ECycle (Recycling)

Computer recycling or electronic recycling is the recycling or reuse of computers or other electronic devices. It includes both finding another use for materials (such as donation to charity), and having systems dismantled, in a manner that allows for the safe extraction of the constituent materials for reuse in other products.

Reasons for recycling

Obsolete computers or other electronics are valuable source for secondary raw materials, if treated properly; if not, they are a source of toxins and carcinogens. Rapid technology change, low initial cost, and planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast-growing surplus of computers or other electronic components around the globe. Technical solutions are available, but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before applying a technical solution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, estimates 30 to 40 million surplus PCs, classified as "hazardous household waste",[2] would be ready for end-of-life management in the next few years. The U.S. National Safety Council estimates that 75% of all personal computers ever sold are now surplus electronics.[3]

In 2007, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that more than 63 million computers in the U.S. were traded in for replacements or discarded. Today, 15% of electronic devices and equipment are recycled in the United States. Most electronic waste is sent to landfills or incinerated, which releases materials such as lead, mercury, or cadmium into the soil, groundwater, and atmosphere, thus having a negative impact on the environment. Many materials used in computer hardware can be recovered by recycling for use in future production. Reuse of tin, silicon, iron, aluminium, and a variety of plastics that are present in bulk in computers or other electronics can reduce the costs of constructing new systems. Components frequently contain lead, copper, gold and other valuable materials suitable for reclamation.

Computer components contain many toxic substances, like dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cadmium, chromium, radioactive isotopes and mercury. A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight, much of which is in the lead glass of the cathode ray tube (CRT). A typical 15 inch (38 cm) computer monitor may contain 1.5 pounds (1 kg) of lead[2] but other monitors have been estimated to have up to 8 pounds (4 kg) of lead.[1] Circuit boards contain considerable quantities of lead-tin solders that are more likely to leach into groundwater or create air pollution due to incineration. The processing (e.g. incineration and acid treatments) required to reclaim these precious substances may release, generate, or synthesize toxic byproducts.

Export of waste to countries with lower environmental standards is a major computer or electronic recycling concern. The Basel Convention includes hazardous wastes from computer CRT screens as an item that may not be exported transcontinentally without prior consent of both the country exporting and receiving the waste. Companies may find it cost-effective in the short term to sell outdated computers to less developed countries with lax regulations. It is commonly believed that a majority of surplus laptops are routed to developing nations as "dumping grounds for e-waste".[4] The high value of working and reusable laptops, computers, and components (e.g. RAM) can help pay the cost of transportation for many worthless "commodities".



In Switzerland, the first electronic waste recycling system was implemented in 1991, beginning with collection of old refrigerators; over the years, all other electric and electronic devices were gradually added to the system. The established producer responsibility organization is SWICO, mainly handling information, communication, and organization technology.[5] The European Union implemented a similar system in February 2003, under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive, 2002/96/EC).[6]

Pan European adoption of the Legislation was slow on take-up, with Italy and the United Kingdom being the final member states to pass it into law. The success of the WEEE directive has varied significantly from state to state, with collection rates varying between 13 kilograms per capita per annum to as little as 1 kg per capita per annum. Computers & electronic wastes collected from households within Europe are treated under the WEEE directive via Producer Compliance Schemes (whereby manufacturers of Electronics pay into a scheme that funds its recovery from household waste recycling centres (HWRCs)) and nominated Waste Treatment Facilities (known as Obligated WEEE).

However, recycling of ex corporate Computer Hardware and associated electronic equipment falls outside the Producer Compliance Scheme (Known as non-obligated). In the UK, Waste or obsolete corporate related computer hardware is treated via third party Authorized Treatment Facilities, who normally impose a charge for its collection and treatment.

