Research: The Circular Economy and E-waste: Economics, Environment, and Health

By SiWen Fang

Research: Social Science


With the rapid development of technology, people tend to frequently replace electrical and electronic devices with new versions. This phenomenon leads to an exponential increase in the total amount of e-waste. Recently, the emergence of the circular economy is recognized as a positive sign to solve the problems posed by e-waste. This paper aims to present a holistic analysis of the effects that the circular economy acts on e-waste from three perspectives: economics, environment, and health. Incorporating cost-benefit analysis, diagrams, and tables, this paper admits the promising economic return, the reduction of global warming, and the potential health issues of developing the circular economy to deal with the disposal of e-waste. This paper also attempts to present suggestions to governments around the world on what policies to implement to maximize the effectiveness of the circular economy.

Keywords: the circular economy, e-waste, cost-benefit analysis, ozone depletion, global warming, ecological exposure


The quantity of electronic waste (e-waste), mainly composed of obsolete electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), is increasing rapidly: growing by 9.2Mt between 2014 and 2019 (Forti et al., 2020). As a waste with high economic value, e-waste, composed of iron and other metals including rare earth elements, the main material to manufacture magnets, could recover $10 billion USD with a proper recycling process (Forti et al., 2020). Hence, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) emphasized the development of the circular economy, which aims to turn goods that are at the end of their service life into resources for others, closing loops in industrial ecosystems and minimizing waste, as one of the solutions for the disposal of e-waste (Stahel, 2016). The impact of the circular economy on e-waste should not be evaluated only from one dimension since it is a multi-disciplinary topic of economics and environmental study. Three perspectives— economics, environment, and health—provide an overall thorough picture of how the circular economy and e-waste affect society. Though about 25 metric tons of iron in e-waste could be recycled, some of the most valuable components such as rare-earth elements are recycled at an extremely low rate because of limitations of current technology (Forti et al., 2020). Therefore, the benefit of recycling e-waste is questionable without recovering those components. However, the capital that is invested in new technology should be covered by the economic returns of recycling e-waste. Moreover, because of different price levels and regulations, situations in developed countries and developing countries might be different. Prior to the development of the circular economy, landfilling and incineration were considered to be two main methods for countries to deal with e-waste, polluting the environment significantly. To examine how the circular economy serves to reduce pollution, it is important to identify post-consumer pathways of e-waste and to look at the trend of associated indicators, such as CO2 emission. In 2019, 82.6% of e-waste, corresponding to 44.3Mt, was not documented, of which 43.7Mt have a fate that is unknown and mainly traded to developing countries or periphery countries (Forti et al., 2020). Most of this e-waste is recycled informally. During this process, because of lacking protections such as gloves when recycling e-waste, workers’ health conditions are threatened. In addition, certain components in e-waste could be considered extremely dangerous when people are exposed to them. 71% of the world population is covered by legislation, policy, or regulations on e-waste, but, in fact, only 78 countries implement these actions (Forti et al., 2020). Understanding what a circular economy could achieve in economics, environment, and health helps governments to decide their policies on dealing with e-waste. This paper utilizes a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the economic perspective of circular economy and e-waste, presenting the theory of ecologically unequal exchange. Also, environmental indicators are examined to show whether a circular economy is an effective way to reduce the pollution by disposing of e-waste. Eventually, specific health issues caused by exposing and recycling e-waste will be compared.

Economic Perspective


The recycling process of e-waste is related to economic activities not only internally but also externally, such as generating more job opportunities, therefore it is hard to cover all of them. This paper mainly focuses on the economic return of recycling itself, considering the cost and the potential benefit of recycling. The total amount of wasted electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) fluctuates based on illegal trade of e-waste, and Australia is barely affected by it. Hence, this section specifies on the case of Australia to provide an evaluation of recycling e-waste in a country without many external factors. Moreover, because regulations for recycling e-waste vary in different countries, the costs are different for compliant treatment and non-compliant treatment. This paper also evaluates how the difference in costs between these two treatments would influence the global disposal of e-waste.


