E-Waste: What’s in this Stuff?

by Trey Granger on October 9th, 2007

Just the phrase “e-waste” makes it sound like your favorite electronics can do a lot of damage if disposed of improperly. But just what exactly is so toxic about these devices that they account for 70 percent of the overall toxic waste that you currently find in landfills? In addition to valuable metals like aluminum, electronics often contain hazardous materials like lead and mercury. When placed in a landfill, these materials (even in small doses) can contaminate soil as well as drinking water. But let’s take it a step further and see what (and how much) toxic material is in your average electronic device.


Back before there were plasma screen and liquid crystal display (LCD) tubes, we were all watching our Super Bowls and sitcoms on cathode ray tubes (CRT). The CRT model provided room for all your switches and wires in a box behind the screen, but it also stored a lot of lead.

According to Electronic Recyclers, a provider of e-waste recycling, approximately 20 percent of CRTs are comprised of lead, equivalent to between four and eight pounds per unit.

Combine this with the fact that the FCC is going to require all televisions to run a digital signal by February 19, 2009, and we could be looking at a lot of lead headed for landfills. Even the smallest amounts of lead can be a serious issue, and we’re talking about eight pounds per unit.

Cellular Phones

While your trusty cellular phone may not contain as much toxic material as larger electronic devices, its shelf life is only about a year and a half for the average consumer. With hip new products like the iPhone coming out all the time, it’s estimated there are over 500 million used cell phones ready for disposal.

Cell phone coatings are often made of lead, meaning that if these 500 million cell phones are disposed of in landfills it will result in 312,000 pounds of lead released. But possibly the most hazardous component of the cellular phone is the battery. Cell phone batteries were originally composed of nickel and cadmium (Ni-Cd batteries). Cadmium is linked as a human carcinogen that causes lung and liver damage. Alternatives contain the potentially explosive lithium, or the previously stated toxic material lead.

With toxic elements like lead and mercury found in each mobile unit, it is important to keep cell phones out of landfills and incinerators. There are many resources available to help you either recycle your old cell phone or reuse it through donation programs set up nationwide.



We’ve already discussed the presence of lead in CRT computer monitors, but there are other toxic elements in play when you’re recycling that PC or Mac. Many laptops have a small fluorescent lamp in the screen that contains mercury, a toxic material when inhaled or digested.

Mercury is also contained in computer circuit boards, which also include lead and cadmium. Circuit boards can also feature batteries made of mercury, as well as mercury switches.

In just 2005, almost two million tons of e-waste ended up in landfills. While toxic materials comprise only a small amount of this volume, it doesn’t take much lead or mercury to contaminate an area’s soil or water supply. Keep this in mind when you’re figuring out what to do with those old electronic devices.


Computers & The Environment

by Earth 911 Staff on April 12th, 2007

Rethink InitiativeIn 2002, approximately 41 million computers will become outdated; and current analysis by the National Safety Council estimates that 63 million computers will become obsolete in 2005. It is estimated that  by 2007, these stored computers will amount to about 500 million computers needing to be disposed. As new technologies enter the market approximately every two years, e-waste is a mounting concern.

There are different options available for computers besides just throwing them away (or storing them). Many computers are built in a way that allows them to be repaired or upgraded, which means they can be reused. With little effort, these computers can be as good as the PCs currently on the market. Many programs accept computer donations (which are generally tax deductible), whereby the computers are refurbished and sent to local schools or organizations in need.

The other viable option is recycling. Computers are made with a variety of elements, like plastics, glass, steel, gold, lead, mercury, cadmium and fire retardants that can be recaptured through recycling and used again. If thrown away, these computers can release toxins to the environment, potentially polluting the groundwater we drink and the air that we breathe. Recycling the resources in computers also eliminates the need to obtain these elements from nature, decreasing production impact on the environment. By eliminating e-waste, the environment is protected, resources are saved, organizations in need benefit and you make a difference in the quality of your local environment.


Fewer Than One in Four Americans Recycle Their Technology Waste

by Earth 911 on November 13th, 2007

 Only 23 percent of Americans recycle their old or unused electronic items, most just either throw them in the trash or don’t dispose of them at all.  “The recycling of electronic products at their end of life fuels economic activity, creates jobs and diverts hazardous materials from landfills,” said Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. “Every day in the U.S., an estimated 133,000 computers are discarded and not recycled or reused, which causes mounting trash and toxicity in landfills."  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), American consumers generate nearly two million tons of used electronics each year, which contain hazardous materials such as mercury, cadmium, lead and brominated flame retardants. 