United States


The United States Congress considers a number of electronic waste bills, like the National Computer Recycling Act introduced by Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA). The main federal law governing solid waste is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. It covers only CRTs, though state regulations may differ.[7] There are also separate laws concerning battery disposal. On March 25, 2009, the House Science and Technology Committee approved funding for research on reducing electronic waste and mitigating environmental impact, regarded by sponsor Ralph Hall (R-TX) as the first federal bill to directly address electronic waste.[8]


Many states have introduced legislation concerning recycling and reuse of computers or computer parts or other electronics.[9] Most American computer recycling legislations address it from within the larger electronic waste issue.

In 2001, Arkansas enacted the Arkansas Computer and Electronic Solid Waste Management Act, which requires that state agencies manage and sell surplus computer equipment, establishes a computer and electronics recycling fund, and authorizes the Department of Environmental Quality to regulate and/or ban the disposal of computer and electronic equipment in Arkansas landfills.[10]

The recently passed Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act distributes grants to universities, government labs and private industries for research in developing projects in line with e-waste recycling and refurbishment.


In Japan, sellers and manufacturers of certain electronics (such as televisions and air conditioners) are required to recycle them.[11] However, no legislation exists to cover the recycling of computer or cellphone related wastes.[12]

It is required in South Korea and Taiwan that sellers and manufacturers of electronics be responsible for recycling 75% of their used products.

According to a report by UNEP titled, "Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources," the amount of e-waste being produced - including mobile phones and computers - could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in some countries, such as India.[13]

One theory is that increased regulation of electronic waste and concern over the environmental harm in mature economies creates an economic disincentive to remove residues prior to export. Critics of trade in used electronics maintain that it is too easy for brokers calling themselves recyclers to export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, such as China,[14] India and parts of Africa, thus avoiding the expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes (the processing of which is expensive and difficult). The developing countries are becoming big dump yards of e-waste. Proponents of international trade point to the success of fair trade programs in other industries, where cooperation has led creation of sustainable jobs, and can bring affordable technology in countries where repair and reuse rates are higher.

Organizations like A2Z Group (Company Website [2]) have stepped in to own up the responsibility to collect and recycle e-Waste at various locations in India.

Recycling methods

Consumer recycling

Consumer recycling options consists of (see below) sale, donating computers directly to organizations in need, sending devices directly back to their original manufacturers, or getting components to a convenient recycler or refurbisher.

Corporate recycling

Businesses seeking a cost-effective way to recycle large amounts of computer equipment responsibly face a more complicated process.

Businesses also have the options of sale or contacting the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and arranging recycling options.

Some companies pick up unwanted equipment from businesses, wipe the data clean from the systems, and provide an estimate of the product’s remaining value. For unwanted items that still have value, these firms buy the excess IT hardware and sell refurbished products to those seeking more affordable options than buying new.

Companies that specialize in data protection and green disposal processes dispose of both data and used equipment, while employing strict procedures to help improve the environment. Professional IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) firms specialize in corporate computer disposal and recycling services in compliance with local laws and regulations and also offer secure data elimination services that comply with Data remanence standards including National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Corporations face risks both for incompletely destroyed data and for improperly disposed computers. In America, companies are liable for compliance with regulations even if the recycling process is outsourced under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Companies can mitigate these risks by requiring waivers of liability, audit trails, certificates of data destruction, signed confidentiality agreements, and random audits of information security. The National Association of Information Destruction is an international trade association for data destruction providers.[15]


Online auctions are an alternative for consumers willing to resell for cash less fees, in a complicated, self-managed, competitive environment[16] where paid listings might not sell.[17] Online classified ads can be similarly risky due to forgery scams and uncertainty.[18]

Take back

When researching computer companies before a computer purchase, consumers can find out if they offer recycling services. Most major computer manufacturers offer some form of recycling. At the user's request they may mail in their old computers, or arrange for pickup from the manufacturer.