The cost-benefit analysis not only presents the upsides and downsides of recycling e-waste from an economic perspective but also shows an overall economic return of the recycling process. To focus on the process itself, it is crucial to exclude the addition or reduction of EEE at first (the trade of e-waste will be included when evaluating the difference cost between compliant treatment and non-compliant treatment). Australia has no e-waste imports and only 21kt e-waste exports, which is relative to a country that is barely involved in the trade of waste, becoming a suitable target for us to do a cost-benefit analysis on recycling e-waste (Baldé et al., 2022). The collected data is secondary data from other literature and reports. The data was originally obtained from put on market (POM) research and estimation of the market of WEEE in Australia (Golev, A., et al., 2016).

Costs of recycling e-waste

Overall, e-waste could be categorized into five kinds of equipment: cooling and freezing (C&F), CRT TV/monitor, large household (LHA), small household (SHA), and flat panel displays (Magalini&Huisman, 2018). The costs to recycle each of them are different. Four kinds of costs are included in the recycling process of e-waste: operational costs(basic), operational costs(quality & service), office administration & overhead, and capital costs; other than these four kinds of treatment costs, three more categories of costs in compliant recycling processes should be considered (Magalini&Huisman, 2018). Table 1 shows four categories of costs for the five kinds of WEEE. Among all of these WEEE, CRT TV/monitor has the highest recycling cost per metric ton, and large household equipment has the lowest recycling cost per metric ton. Typically, except the huge capital that recycling companies need to pay for the treatment, the cost of compliance and the cost of de-pollution also become financial burdens to these companies in countries with a compliant recycling process. The sum of weights of different WEEE categories in Australia needs to be calculated. Golev provided specific data on the sum of weights for C&F, LHA, and SHA. Hence, this paper estimates the number of weights for wasted CRT TV/monitor and flat panel displays based on the total amount of sales weights and life span. For instance, the life spans of screens of CRT TVs are 11.1 years, so the total amount of EEE eleven years ago will be the total amount of WEEE for now. Table 2 presents the sum of weights for the five categories of WEEE. The amount of wasted small household equipment has the greatest total weight and the amount of wasted flat panel displays has the least total weight. The compliant recycling rate is a key coefficient to determine how many WEEEs are considered in the recycling process. To better adjust the costs of recycling processes, five symbols will be representing recycling rates for the five WEEE categories. The costs of each category with recycling rates are shown in Table 3. With the recycling rate at 25%, the overall costs will be 30.4 million Euro, whereas if the recycling rate is 100%, the overall costs will be 121.7 million Euro.

Benefits of Recycling

To understand the benefit of recycling, it is important to acknowledge the components of WEEE, and what materials in WEEE are worth the most. WEEE contains 5 categories of components: metals, plastic, glass, printed circuit boards (PCBs), and others (Golev et al., 2016). Among all of them, metals occupy 51% of the material content of WEEEs, and glass only occupies 6% of the material content of WEEEs (Golev et al., 2016). In addition, wasted PCBs have significantly high economic value because they contain relatively high proportions of precious metals including palladium, silver, platinum, and gold. In 2019, the potential weight of palladium in global WEEE is 0.1 kilotons which is worth 3532 USD; the potential weight of silver in global WEEE is 1.2 kilotons which is worth 579 USD; the potential weight of platinum in global WEEE is 0.002 kilotons which worth 71USD; the potential weight of gold in global WEEE is 0.2 kilotons which worth 9481 USD (Forti et al., 2020). The above data shows the maximum potential of recycling precious metal globally. To recycle them, methods and equipment such as the hydro- metallurgical treatment process are necessary (Lu&Xu, 2016). The output of WEEE in Australia in 2014 contained 51% metal, 3% of cable, and 4% of PCBs (Golev et al., 2016). Because of the numerous components in WEEE, this paper selects some of the most valuable materials in WEEE. Table 4 shows the weight of valuable materials in WEEE and the possible economic return for them with different recycled rates. This table shows that if the selected metals in WEEE could be recycled by 25%, the economic return reaches 134 million euros which could already cover the cost of recycling 100% compliantly of total WEEE in Australia per year. If the selected metals in WEEE could be recovered by 100%, the economic return could be about 536.1 million euros.

