E-waste in the international context – A review of trade flows, regulations, hazards, waste management strategies and technologies for value recovery

I. M.S.K. Ilankoon, Yousef Ghorbani, Meng Nan Chong, Gamini Herath, Thandazile Moyo, Jochen Petersen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

283 Scopus citations


E-waste, or waste generated from electrical and electronic equipment, is considered as one of the fastest-growing waste categories, growing at a rate of 3–5% per year in the world. In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were generated in the world, which is equivalent to 6.1 kg for each person. E-waste is classified as a hazardous waste, but unlike other categories, e-waste also has significant potential for value recovery. As a result it is traded significantly between the developed and developing world, both as waste for disposal and as a resource for metal recovery. Only 20% of global e-waste in 2016 was properly recycled or disposed of, with the fate of the remaining 80% undocumented – likely to be dumped, traded or recycled under inferior conditions. This review paper provides an overview of the global e-waste resource and identifies the major challenges in the sector in terms of generation, global trade and waste management strategies. It lists the specific hazards associated with this type of waste that need to be taken into account in its management and includes a detailed overview of technologies employed or proposed for the recovery of value from e-waste. On the basis of this overview the paper identifies future directions for effective e-waste processing towards sustainable waste/resource management. It becomes clear that there is a strong divide between developed and developing countries with regard to this sector. While value recovery is practiced in centralised facilities employing advanced technologies in a highly regulated industrial environment in the developed world, in the developing world such recovery is practiced in a largely unregulated artisanal industry employing simplistic, labour intensive and environmentally hazardous approaches. Thus value is generated safely in the hi-tech environment of the developed world, whereas environmental burdens associated with exported waste and residual waste from simplistic processing remain largely in developing countries. It is argued that given the breadth of available technologies, a more systematic evaluation of the entire e-waste value chain needs to be conducted with a view to establishing integrated management of this resource (in terms of well-regulated value recovery and final residue disposal) at the appropriately local rather than global scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)258-275
Number of pages18
JournalWaste Management
StatePublished - Dec 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Waste Management and Disposal


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