Hewlett-Packard also offers free recycling, but only one of its "national" recycling programs is available nationally, rather than in one or two specific states.[19] Hewlett-Packard also offers to pick up any computer product of any brand for a fee, and to offer a coupon against the purchase of future computers or components; it was the largest computer recycler in America in 2003, and it has recycled over 750,000,000 pounds (340,000,000 kg) of electronic waste globally[2] since 1995.[20] It encourages the shared approach of collection points for consumers and recyclers to meet.[21]


Manufacturers often offer a free replacement service when purchasing a new PC. Dell Computers and Apple Inc. take back old products when one buys a new one. Both refurbish and resell their own computers with a one-year warranty.[18]

Many companies purchase and recycle all brands of working and broken laptops and notebook computers from individuals and corporations. Building a market for recycling of desktop computers has proven more difficult than exchange programs for laptops, smartphones and other smaller electronics.[22] A basic business model is to provide a seller an instant online quote based on laptop characteristics, then to send a shipping label and prepaid box to the seller, to erase, reformat, and process the laptop, and to pay rapidly by cheque.[4] A majority of these companies are also generalized electronic waste recyclers as well; organizations that recycle computers exclusively include Cash For Laptops, a laptop refurbisher in Nevada that claims to be the first to buy laptops online, in 2001.[22]


Hoarding (left), disassembling (center) and collecting (right) electronic waste in Bengaluru, India

The rising price of precious metals — coupled with the high rate of unemployment during the Great Recession — has led to a larger number of amateur "for profit" electronics recyclers. Computer parts, for example, are stripped of their most valuable components and sold for scrap. Metals like copper, aluminum, lead, gold and palladium are recovered from computers, televisions and more.[23][24]


The first major publication to report the recycling of computers and electronic waste was published on the front page of the New York Times on April 14, 1993 by columnist Steve Lohr.


"E-Cycling" or "E-waste" is an initiative by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which refers to donations, reuse, shredding and general collection of used electronics. Generically, the term refers to the process of collecting, brokering, disassembling, repairing and recycling the components or metals contained in used or discarded electronic equipment, otherwise known as electronic waste (e-waste). "E-cyclable" items include, but are not limited to: televisions, computers, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, telephones and cellular phones, stereos, and VCRs and DVDs just about anything that has a cord, light or takes some kind of battery.

Investment in e-cycling facilities has been increasing recently due to technology’s rapid rate of obsolescence, concern over improper methods, and opportunities for manufacturers to influence the secondary market (used and reused products). The higher metal prices is also having more recycling taking place. The controversy around methods stems from a lack of agreement over preferred outcomes.

World markets with lower disposable incomes, consider 75% repair and reuse to be valuable enough to justify 25% disposal. Debate and certification standards may be leading to better definitions, though civil law contracts, governing the expected process are still vital to any contracted process, as poorly defined as "e-cycling".

Pros of e-cycling

One thought is that any net disposal of e-waste following repair or metals recovery is unethical or illegal if it occurs in developing countries. Another point of view is that the net environmental cost must include the mining, refining and extraction pollution cost of new products manufactured to replace secondary products which are destroyed in wealthy nations, and which cannot economically repair older products. As an example, groundwater has become so polluted in areas surrounding China’s landfills that water must be shipped in from 18 miles (29 km) away.[25] However, mining of new metals has even broader impacts on groundwater. Either e-cycling process, domestic processing or overseas repair, helps the environment by avoiding pollution and being a sustainable alternative to disposing of e-waste in landfills. In addition, e-cycling allows for the reclamation of potential conflict minerals, like gold and wolframite, which requires less of those to be mined and lessens the potential money flow to Congolese militias and other actors that profit from mining them.

Supporters of one form of "required e-cycling" legislation argue that e-cycling saves taxpayers money,[26] as the financial responsibility would be shifted from the taxpayer to the manufacturers. Advocates of more simple legislation (such as landfill bans) argue that involving manufacturers does not reduce the cost to consumers, as reuse value is lost, and the resulting costs are passed on to consumers in new products, particularly affecting markets which cannot even afford those new products. It is theorized that manufacturers who take part in e-cycling are motivated to use fewer materials in the production process, create longer lasting products, and implement safer, more efficient recycling systems.[27] This theory is sharply disputed and has never been demonstrated.