“Between 2000 and 2007, an estimated 500 million computers became obsolete in the U.S.,” said Mark Buckley, vice president of environmental affairs at Staples. “Providing options for technology recycling is an important issue".


E- waste: A Recyclable Resource

by Justin K. Holcombe on October 8th, 2007

 Each day, various types of consumer electronics are constantly being upgraded or completely scrapped in favor of technological advancements. In the process, scores of old VCRs, walkman cassette decks and bulky video cameras become what is known as “e-waste” or electronic waste. Americans have amassed an enormous amount of electronic devices—an estimated three billion in total. Given the large amount of potential products involved, e-waste includes a broad range of electronic devices. Unfortunately, improper disposal of e-waste creates a significant burden on landfills because toxic substances can leach into the soil and groundwater. Absent recycling, the problem could escalate.

 In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 44 million computers and televisions found their way to landfills. This amount is likely to increase because E-waste is growing at three times the rate of other municipal waste. Although e-waste accounts for only one to four percent of municipal waste, it may be responsible for as much as 70 percent of the heavy metals in landfills, including 40 percent of all lead.   E-waste should not be considered waste. It is a resource. Useful materials such as glass, copper, aluminum, plastic and other components can often be extracted and reused. Some manufacturers have even referred to e-waste as a valuable source of materials.

With an increasing array of environmentally-friendly options now available, people should consider recycling or donating their old electronic devices. With either choice, we can reduce the amount of e-waste and actually put our old items to good use.


Proper Disposal and Recycling of E-Waste

by Justin K. Holcombe on October 10th, 2007

Fortunately, there are a number of options available to those who want to recycle their old electronic items. To address the increasing amount of e-waste, many state and local governments, electronics manufacturers, and non-profit organizations have created comprehensive recycling programs. Several states, including California, Maine, Maryland, Texas and Washington, have even enacted laws requiring the collection of certain electronics.

E-waste recycling options vary across the country. So, the first step to determine what options are available in your area is to review information about your local recycling program. This information is available on www.Earth911.org and the following  websites:

In addition to “traditional” recycling programs, some electronics manufacturers and retailers also offer e-waste recycling.

Manufacturer Specific Programs

Retailer Programs

Cell Phone Recycling/Donation



E-Waste: The Final Frontier

So you’ve just returned from an electronic waste recycling event after unloading your old computers, cell phones and televisions. But what happens next to ensure that as little of these products gets placed in a landfill as possible?

Electronic devices are constructed with lots of different materials, so recycling of e-waste is a more complex process than recycling aluminum, paper, or motor oil

Recycling E-Waste

To understand the e-waste recycling process, one must first realize that e-waste recyclers (and in general, all recyclers) are interested in both saving these devices from landfills as well as getting the most value out of these materials. Electronics such as computers and televisions are made with some valuable metals, including copper and gold, which can be sold and then reused in alternative capacities.  From an environmental standpoint, the fact that these items are being reused is far more important than the fact that recyclers are making money off of it. E-waste recyclers are also recycling and reusing materials that aren’t nearly as valuable.

“A full 99 percent of all materials that go through our doors are recycled—meaning that they go into reuse of some sort,” says John Shegerian, Chairman & CEO of Electronic Recyclers Inc., the largest e-waste recycler in California. “The vast majority of these materials are used for new electronic items because some of the material, the plastic, for example, is the right grade for electronic devices to begin with.”

Putting the Waste in E-Waste

If 99 percent of the material is recycled, that still leaves a small percentage that will end up in the landfill because it has no reuse value. So what materials fall into this category?

“For us, that one percent is wood, such as the wood paneling on some of the older models of television sets – which has no value to us,” says Shegerian. “That’s why we are able to say that 99 percent of the e-waste we get is recyclable, because wood makes up only a fraction of one percent.”

This is certainly not an excuse for those with wood paneled TVs to not recycle, as one percent waste is still much better than 100 percent. The good news is that many of the televisions in circulation these days don’t have wood paneling on the front. If you check out Panasonic’s page on the components of a television, wood paneling isn’t even listed.

Hazardous Waste Disposal

The other big issue regarding e-waste recycling is the end result for its hazardous materials, including lead and mercury. While e-waste only accounts for two percent of America’s garbage in landfills, it accounts for 70 percent of the toxic garbage.

For e-waste recyclers, removing the toxic materials is just as important as removing the most valuable materials like gold and copper. To remove the lead you’ll find in computer monitor glass, the glass will be placed in a furnace where the lead can be taken out. Circuit boards are sent to refineries so the mercury can be removed professionally.