The economic return of recycling different chemical components in each WEEE category in Australia varies widely (Table 5). Because of lacking information, the economic returns of CRT TV/monitor and flat panel displays are not available. Small household equipment contains the greatest value of components, and large household equipment contains the least value of components, but the total economic return from these three categories is promising.

Evaluation and Results

From the cost-benefit analysis of recycling e-waste, it is easy to acknowledge the high economic potential of this action. Even though the cost of recycling e-waste per year could reach hundreds of million euros, the return is indeed promising. If 65% of WEEE in Australia is documented to be recycled in environmentally sound facilities, the target rate in the EU, the cost is about 79.1 million euros. The recycling rate of only iron and steel could reach 70%-90% which leads to above 200 million euro return that could cover the cost of recycling (Stahel, 2016).

While most metal components in WEEE could be recycled, rare earth elements, valuable components that are often found in PCBs, could only be recycled for 1%. Hence, low recycling rates of certain valuable components stimulate countries to develop advanced technologies which cost great capital and a long time to recover the economic value of components. This is an implicit cost in the recycling process that is not shown in the data. The result might be affected if various implicit costs are included in the calculation.

Moreover, not all countries have legislation and regulations to recycle e-waste; some countries (mostly developing countries) recycled WEEE non-compliantly. The cost of recycling non-compliantly is significantly lower than the cost of recycling compliantly (Figure1). To pursue maximum economic value, countries with strict legislation might illegally export e-waste to countries without legislation to minimize the cost of recycling it. This phenomenon is known as the ecologically unequal exchange. Figure 2 shows the countries that have implemented legislation on e-wastes. Without the strict requirement to recycle compliantly, Southeast Asia accepted the import of uncontrolled WEEE from Southern Asia, Europe, and Northern America. The theory of ecologically unequal exchange harms periphery countries environmentally, accelerating the problem of unequal distribution of resources, and this is mainly caused by the difference in recycling costs between countries. In conclusion, governments should promote the awareness of recycling e-waste on a greater scale because of its high economic potential. However, it is also worth acknowledging that new technologies are required to recover the economic value of certain components in WEEE. Finally, countries that are required to recycle compliantly should increase legislations to forbid the illegal trade of uncontrolled e-waste that could harm the environment in countries with light recycling policies.

Environmental perspective


The components in e-waste and the disposal methods of e-waste could harm the environment in different ways. This section aims to identify the environmental effects caused by the main pollutants in e-waste, incineration, and landfilling. With the trend of certain indicators, whether the circular economy mediates environmental issues caused by e-waste will be examined.


Based on diagrams and specific data, this section focuses on a qualitative analysis of how the circular economy affects environmental issues caused by hazardous components, incineration, and landfilling. Most data are from existing assessments, reports, and papers published by authoritative institutions or experts in this field. Global warming, ozone depletion, and uncontrolled fire are overall three main environmental issues caused by e-waste. The change in the emission of certain pollutants and its effect on surface temperature or combustible leachates help to evaluate the environmental perspective of the circular economy.


