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E-waste: An assessment of global production and environmental impacts

TitleE-waste: An assessment of global production and environmental impacts
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsRobinson BH
Journal TitleScience of The Total Environment
ISBN Number0048-9697
Keywordse-waste, Electronic waste, recycling, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, Waste management
AbstractE-waste comprises discarded electronic appliances, of which computers and mobile telephones are disproportionately abundant because of their short lifespan. The current global production of E-waste is estimated to be 20-25 million tonnes per year, with most E-waste being produced in Europe, the United States and Australasia. China, Eastern Europe and Latin America will become major E-waste producers in the next ten years. Miniaturisation and the development of more efficient cloud computing networks, where computing services are delivered over the internet from remote locations, may offset the increase in E-waste production from global economic growth and the development of pervasive new technologies. E-waste contains valuable metals (Cu, platinum group) as well as potential environmental contaminants, especially Pb, Sb, Hg, Cd, Ni, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Burning E-waste may generate dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs), and hydrogen chloride. The chemical composition of E-waste changes with the development of new technologies and pressure from environmental organisations on electronics companies to find alternatives to environmentally damaging materials. Most E-waste is disposed in landfills. Effective reprocessing technology, which recovers the valuable materials with minimal environmental impact, is expensive. Consequently, although illegal under the Basel Convention, rich countries export an unknown quantity of E-waste to poor countries, where recycling techniques include burning and dissolution in strong acids with few measures to protect human health and the environment. Such reprocessing initially results in extreme localised contamination followed by migration of the contaminants into receiving waters and food chains. E-waste workers suffer negative health effects through skin contact and inhalation, while the wider community are exposed to the contaminants through smoke, dust, drinking water and food. There is evidence that E-waste associated contaminants may be present in some agricultural or manufactured products for export.
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