Criticisms of e-cycling

The critics of e-cycling are just as vocal as its advocates. According to the Reason Foundation, e-cycling only raises the product and waste management costs of e-waste for consumers and limits innovation on the part of high-tech companies.[28] They also believe that e-cycling facilities could unintentionally cause great harm to the environment. Critics claim that e-waste doesn’t occupy a significant portion of total waste. According to a European study, only 4% of waste is electronic.

Another opposition to e-cycling is that many problems are posed in disassembly: the process is costly and dangerous because of the heavy metals of which the electronic products are composed, and as little as 1-5% of the original cost of materials can be retrieved. A final problem that people find is that identity fraud is all too common in regards to the disposal of electronic products.[29] As the programs are legislated, creating winners and losers among e-cyclers with different locations and processes, it may be difficult to distinguish between criticism of e-cycling as a practice, and criticism of the specific legislated means proposed to enhance it.

The fate of e-waste

A hefty criticism often lobbed at reuse based recyclers is that people think that they are recycling their electronic waste, when in reality it is actually being exported to developing countries like China, India, and Nigeria. For instance, at free recycling drives, "recyclers" may not be staying true to their word, but selling e-waste overseas[25] or to parts brokers.[30] Studies indicate that 50-80% of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons (270,000 to 360,000 tonnes) of e-waste is being sent overseas, and that approximately 2 million tons (1.8 million tonnes) per year go to U.S. landfills.[25]

Although not possible in all circumstances, the best way to e-cycle is to upcycle e-waste.[31] On the other hand, the electronic products in question are generally manufactured, and repaired under warranty, in the same nations, which anti-reuse recyclers depict as primitive. Reuse-based e-recyclers believe that fair-trade incentives for export markets will lead to better results than domestic shredding. The debate between export-friendly e-cycling and increased regulation of that practice was described in [32]

In the European Union, debate regarding the export of e-waste has resulted in a significant amendment to the WEEE directive (January 2012) with a view to significantly diminishing the export of WEEE (untreated e-waste). During debate in Strasburg, MEPs stated that "53 million tonnes of WEEE were generated in 2009 but only 18% collected for recycling"[33] with the remainder being exported or sent to landfill. The Amendment, voted through by a unanimous 95% of representatives, removed the re-use (repair and refurbishmet) aspect of the directive and placed more emphasis upon recycling and recovery of precious metals and base metals. The changes went further by placing the burden upon registered exporters to prove that used equipment leaving Europe was "fit for purpose".

Policy issues and current efforts

Currently, pieces of government legislation and a number of grassroots efforts have contributed to the growth of e-cycling processes which emphasize decreased exports over increased reuse rates. The Electronic Waste Recycling Act was passed in California in 2003.[34] It requires that consumers pay an extra fee for certain types of electronics, and the collected money be then redistributed to recycling companies that are qualified to properly recycle these products. It is the only state that legislates against e-waste through this kind of consumer fee; the other states' efforts focus on producer responsibility laws or waste disposal bans. No study has shown that per capita recovery is greater in one type of legislated program (e.g. California) versus ordinary waste disposal bans (e.g. Massachusetts), though recovery has greatly increased in states which use either method.

As of September, 2006, Dell developed the nation’s first completely free recycling program,[35] furthering the responsibilities that manufacturers are taking for e-cycling. Manufacturers and retailers such as Best Buy, Sony, and Samsung have also set up recycling programs.[36] This program does not accept televisions, which are the most expensive used electronic item, and are unpopular in markets which must deal with televisions when the more valuable computers have been cherry picked.