Because of numerous materials in e-waste, some of them could be environmentally harmful with multiple categories of EEE in the market. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could be discovered in temperature exchange equipment as refrigerants; brominated flame retardants (BFR) exist in printed circuit boards, laptops, and televisions; mercury is a common component in LCD monitors/TVs. These materials bring various negative impacts to the environment, especially for CFCs and BFR which are not commonly found in other kinds of wastes. CFCs and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are applied to a wide range of electric equipment due to the function of adjusting the temperature. However, the public continuously emphasizes the impact of CFCs on ozone depletion and global warming. Rowland - Molina hypothesis indicates that the chemical inertness and high volatility of CFCs cause them to remain in the atmosphere for a long time, triggering catalytic conversion after going through photolytic dissociation (Molina & Rowland, 1994). In addition, the emission of greenhouse gases and the phenomenon of global warming are also linked with CFCs. Because of absorbing radiation from the surface and emitting it at atmospheric temperature, the strong infrared bands of CFCs and chlorocarbons reduce the net infrared influx, increasing surface and atmospheric temperature (Ramanathan, 1975). The Montreal Protocol in 1987 began to phase out CFCs, but it is not until 2017 that this component is substituted with other materials with fewer greenhouse gases emission. Halocarbon global warming potential (HGWP) is the ratio of calculated warming for each unit mass of a gas emitted into the atmosphere relative to the calculated warming for a mass unit of reference gas CFC- 11 (Fisher, et al., 1989). How CFC negatively affects the environment should include the carbon dioxide emission during the manufacturing process of electric equipment such as refrigerators. Total equivalent warming impact (TEWI) considers the combined direct effects and indirect energy-related effects for systems using CFCs (Fischer, 1992). Hence, in the following section, the paper tends to evaluate the trend of TEWI and HGWP with the development of the circular economy to identify whether the environmental issues are getting better. Brominated flame retardants are typically contained in modern technical equipment to prevent the combustion of EEE. BFR includes polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) (de Wit, 2002). These BFRs could be reactive or additive. Reactive BFRs incorporate into the polymer, so they are more difficult to be released into the environment; additive BFRs are not part of the structure of the polymer, so they could be separated from the polymer easily and released into the environment (Birnbaum & Staskal, 2004). Because of BFR molecules’ persistence, bioaccumulation, and potential for toxicity, experts are concerned about the negative impact on the environment and on human health. Due to lacking information to deal with BFRs, exporting them to developing countries is a common method utilized by developed countries. A total of 71 kt of BFR plastics are found in globally undocumented flows of e-waste annually (Forti et al., 2020). When developing countries recycle these plastics, they do not have the technology to separate BFRs from them, so some BFR molecules are contained in recycled plastic products such as toys that end up as entertainment for children. Hence, BFRs could access children’s bodies easily.

Downsides of Incineration & Landfilling

The appearance of the circular economy indicates the decrease of utilizing traditional disposal methods to deal with e-wastes including incineration and landfilling. To understand what harmful effects could incineration and landfilling have on the environment is crucial to learn what is the environmental benefit of promoting recycling and reusing. Before the advocation of the Basel Convention, developing countries excessively received e-wastes from developed countries, and incineration is the most common way to deal with them for decreasing the mass and volume of e-waste and allowing thermal energy to be acquired (Tao, et al., 2014). However, more than 1000 different substances, many of which are toxic, create serious pollution upon disposal (Puckett, et al., 2002). Heavy metals in the e-waste residues and the emission of pollutants while incinerating harm the environment severely but in different ways. CO2 emission occurs in the process of incineration, reaching a range of concentration between 6.0% and 15.0% when the e-waste is burned in a preheated kiln (Stewart & Lemieux, 2003). As a greenhouse gas, the overmuch emission of CO2 enhances the greenhouse effect, increasing global temperature. This increment in CO2 could also cause the reduction of highly reflective sea ice, the surface albedo reduces significantly, and the net incoming solar radiation increases markedly in summer (Manabe & Stouffer, 1980). In addition, other substances such as various volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lead, and antimony all have a high concentration in the air or flue gas while the incineration process (Stewart & Lemieux, 2003). These components lead to different negative environmental consequences including photochemical flog and other diseases that occur in the bodies of both aquatic and terrestrial organisms, which affect the ecological systems. Incineration does not only threaten the environment but also creates potential risk when some of the materials become ashes. Those ashes could be easily accessible to human beings and animals. Heavy metals, especially Cd, Cu, and Pb, in the ash pose risks of non-cancer effects, particularly to children, through three exposure pathways (ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact) (Tao, et al., 2014). Though a small proportion of countries in Europe already banned landfilling, it is still the most common way to dispose of e-waste because of its low cost. Nevertheless, landfilling induces severe environmental problems particularly caused by leachate and uncontrolled fire (Annamalai, 2015). Organic and putrescible material in landfills decomposes and percolates through the soil as landfill leachate (Kiddee, et al., 2013). It includes diverse toxic components such as high concentrations of heavy metals and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs). Because of the location of landfilling, it is extremely easy for leachate to enter groundwater and contaminate it. Particularly, wasted printed circuit boards contain a high concentration of lead (Pb), damaging organisms’ nervous systems, and leading to the destruction of the aquatic ecosystem. In addition, when considering the bio-accessibility of lead in the PCBs through Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP), the Pb concentration is much higher (Kiddee, et al., 2013). The organic compounds in e-waste are the origin that caused the uncontrolled fire. Both aerobic and anaerobic biological decomposition of the organic compounds causes the temperature to reach approximately 71 °C accompanying the release of carbon dioxide, methane, and water (Stearns & Petoyan, 1984). The increase in temperature leads to an increase in chemical oxidation, which provides sufficient oxygen for ignition (Stearns & Petoyan, 1984). However, with scientific equipment, the landfill gas caused by chemical reactions could be a source of providing energy.

