Has the question of e-waste opened a Pandora's box? An overview of unpredictable issues and challenges

Environ Int. 2018 Jan:110:173-192. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.10.021. Epub 2017 Nov 6.


Despite regulatory efforts and position papers, electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) remains ill-managed as evidenced by the extremely low rates of proper e-waste recycling (e-recycling) worldwide, ongoing illegal shipments to developing countries and constantly reported human health issues and environmental pollution. The objectives of this review are, first, to expose the complexity of e-waste problems, and then to suggest possible upstream and downstream solutions. Exploring e-waste issues is akin to opening a Pandora's box. Thus, a review of prevailing e-waste management practices reveals complex and often intertwined gaps, issues and challenges. These include the absence of any consistent definition of e-waste to date, a prevalent toxic potential still involving already banned or restricted hazardous components such as heavy metals and persistent and bioaccumulative organic compounds, a relentless growth in e-waste volume fueled by planned obsolescence and unsustainable consumption, problematic e-recycling processes, a fragile formal e-recycling sector, sustained and more harmful informal e-recycling practices, and more convoluted and unpredictable patterns of illegal e-waste trade. A close examination of the e-waste legacy contamination reveals critical human health concerns, including significant occupational exposure during both formal and informal e-recycling, and persistent environmental contamination, particularly in some developing countries. However, newly detected e-waste contaminants as well as unexpected sources and environmental fates of contaminants are among the emerging issues that raise concerns. Moreover, scientific knowledge gaps remain regarding the complexity and magnitude of the e-waste legacy contamination, specifically, a comprehensive characterization of e-waste contaminants, information on the scale of legacy contamination in developing countries and on the potential environmental damage in developed countries, and a stronger body of evidence of adverse health effects specifically ascribed to e-waste contaminants. However, the knowledge accumulated to date is sufficient to raise awareness and concern among all stakeholders. Potential solutions to curb e-waste issues should be addressed comprehensively, by focusing on two fronts: upstream and downstream. Potential upstream solutions should focus on more rational and eco-oriented consumer habits in order to decrease e-waste quantities while fostering ethical and sustained commitments from manufacturers, which include a limited usage of hazardous compounds and an optimal increase in e-waste recyclability. At the downstream level, solutions should include suitable and pragmatic actions to progressively reduce the illegal e-waste trade particularly through international cooperation and coordination, better enforcement of domestic laws, and monitoring in both exporting and receiving countries, along with the supervised integration of the informal sector into the recycling system of developing countries and global expansion of formal e-waste collection and recycling activities. Downstream solutions should also introduce stronger reverse logistics, together with upgraded, more affordable, and eco-friendly and worker-friendly e-recycling technologies to ensure that benefits are derived fully and safely from the great economic potential of e-waste.

Keywords: Chemical contaminants; E-waste management; Electronic recycling; Human health; Legacy contamination; Occupational health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electronic Waste*
  • Humans
  • Metals, Heavy / toxicity
  • Recycling*
  • Social Responsibility
  • Waste Management*


  • Metals, Heavy