Another step being taken is the recyclers’ pledge of true stewardship, sponsored by the Computer TakeBack Campaign. It has been signed by numerous recyclers promising to recycle responsibly. Grassroots efforts have also played a big part in this issue, as they and other community organizations are being formed to help responsibly recycle e-waste.[35] Other grassroots campaigns are Basel, the Computer TakeBack Campaign (co-coordinated by the Grassroots Recycling Network), and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. No study has shown any difference in recycling methods under the Pledge, and no data is available to demonstrate difference in management between "Pledge" and non-Pledge companies, though it is assumed that the risk of making false claims will prevent Pledge companies from wrongly describing their processes.

Many people believe that the U.S. should follow the European Union model in regards to its management of e-waste. In this program, a directive forces manufacturers to take responsibility for e-cycling; it also demands manufacturers' mandatory take-back and places bans on exporting e-waste to developing countries. Another longer-term solution is for computers to be composed of less dangerous products and many people disagree. No data has been provided to show that people who agree with the European model have based their agreement on measured outcomes or experience-based scientific method.

Data security

E-waste presents a potential security threat to individuals and exporting countries. Hard drives that are not properly erased before the computer is disposed of can be reopened, exposing sensitive information. Credit card numbers, private financial data, account information and records of online transactions can be accessed by most willing individuals. Organized criminals in Ghana commonly search the drives for information to use in local scams.[37]

Government contracts have been discovered on hard drives found in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Multi-million dollar agreements from United States security institutions such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Transportation Security Administration and Homeland Security have all resurfaced in Agbogbloshie.[37][38]

Reasons to destroy and recycle securely

There are ways to ensure that not only hardware is destroyed but also the private data on the hard drive. Having customer data stolen, lost, or misplaced contributes to the ever growing number of people who are affected by identity theft, which can cause corporations to lose more than just money. The image of a company that holds secure data, such as banks, law firms, pharmaceuticals, and credit corporations is also at risk. If a company's public image is hurt, it could cause consumers to not use their services and could cost millions in business losses and positive public relation campaigns. The cost of data breaches "varies widely, ranging from $90 to $50,000 (under HIPAA's new HITECH amendment, that came about through the American Recovery and Revitalization act of 2009),as per customer record, depending on whether the breach is “low-profile” or “high-profile” and the company is in a non-regulated or highly regulated area, such as banking or medical institutions.”[39]

There is also a major backlash from the consumer if there is a data breach in a company that is supposed to be trusted to protect their private information. If an organization has any consumer info on file, they must by law (Red Flags Clarification act of 2010) have written information protection policies and procedures in place, that serve to combat, mitigate, and detect vulnerable areas that could result in identity theft. The United States Department of Defense has published a standard to which recyclers and individuals may meet in order to satisfy HIPAA requirements.

Secure recycling

Countries have developed standards, aimed at businesses and with the purpose of ensuring the security of Data contained in 'confidential' computer media [NIST 800-88: US standard for Data Remenance][HMG CESG IS5, Baseline & Enhanced, UK Government Protocol for Data Destruction]. National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) “is the international trade association for companies providing information destruction services. Suppliers of products, equipment and services to destruction companies are also eligible for membership. NAID's mission is to promote the information destruction industry and the standards and ethics of its member companies.” [40] There are companies that follow the guidelines from NAID and also meet all Federal EPA and local DEP regulations.

The typical process for computer recycling aims to securely destroy hard drives while still recycling the byproduct. A typical process for effective computer recycling:

  1. Receive hardware for destruction in locked and securely transported vehicles
  2. Shred hard drives
  3. Separate all aluminum from the waste metals with an electromagnet
  4. Collect and securely deliver the shredded remains to an aluminum recycling plant and
  5. Mold the remaining hard drive parts into aluminum ingots

See also

Electronics portal

Policy and conventions:



External links

  • Computer Recycling
  • Computer Recycling (U.K)
  • ECycling (U.S.)
  • RECYCLING – FROM E-WASTE TO RESOURCES (UN Environmental Program, 2009, 120 pages)
  • WEEE Directive (U.K.)
  • WEEE Directive (E.C.)
  • Computer Donation Locations (U.S.)
  • Virginia Recycling Plants (U.S.)
  • The Power of E-Cycling |
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.