Evaluation of the circular economy on environment & Results

In the previous sections, the paper pointed out refrigerants, incineration, and landfilling could pose threats on the environment. Whether the development of circular economy could mediate these problems is worth researching. For refrigerants, after the Montreal Protocol, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) became the optimal alternative for CFCs and HCFCs. However, though HFCs do not contain ozone-depleting chlorine or bromine, it is still categorized as a compound that has high global warming potentials when it lives in the atmosphere for a long time. Table 6 compares the lifetime and GWP of two periods, showing that HFCs global warming potentials have relatively little difference with CFCs and HCFCs, and HFC-23 even has the highest GWPs in the table.

When wasted temperature exchange equipment enters the recycling process, the disposal of refrigerants is crucial. The change of radiative forcing and surface temperature reflects the emission of refrigerants. From Figure 3, because of the Montreal Protocol, the radiative forcing caused by CFCs and HCFCs are gradually decreasing, but it is not relative to the recycling process of refrigerants. The trend of radiative forcing of HFCs is a better indicator of the effectiveness of the circular economy. The adoption of the Kigali Amendment in 2016 to phase down global hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) production and consumption, so the trend of HFCs (Kigali) tends to decrease starting at 2040, but still this is caused by the policy not by the recycling process (WMO, 2018). Without the existence of Kigali Amendment, the radiative forcing of HFCs increases substantially from 2020 to 2100. Hence, the recycling process seems to be ineffective of stopping the increase of radiative forcing caused by HFCs.

Without controls, as shown in Figure 4, the HFC emission continues to increase in the following years and leading to the increase of the surface temperature by 0.5 °C at the peak. These diagrams demonstrate that circular economy could hardly solve the environmental issues caused by refrigerants. This result could be caused by multiple factors such as the limitation of technology. Hence, the proper method to decrease refrigerants’ impact on radiative forcing and increase in surface temperature is to discover new alternative that has less GWPs or to develop technology that could eliminate refrigerants emission during the recycling process. The increase of recycling rate of e-waste leads to the decrease of incineration, so the CO2 emission also decreases. Table 7 shows that from 2015 to 2017, the CO2 emission reduction in China increases from 87 tons to 751 tons.

Figure 5 shows that from 2013 to 2017 the reduction efficiency in different provinces in China overall increases. Moreover, from 2013 to 2017, the total benefits of CO2 emission reduction in China amounted to 390 million yuan, with Hubei as the largest province with a total benefits of 351.57 million yuan (Yang et al., 2019). These data suggest that the recycling of e-waste makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gas reduction and climate change (Yang et al., 2019).

To further promote the circular economy, reducing landfilling is an effective choice. The Netherlands increased landfill taxes and banned landfilling of certain types of wastes and some of them are combustible. In the previous section, one environmental threat caused by landfilling is the uncontrollable fire. Figure 6 indicates that the weight of combustible landfills in The Netherlands decreased from 6 metric tonnes per year to approximately 0 metric tons per year. With the decrease of the weight of combustible landfills, the occurrences of uncontrolled fire will be reduced significantly. From the above evaluation, it is plausible to conclude that the development of the circular economy does reduce the potential risks that incineration and landfilling posed on the environment. However, Ozone depletion and global warming caused by the emission of refrigerants continue, and only legislations work effectively to mediate these problems.

Health Perspective


As stated in the environmental perspective, many compounds in e-waste are toxic, which not only threats the environment but also potentially harms people’s health. This section presents the components that could possibly harm human health, identifies populations that could be affected by e-waste, and discovers how the populations are exposed to the e-waste. The toxic compounds in e- waste could induce various diseases, and whether the circular economy reduces the occurrences of these diseases is worth discussing.


