What Is E-Waste? E-Waste Explained By An Expert

If you’re like most people, you use electronics for at least a few hours each day. In fact, I’m going to take a strongly educated guess that you’re using one right now. If you’re not, well, then I’m not sure how you’re reading this article.
All of the electronics we use each day are eventually going to be replaced, may it be because they are broken or simply because we want to get a new one. When we throw all of our old electrics away a huge amount of waste is generated, known as e-waste or electronic waste. 


The worlds fastest growing waste stream is e-waste [1]. In 2019, the world generated over 53 million tons of e-waste [2]. To put this into perspective, the titanic weighed only 52,000 tons. This means the world generates over 1000 times the weight of the titanic in e-waste each year. This is about 1.6 tons or over 3000 pounds of e-waste each second. 

Of the 53 million tons generated each year, only about 17% (or 170 titanic’s worth of e waste) gets recycled, while the other 83% (or 830 titanic’s of smartphones, refrigerators, dishwashers, laptops, coffee makers, tv’s, and so on) ends up in landfills, incinerators, and elsewhere [2]


Like most waste streams, e-waste is not sustainable. There are two main concerns with e-waste. The first is that e-waste has a negative impact on human and environmental health. The other is the impact on resource availability.

Now you might be wondering, how is it that my old smartphone or laptop causes environmental damage? I mean I do use it everyday and even live with it and I’m fine, so why does disposing it cause such big issues?

Hazardous Metals

Electronics contain more than 1000 different substances, many of which are toxic. Among the many different substances are dozens of metals, such as copper used for wire, aluminum for tubing in refrigerators, iron for motors, lithium in batteries, and many others such Zinc, Nickel, and Cobalt even gold can be found on circuit boards and silver can be found in switches for example in a microwave. 

When our electronics become e-waste, they are often sent to incinerators, where they are incinerated. The fire created from burning all of this material can be used to generate electricity and all waste put into the incinerator is reduced to ash, making it easier to dispose of. As e-waste and all of the metals and other substances are incinerated, highly hazardous pollutants are released into the atmosphere where they can significantly impact the health of the people living in the area. 

Most e-waste is sent to landfills, however e-waste also posses an issue in landfills because the toxic materials and metals can breakdown and eventually make their way into the ground, and nearby water and soil [3]

Even recycling may not be the best option in all cases to handle e-waste. This is because recycling must be done properly and in many countries around the world, they don’t have the proper tools or training to recycle e-waste and resort to methods like burning or using chemicals to try and get the recyclable materials out of the electronic waste. This puts e-waste workers directly at risk [3]

So, no matter the disposal path, if e-waste is not handled properly, it can negatively impact the local environment, including the surrounding, people, air, water, and soil.

How It Impacts You

So how does this impact you if you don’t live near a e-waste disposal site and don’t work in an e-waste disposal site? A moment a go I mentioned how e-waste can get into the local environment. There is evidence that suggests that e-waste pollutants may make their way into agricultural and other products that are exported around the world [4]. So even though you may not live near an e-waste disposal site, you could be consuming products that come from areas near e-waste disposal sites that have been impacted by e-waste pollution.

In addition, all of this wasted material was extracted, transported, processed, manufactured and shipped all of the world, which means greenhouse gases were generated which contribute to climate change.

The Economic Cost Of E-Waste

The other major concern with the mounting e-waste issue is just how much of our metal resources are being wasted and buried in landfills and burned up in incinerated each year. It’s estimated that we throw away $62.5 billion annually [3] of metals within e-waste, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries, a measure of all the goods and services produced by a country.

In fact, its estimated 1,808,000 tons of copper is thrown away each year. This is enough copper for nearly 23 million electric cars each year. For reference, Tesla sold about 1 million electric cars in 2021 [5] and worldwide there were about 6.5 million electric cars sold [6]. So there is more than enough copper in our e-waste to meet our copper needs in creating electric vehicles for many years. In a world where there is growing concern we won’t be able to find enough metals to meet our needs, e-waste could be a promising source. 

