Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Electronics Waste Stream
Name: Kamal
Status: Educator
Grade: Other
Location: CA
Country: United States
Date: September 2007

Dear Sir We are a group of teachers involved in a course about integrating ICT in education (ICT means Information and Communication Technology) and are now working on pollution and environment protection. What are the effects of e-waste (electronic garbage) on environment?

Hello Kamal,

The effects of electronic components and their enclosures being dumped into landfills are much the same as any other garbage, namely introducing potentially toxic substances into the landfill.

Specifically, there has been concern for "heavy" metals leaching into the environment. Lead (from tin-lead solder) is one possible pollutant, although this has often been exaggerated since the total amount of solder in typical products like computers, is relatively small. Nickel-Cadmium batteries such as were used in older laptops is another concern, since cadmium is toxic. Most plastics cause no real toxic problem since the ones used in most electronic products (typically ABS, polycarbonate, polystyrene, etc.) are quite stable and benign. The main problem with plastics is that they tend not to degrade but remain unchanged for decades. CRT monitors can be problematic since their picture tubes contain some fairly exotic metals, that are exposed when the tube is smashed. Printed circuit boards (excluding their components, and the solder that attaches them) are made of an epoxy resin with fiberglass embedded, both of which cause no serious hazardous pollution problems other than the sheer volume of garbage.

The main problem with electronic waste is its volume, and the fact that since so many different materials are used, separating them and recycling becomes very difficult and somewhat impractical.

For the most part, the electronic components themselves cause relatively little pollution problem, since they are a nearly insignificant part of the overall volume of waste, and are typically encapsulated in a robust epoxy resin.

There is presently a European "RoHS" directive now being implemented in North America that forbids the use of specified materials in electronic assemblies. This has resulted, for example, in the need to use more expensive and more difficult to use "lead-free solder" being required. Since some 90+% of all lead used yearly is used in lead acid batteries, which are unrestricted, one has to wonder about the wisdom of penalizing the electronics industry which only uses about 2% of yearly lead production.


Bob Wilson

Modern electronic devices contain many toxic substances -- especially metals such as lithium, beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead. The sites below will give you a jump start into developing a lesson plan and/or activity

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the Environmental and Earth Science Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory