products. Ideally, these products would be safer and easier to upgrade, fix and recycle. The EU has also increased the regulations on different substances common in e-waste, limited the use of these substances in member countries and banned the exportation of hazardous waste.

Some critics say the EU directives aren't limited enough, while other critics say they are too limiting. Still others criticize and fault U.S. policymakers, who haven't passed any substantial legislation to tackle the issue of e-waste. A handful of U.S. states have enacted their own e-waste legislation and many more are now addressing the issue. Countries like Japan and China are also jumping on the bandwagon. The Chinese laws regarding e-waste are similar to the ones in the EU, and they focus on banning the import of e-waste (although illegal smuggling still occurs). Nations targeted for e-waste shipments, like India, have some e-waste regulations in place, but advocates are pushing for an increase.

So starting to feel a little uneasy about your current role in all this? Wondering what can you do to help ease the burden of e-waste? Read the next page to find out.


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