Explaining the Environmental Impacts of E-Waste

Explaining the Environmental Impacts of E-Waste

Several factors have contributed to the worsening global electronic waste or e-waste problem. These include the pervasiveness of electronic components and electronic products in modern society, rapid advancements in technologies and the introduction of their practical applications, production and consumption based on a linear economic model, and the absence of infrastructure for managing discarded electronics. Nevertheless, because excessive e-waste generation is an inevitable drawback of the modern age, its impacts on the environment have been studied to raise public awareness and create relevant intervention strategies.

How E-Waste Impacts the Environment: The Different Negative Impacts of Electronic Waste in the Environment

The environmental impacts of discarded electrical and electronic components and products have made e-waste a global problem. The generation of e-waste also represents one of the main environmental impacts of the electronics sector. Most e-waste products are non-biodegradable. They persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Some discarded electronic devices or components contain toxic substances that contaminate the immediate environment and degrade the health of living organisms. Failure to recover e-waste for recycling and upcycling purposes reinforces further resource extraction that leads to additional e-waste generation. Nevertheless, to understand further the seriousness of the problem, the following describes and discusses the key environmental impacts of e-waste:

1. Toxic Chemical Contamination

Suppliers and manufacturers of electrical and electronic components and devices use a range of raw materials. Some of these materials are toxic or hazardous to the environment and human health. Lead is a common material used in soldering electronic components because of its low melting point and good electronic conductivity. Flame retardants are added to electronics to make them more durable from overheating and less prone to catching fire.

Discarding electronic devices or their components often leads to chemical contamination. This is one of the most pressing environmental impacts of e-waste. Researchers J. Caravanos et al. found that soil samples from an electronic waste dumpsite in the Agbogbloshie district in Ghana had levels of lead at 18125 ppm. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the standard of lead in soil at 400 ppm for play areas and 1200 ppm for non-play areas.

There are other harmful materials or substances that come from e-waste and leech to the environment. These include other heavy metals such as nickel and chromium, organic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and brominated flame retardants. The plastic components of electronic devices might not be toxic but they can degrade over time and contribute to the growing microplastic problem.

Even the improper handling of electronic waste can have detrimental effects on the environment and communities. For example, in the agricultural district of Chachoengsao in Thailand, the establishment of e-waste processing and recovering facilities beginning in 2017 resulted in substantial environmental degradation due to the release of toxic metals that have contaminated agricultural lands, water sources, and the quality of life of local villagers.

Researchers Ankit et al. concluded that contaminants such as metals and organic pollutants from electronic waste harm different components of the ecosystem. These include soil, plants, microbes, and animals, including humans. O. A. Alabi et al. also explained that animals and humans residing near or around an e-waste dumpsite or recycling plant become exposed to e-waste constituents via ingestion, dermal contact, and inhalation.

2. Further Raw Material Extraction

A World Economic Forum report has mentioned that rapid innovation and lowering costs have made the electronics sector one of the most valuable economic sectors in the world while also making electronic products more accessible to the masses. However, according to this same report, electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Available data revealed that about 20 percent of e-waste is dealt with appropriately.

Note that the consumer electronics sector is one of the most resource-intensive industries and sectors in the world. The extraction of raw materials needed to produce electronic components and electronic devices adds to the overall environmental stress of the modern global economy. The growing market for electronic products and the absence of a universal standard for material recovery from post-consumption products can result in resource depletion.

It is also important to highlight the fact that the production of electronics requires valuable resources like rare metals and minerals. E-waste contributes to resource depletion as these materials are not efficiently recovered through recycling. Furthermore, without proper material recovery standards from discarded electronic components and devices, manufacturing electronic products consumes a substantial amount of energy and water.

The report from the World Economic Forum concluded that e-waste remains a valuable yet unused resource. Discarded components and devices have an annual worth of about USD 62.5 billion. This is equivalent to the gross domestic product of Kenya. More than 123 countries have less GDP than the value of the global pile of electronic waste. The report recommended the integration of a circular economic model in the electronics sector.

3. Illegal Trading and Dumping

Several sources of data have revealed that the United States is the leading electronic waste producer in the world. China ranks second. However, according to the United Nations, about 90 percent of the global e-waste generated from different parts of the world end up in dumpsites in Asian and African countries. China has banned the importation of e-waste but it remains one of the largest dumping grounds for discarded electronic products.

The illegal trading and dumping of discarded electronic components and electronic devices represent another one of the notable environmental impacts of e-waste. These put other countries with no means of properly handling such materials at a disadvantage. Take note that China has moved its electronic waste processing to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand. The experience of Chachoengsao is a prime example of this disadvantage.

It is important to highlight the fact that the illegal importation of e-waste or its dumping in developing countries is a problem because dumpsites and designated processing facilities do not have the relevant means or technical capabilities to extract and handle discarded electronics. Some of these electronics end up in landfills while others are processes without necessary mechanisms or systems for preventing environmental contamination.

Remember that contamination from e-waste constituents can result in environmental degradation. This can negatively affect food sources such as farmlands and bodies of fresh water. The dumping of electronic waste in landfills deprives receiving countries of valuable land resources and other ecosystem services. It is important to reiterate the fact that toxic chemicals from these wastes affect the health and well-being of surrounding communities.

The illegal trading and dumping of electronic waste also illustrate how developed countries in the West address their domestic e-waste problem at the risk of putting developing countries and more vulnerable local communities at higher risk. This further demonstrates that the environmental impacts of e-waste and the corresponding social and economic burdens from these environmental problems are unequally shared or distributed across the world.


  • Alabi, O. A., Adeoluwa, Y. M., Huo, X., Xu, X., and Bakare, A. A. 2021. “Environmental Contamination and Public Health Effects of Electronic Waste: An Overview.” Journal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering. 19(1):1209-1227. DOI: 1007/s40201-021-00654-5
  • Ankit, Saha, L., Kumar, V., Tiwari, J., Sweta, Rawat, S., Singh, J., and Bauddh, K. 2021. Electronic Waste and Their Leachates Impact on Human Health and Environment: Global Ecological Threat and Management.” Environmental Technology & Innovation. 24: 102049. DOI: 1016/j.eti.2021.102049
  • Beech, H. and Jirenuwat, R. 2019. “The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs.” The New York Times. Available online
  • Caravanos, J., Clarke, E. E., Osei, C. S., and Amoyaw-Osei, Y. 2013. “Exploratory Health Assessment of Chemical Exposures at E-Waste Recycling and Scrapyard Facility in Ghana.” Journal of Health and Pollution. 3(4): 11-22. DOI: 5696/2156-9614-3.4.11
  • World Economic Forum. 2019. A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for A Global Reboot. World Economic Forum. Available via PDF