The Environmental Cost of E-Waste : Killing Our Planet Slowly

The United Nations Environment Programme points out rightly in its report on e-waste (UNEP:2009) that  China does not have the proper technology and skills to take part in proper e-waste recycling. Instead, it is “dominated by the informal sector. Low technologies are applied by low skilled workers, resulting in high health and environmental risk, including open-sky incineration and wet chemical leaching of metals”.

However, the environmental damage produced by every single chemical is not well known yet, but studies suppose that if these chemicals harm human beings, they will consequently harm the environment. As electronic waste is burnt or dissembled with acid, the toxic chemicals flow into the air, the water, and the soil. However, each of these brings the contamination further, as for instance the soil will contaminate the food that is grown, and the person eating the fruit will be exposed to health hazards. Thus, the issue of environmental cost and human cost cannot be separated.

As Robinson claims in his study on e-waste (Robinson:2009), “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. »”

Of course, the contamination of the environment is closely linked with the health hazards human beings are affected from in the context of e-waste. Indeed, looking at the table below where scientific studies show the difference in metal amount extracted from the Liangjiang River outside Guiyu and the amount recommended by health organizations, one can see an enormous discrepancy. Indeed, the example of lead is straightforward: whereas the World Health Guidelines recommend 0.01 mg/L, the second sample from the river contains 24 mg/L. The consequence of this is not only the pollution of water but the inevitable contamination of people living around the river too. Indeed, even if it is not drunk, vegetation or food will grow from that water’s support and plates will be washed in that water for instance.

That is for the general issue. When considering Apple, Greenpeace sent the 1st generation of iphone to the University of Exeter and the results tested positive for bromine and PVC (polyvinyl chloride). The lead and the chromium were found in legal amounts under the European Union Restriction on Hazardous Substances. However, the presence of polyvinyl chloride became a strong problem since, when burnt it “can contribute to the formation of highly toxic and persistent chlorinated dioxins. In landfills, some of the chemical additives contained in PVC may leach out, adding to the overall contaminant burden of landfill leachate”(Greenpeace:2010). Similarly, the use of bromine was attacked by Greenpeace due to the “chemical structures of BFRs [that] can be partially or completely destroyed, creating free reactive forms of bromine which can recombine with other elements in the waste gases to form other highly toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative by-products, including brominated dioxins” (Greenpeace:2010) when burnt as in recycling. Apple eliminated these in its other generations of iphones.


-Greenpeace (2010), Why BFRs and PVC Should be Phased out of Electronic Devices, 26 February 2010, found at ,accessed 07/04/2011

-Greenpeace (2007), Missed Call: Iphone’s Hazardous Chemicals, October 2007, found at, accessed on 07/04/2011

-Robinson (2009), “E-waste: an assessment of global production and environmental impacts” in The Science of the Total Environment, 20 December 2009, found at, accessed on 05/04/2011

-The Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (February 2002),”Annex III-Guiyu Sample Results and Water Quality Comparison” in Exporting Harm, the High tech Trashing of Asia found at , p.47, accessed on 05/04/2011

– UNEP (July 2009), Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources, found at, accessed on 05/04/2011, p.92


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