UW Electrical & Computer Engineering

WEEE Around the World


WEEE (E-waste) Around the World

Many developing nations throughout the world lack regulations for disposing and recycling of electronic waste that are sufficient to protect workers, public health, and ecosystems surrounding these recycling facilities. Repair and reuse are popular, and large informal recycling often occurs in developing countries; but in both developed and developing nations, landfilling of e-waste is a practice that leads to public health and environmental issues. Electronic and electrical devices account for a growing percentage of the global waste stream as consumption of new devices increases yearly. Select a country or region of the world below to learn more about recycling e-waste in that country:


China  |  India  |  Ghana  |  Nigeria  |  USA  |  EU



Sources and Volume

Guiyu-ewasteIn 2014, over 40 million tonnes of electronic waste were generated around the world, up to 70% of which was discarded in China.  China is the world’s largest importer of electronic goods, and the world’s largest importer of WEEE (e-waste). While importing e-waste was formally banned in 2000, China remains the largest e-waste dumping site in the world, receiving e-waste from the U.S., Europe, South Korea, and Japan.  Despite the ban, e-waste still arrives in China though illegal means, mixed shipments, and imports through neighboring areas such as Hong Kong where the mainland China ban on e-waste imports does not apply. Hong Kong borders Guangdong Province, where Guiyu -China’s largest recycling center – is located. Over 700,000 people are employed in the WEEE (e-waste) industry in China, 98% of whom worked in the informal recycling sector, where recycling practices are not sufficiently regulated to protect workers and environment.

Collection and Recycling

China does not have a municipal e-waste collection network system in place, but has some company-sponsored takeback programs. Most of these are in urban areas, and as rural areas experience increased economic prosperity, means to recycle e-waste in non-urban areas will need to be addressed. Informal recycling of e-waste is prevalent in China, particularly in coastal regions. Any informal e-waste recyclers not registered with the state are illegal. The informal recycling sector has developed along with improving economics and standards of living in the country, and in the 1990s, imported e-waste began to enter China as a source for cheap second-hand goods and secondary resources. The most common outputs of informal recycling are second-hand components, refurbished appliances, and materials. Informal collectors in China are often rural migrant workers who travel door-to-door in urban areas to collect e-waste and then take it to recyclers.


Anyone in China can be an e-waste collector.  However, those who are authorized collectors such as retailers, chain stores, and waste collection companies can participate in rebate programs when the government sponsors them. A 2009-2011 rebate program for home appliances and a national e-waste legislation enacted in 2011 temporarily increased the growth of the formal sector, but without rebate programs, the formal sector is less competitive than the informal sector.  Formal recycling in China must be licensed by the provincial Environmental Protection Bureau. As of May 2012, 53 e-waste treatment enterprises in 15 provinces had this license. Most Chinese consumers do not willingly dispose of WEEE without financial compensation: many think that such goods are still worth money, further encouraging use of informal recycling where e-waste items are paid for up front.


China has two main e-waste recycling towns which have been studied extensively – Guiyu and Taizhou. These towns typify Chinese e-waste recycling. In Guiyu, where e-waste recycling has occurred since the late 1980s, 80% of families are involved in e-waste recycling. Most of the laborers are rural migrants who take jobs of dismantling and processing e-waste for an average wage equivalent to 1.5 USD per day. Most of these workers are women and children. A study of Chinese e-waste workers found they had significantly higher levels of PBDEs, lead, and other toxins in their bodies, leading to adverse health effects and interference with thyroid and other hormone systems.


More Information:

CNN – China: The electronic wastebasket of the world



Sources and Volume

India is the second largest e-waste generator in Asia, and more than 90 percent of the domestically generated e-waste ends up in the informal recycling sector.  Almost 70% of e-waste generated domestically in India is from the government, public and private industrial sectors, while individual households account for only 15% of the total.


70% of the e-waste that is processed at recycling units in New Delhi are exported or dumped by developed countries. Delhi is the leading processing center of e-waste in the country: about 25,000 workers illegally refurbish up to 20,000 tonnes of e-waste annually. India generates about 3.5 million tonnes of e-waste every year, and imports another 50,000 tonnes from countries including the US, Canada, EU, Australia, and countries in the Middle East. A 2008 law bans import of hazardous waste, including e-waste, for disposal into India. However, import of waste is permitted for reuse, recycling, and reprocessing. E-waste still gets into the country through this and other significant loopholes such as policies that allow donation imports and porous ports with lack of enforcement capabilities.


Collection and Recycling

India’s informal recycling flourishes in Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, and New Delhi. An estimated 25,000 workers are employed at unregulated e-waste scrap yards in Delhi alone. India has a lucrative refurbishing market fueled by cheap migrant labor. Informal recycling centers are usually located in urban slums. Many workers work out of their homes, exposing themselves and their families to toxins. Child labor is often used in this sector.  A large source of domestic e-waste supplied to these recycling centers is collected by waste pickers who buy scrap electronics from households. Most imported e-waste goes to the informal recycling sector, and waste that is imported from developed countries that processors choose not to refurbish or dismantle often gets dumped into rivers.


In 2009, formal recyclers came together to form an association, but they face stiff competition from the informal sector and capture only about 10% of the total share of the e-waste market. The formal sector lacks sufficient collection and disposal systems and appropriate technologies, making it difficult for households to transfer WEEE to them.  Formal recyclers also have licenses to import e-waste from abroad.  Most WEEE items from households are refurbished and then resold – very few obsolete electronics actually end up in e-waste recycling and processing streams.