And while the human, environmental, and economic impact of these lost metals is high, very little is actually recovered and recycled each year.

Sources of E-waste

Where is all of this e-waste coming from? According to certain studies, the vast majority of e-waste is generated from households instead of businesses [7]. So we everyday people and not businesses or other commercial locations are generating this waste. 

According to other studies [8], at least half or more of the e- waste generate in the homes of most countries is the result of throwing away small and large appliances. Small appliances are electronics such as vacuums, microwaves, toasters, and cameras, while large appliances are things like washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashing machines, and electric stoves, which tend to weigh more than small appliances. 

A dishwasher weighs significantly more than a toaster, in fact it weighs around 20  times more. Interestingly, large appliances always don’t produce 20 times more e-waste. In other words, large appliance make up a large portion of e-waste because they are so heavy, and even though they are much heavier than small appliances, we throw away so many small appliances that small appliances still make a big portion of e-waste.

The remaining e-waste falls into 4 main categories. Cooling and freezing equipment, such as refrigerators and air conditioners. Screens and monitors, for example televisions, monitors, laptops, and tablets. Lamps. Last, Small IT and Telecommunication equipment, for example mobile phones, GPS devices, personal computers, printers, and telephones [8]Solar panels are usually included in their own category and don’t make up a significant waste stream just yet, likely because their use has only increased in more recent years, and they can last for several decades

How To Improve The Issue

So what can be done to improve the issue? Well creating laws and policies is one suggestion, and in certain countries around the world e-waste laws have improved the e-waste issue. However, right now over 70% of the worlds population already has some policy on e-waste, which likely means policy is not effective enough on its own [9].

In Europe, for example where there is already legally binding e-waste policy, e-waste recycling ranges from 12% in Malta to Estonia 82% and only two countries of all the European countries have met the legally binding e-waste recycling goals [10]And in the US, Only about 10% of e-waste is recycled in the US [11]. Waiting for effective, legally binding policies to be created could take years.

Since most e-waste is produced by homes, this gives us the power to take action against e-waste ourselves.

The Waste Hierarchy

The waste hierarchy is a simple tool we can use to lower and better handle waste from any waste stream, not just e-waste. The waste hierarchy looks a bit like an upside food pyramid. The idea is that you start at the method at the top of the pyramid and think of ways to reduce or better handle waste according to that method. The goal is to start with the most effective and impactful means of handling waste, rather than simply what is easy. 

According to the waste hierarchy, the first step in reducing any type of waste is reduction.  This is because reducing the amount of waste, in this case e-waste, from the beginning means that e-waste is never generated, or at least generated in smaller quantities. With less waste to begin with, the other methods become easier or maybe not even needed at all. This means steps like recycling, which can be energy intensive, are never needed. We can reduce the amount of e-waste produced by purchasing less products. We can also purchase better products that are designed and built to last longer so we don’t need to replace our electronics as often [12]. As possible, I’ll keep the bottom of this article updated with product recommendations that are built to last longer. If we want to be able to buy better products, we have to show product developers we are interested in such products, so check that out as needed.

Last, whatever can not be reduced, reused, or repaired, it should be recycled. Recycling should be the last strategy used as of handling e-waste, but it’s often the only strategy used, if any strategy is used at all.


[1] E-Waste Statistics – Statista 
[2] https://ewastemonitor.info/
[3] https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/08/27/growing-e-waste-problem/
[4] – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019318306
[5] https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a38657616/tesla-million-evs-worldwide-2021/
[6] https://www.iea.org/news/global-electric-car-sales-have-continued-their-strong-growth-in-2022-after-breaking-records-last-year
[7] http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_waselee
[8] http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/submitViewTableAction.do
[9] Source Not Available
[10] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20201208STO93325/e-waste-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures-infographic
[11] https://www.tonerbuzz.com/blog/e-waste-facts-statistics/
[12] https://time.com/5594380/world-electronic-waste-problem/

2 thoughts on “What Is E-Waste? E-Waste Explained By An Expert”

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