The Ethics of E-Waste: Are Engineers Culpable for the 50 Million Tons of Electronic Waste?

April 09, 2020 by Lisa Boneta

What's an engineer's responsibility in mitigating the effects of e-waste? Researchers take this question to EE classrooms.

There's plenty of chatter on pandemics lately—and e-waste is yet another international plague that is spiking by the day. In a previous article on e-waste, the seedy underbelly of PCB disposal, we discussed a staggering new statistic: the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste a year, according to a UN report.

But what we haven't discussed is the ethical side of e-waste. Is an electrical engineer culpable for mitigating e-waste? Or does the responsibility fall on manufacturers and regulatory bodies in government?

To explore these questions, we tapped into an ethnographic research study on how engineering students approached the ethics of e-waste. 


An Ethnographic Study: Who Is Responsible for E-Waste?

Researchers Ryan C. Campbell and Denise Wilson spearheaded a research project exploring how electrical and mechanical engineering students viewed the e-waste problem and who they thought was responsible for abating it.



Volunteers boxing up e-waste. Image used courtesy of the USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency

Responses were gathered from 84 students—a majority of whom were white, male U.S. citizens, ages 18 to 22 in the third year of their program. Each student was given materials about the health and environmental impacts of e-waste and asked to respond to several questions in an essay. 



Campbell and Wilson coded results to evaluate who students found responsible for the e-waste problem. (Note that the codes were not mutually exclusive and results may overlap).


Coding results for who is responsible for the e-waste problem

Coding results for who is responsible for the e-waste problem. Image used courtesy of Campbell and Wilson

While some participants were unclear in their associations of responsibility, no participants absolved engineers of the e-waste problem altogether. To understand the results in more detail, the researchers looked at the degree in which engineers’ responsibility was acknowledged.

In these responses, the term "without qualification/limitation" means that students felt all the responsibility of e-waste falls on engineers alone.

  • 7 students explicitly acknowledged the responsibility of engineers without qualification/limitation
  • 10 students believed the responsibility was shared with others without qualification/limitation
  • 9 students thought that it was shared with others, but the responsibility was qualified/limited by factors outside of their control
  • 4 had an ambiguous response

The analysis of data from this study was not meant to uncover statistically significant trends, but to be descriptive, meaningful, and exploratory. 


Should Eco-Ethics Be Included in Engineering Curriculum?

While this study looked at a small sample of students and their view of who is responsible for e-waste, it shed light on an issue that is often overlooked in academia. 

Marilyn Dyrud, a professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology, further elucidates this idea in her paper on computer waste and engineering ethics (PDF), published in the American Society of Engineering Education. Dyrud posits that "To initiate solutions, the international engineering community must first examine design: why do electronic products include such potentially damaging materials?"

She suggests that because of the dire state of e-waste, it is no longer sufficient to hold manufacturers and consumers solely responsible for the fate of products considered no longer useful. Dyrud suggests that educators lead class activities that may help students see how the harmful substances in components and circuits—lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium VI, PVC, and brominated flame retardants, among others—affect habitats and communities near landfills.

The following chart illustrates the health risks associated with harmful substances in computer and peripheral e-waste. Note that the far-right column records the total weight of each substance in e-waste up from 1997–2004. More recent data can be found in the UN report on e-waste.


Health risks associated with e-waste

Chart of the health risks associated with common substances in computer and peripheral e-waste. Image used courtesy of Marilyn Dyrud (PDF) 

Some activities Dyrud suggests include having students study how their own university disposes of computers and peripherals, research corporate "takeback" programs, and investigate how state legislatures approach e-waste recycling.

"Engineering educators must expose students to the consequences of exporting obsolete technology to raise awareness and help alleviate some of the physical suffering and environmental degradation caused by this particular form of third-world product dumping," Dyrud says.


Learn More About E-Waste

The conversation on e-waste is one that is ongoing in the electrical engineering community. Here are some other resources to check out as you consider the issue of e-waste. 

The E-Waste Disaster

E-Waste: The Seedy Underbelly of PCB Disposal

Electronics Recycling: Why Do Some Facilities Reject E-Waste?

Japan May Use E-Waste to Source 2020 Olympic Medals

A Starter Guide to 2020 RoHS Compliance


What's Your Take?

Engineers spend years focusing on technical subjects in school, yet ethical issues such as e-waste are never made a point of study in syllabi. Preparing tomorrow’s engineers not only means enforcing technical abilities but also helping them understand the environmental implications of their work. 

Who do you feel is responsible for addressing the issue of e-waste? How do you think you could make your engineering work more ecologically responsible and sustainable? What resources and support do you feel would help in making this possible? Share your thoughts in the comments below.