More Information:

Pulitzer Center – India: The Rising Tide of E-Waste



Sources and Volume

E12830882395_9fdc926fa4_hlectronic and electrical goods in Ghana are imported mainly from Europe, North America, and Asia. Electronics imports into Ghana in 2009 were approximately 215,000 tons, with 30% being new products and 70% second hand or used goods. Many of the used items imported are labelled donations. The second-hand market in Ghana is large: most obsolete items go to repair stores instead of to municipal waste. Out of all the electronics in Ghana that were at the end of their usable life in 2009 , 57% went to repair, 34% to recycling, 8% to storage, and only 1% was collected in municipal waste.


Collection and Recycling

Ghana has no current regulations for recycling and disposal of e-waste and does not enforce air water or soil quality standards. The Agbogbloshie market in Accra is the largest center for e-waste recycling and disposal in Ghana. Small recyclers work out of sheds and in the open. Soils near the market are covered in litter and industrial oils. Informal settlements next to the site have little electricity and running water. Most work done is by manual disassembly and burning to recover wire and coils, mostly by young adults (between 21-30 yrs) with no or little protective equipment. Pollution occurs through soil, air, and water contamination. Air pollution from burning e-waste affects not only those living near it, but also in the surrounding areas. Waste obstructs sewer systems and litter covers the ground. Children frequently come into contact with contaminated soils -a main source of toxic chemical poisoning.


More Information:

PBS Frontline – Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground

National Geographic Magazine – High-Tech Trash



Sources and Volume

In 2010, an estimated 360,000 tonnes of e-waste were informally collected and processed in Nigeria, of which 100,000 came from illegal imports and 160,000 from private households. Over 100,000 tonnes were alos collected through communal collection via household waste. Most electronics, new and used, arrives through the Lagos Seaport. Most of the used electronics arrives from Europe, but some also arrives from the U.S., China, Japan, Morocco, Canada, and Taiwan under the guise of donations. At least 100,000 tonnes of e-waste was entering the country illegally in 2010.


Collection and Recycling

There are no WEEE recycling facilities in Nigeria. Reuse activities usually revolve around refurbishing mobile phones, but batteries and accessories generate a large contribution to landfills. Most crude metal dismantling is performed in Lagos, and from there is often exported to China or other Asian countries.


The informal sector is the major collector of e-waste, with waste pickers collecting from households or picking through dumps. This sector is dominated by young people, who then sell their scrap to others for recycling or repair. “Formal” recycling in the country involves pickers who scavenge through municipal dumps to remove items that still have value. About 20% of disposed items are refurbished, reused or dismantled in this way. Municipal solid waste facilities collect and burn all other waste before disposal into landfills. Most household waste ends up in open dumpsites and landfills after burning, leading to leaching of chemicals into soil and groundwater.


United States of America

Sources and Volume

In the U.S. in 2010, 384 million units of consumer electronics reached the end of their life and were disposed. The United States generated over 3.4 million tons of e-waste in 2012; 29% of this was recycled, while the remaining amount went to incinerators or landfills. Mobile devices were the most-disposed item, but together the 141 million units at the end of their life in 2009 made up less than one percent of the total weight of all discarded items.


Collection and Recycling

A number of manufacturers and retailers participate in takeback programs. Legislation in 25 states exists to cover the disposal and collection of electronic waste: most of this legislation follows two different models. The first model – enacted by 24 states and Washington D.C. – encourages extended producer responsibility, where the manufacturer pays to collect and recycle their products. What types of products are covered under this law varies between states. The second type of program is the advanced recycling fee model, where consumers pay retailers a fee at the time of purchase which is deposited into a statewide recycling fund.


In 2011, a taskforce released the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which provides a framework to encourage electronics stewardship in the U.S. This established a best practices guidelines for the federal government to follow, and voluntarily for retailers and manufacturers to adhere to. The NSES also sought to certify electronics recycling and refurbishment facilities: it is currently a voluntary process, but the NSES is a standard against which third-party auditors assess their practices. By June 2014, 565 facilities obtained voluntary certification.


European Union

Sources and Volume

EU countries dispose of an estimated 6.5 million tonnes of WEEE yearly. Almost half of this volume is large household appliances. An estimated 1 million tonnes of WEEE is thrown away by UK households yearly. In Germany, an estimated 1-1.4 million tonnes of WEEE is discarded annually from private households.


Collection and Recycling

The EU WEEE Directive requires manufacturers and importers to take back products from consumers and ensure they are disposed of using environmentally sound methods. However, the European Commission reports that only one third of e-waste gets collected, treated and reported according to the directive.


Despite formal WEEE (e-waste) collection in Germany, some consumers still dispose of their unwanted WEEE with regular household waste. Gaps in laws allow large amounts of e-waste declared for recycling to be shipped to countries like India, China, and Nigeria. Public waste authorities collect discarded products, while retailers may also voluntarily accept returned WEEE and transport it to the producer or to waste authorities. In the UK, producers are required by law to join producer compliance schemes and must finance the treatment, recovery, recycling, and environmentally sound disposal of WEEE. Handling is done by a network of authorized treatment facilities and approved exporters. Distributors are also required to facilitate free takeback through offering in-store takeback schemes

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 © 2015 Denise Wilson and Rachel Roberts