Because of lacking quantitative data of diseases caused by e-waste, this section focuses on qualitative analysis of the effects of e-waste on health and how does the circular economy impact the harm of e-waste on human bodies. Some of the content is referenced from global institutions and programs such as the United Union and Children’s Health and Environment Program. Other than identifying specific health consequences caused by e-waste, following the pathway of e-waste is a crucial process to understand how people could access to e-waste, so different ways of exposure are listed in this section. Moreover, targeted populations are examined to find out vulnerable groups that could be affected by e-waste the most. The range of studies that focused on health perspective of e-waste is relatively narrow, so it is hard to conclude that the association of the health consequences and e-waste is definite.

Components that harm human health

Three categories of harmful components in e-waste are persistent organic contaminants, dioxins, and heavy metals. These categories cause health effects on thyroid function, lung function, reproductive health, physical growth, and mental health outcomes (Grant et al., 2013). Regardless of the populations and the pathways that could come in contact with e-waste, the health effects caused by harmful components in e-waste could severely threaten human bodies, increasing the death rate. Table 8 summarizes the specific health consequences caused by representatives of persistent organic contaminants, dioxins, and heavy metals. Among all three categories, heavy metals contain various components that could lead to different kind of diseases.

In addition, there is a lack of reliable or efficient ways to reprocess plastics in e-wast, even though the circular economy in some cases could reduce the amount of harmful components (Li & Achal, 2020). Exposure to them may lead to birth defects, cancers, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other disorders (Li & Achal, 2020). Hence, because of the limitation of technology and other factors, the circular economy might not be able to deal with the health issues that posed by certain components in e-waste.

Pathways and target populations

From a broader view, the exposure of e-waste could be divided to two pathways: community exposure and occupational exposure. Community exposure means that e-waste is accessible to people through home and family-based activities. Exposure through food, water, and air, home based workshop are pathways of community exposure (Forti et al., 2020). Occupational exposure means that e-waste is accessible to people through disposing it. Inhaling fumes from burning wires and cooking circuit boards in incineration process and working in an unofficial recycling site during pregnancy are included in occupational exposure (Forti et al., 2020). Moreover, there are other indirect exposures that people could access to hazardous compounds. people can come into contact with e-waste materials, and associated pollutants, through contact with contaminated soil, dust, air, water, and through food sources, including meat (Grant et al., 2013). Table 9 shows that air, dust, soil, and water are the most common ecological source of exposure for persistence organic contaminants, dioxins, and heavy metals; ingestion and inhalation are the most common routes of exposure for the three categories of harmful components in e-waste.

Although people from all ages are affected by e-waste, children are a particularly sensitive group because of additional routes of exposure (e.g. breastfeeding and placental exposures), high- risk behaviours (e.g. hand-to-mouth activities in early years and high risk-taking behaviours in adolescence), and their changing physiology (e.g. high intakes of air, water, and food, and low rates of toxin elimination) (Grant et al., 2013). Children can be harmed by toxic components listed above by ingesting contaminated dust on surfaces, playing with dismantled electronics, and working in unofficial collecting and recycling sites (Forti et al., 2020). Before the import ban of e-waste in China in 2017, children who lived in cities with ports were facing severe risk of being harmed by hazardous components in e-waste. Children in Guiyu had higher concentrations of lead in their blood than did those living in towns with no e-waste recycling, which was correlated with location of residence in Guiyu (particularly having an e-waste workshop within 50 m), parents!"involvement in e-waste recycling, (including time involvement), the use of the home as a recycling workshop, and the gnawing of toys by children (Grant et al., 2013).

Effects of developing the circular economy on health & Results

The economic return of recycling e-waste promotes development of the circular economy. However, with the regulations, the cost of the recycling process could be a financial burden for local governments, so some countries decide not to implement legislations or impose loose regulations of recycling e-waste. This phenomenon induces the establishment of unofficial recycling sites. For instance, in India, the informal sector is estimated to be handling around 95% of the e-waste recycled, and there are certain drawbacks such as the precarious working conditions, lack of social security for the workers and the environmental risks caused by the unscientific processes (Theis, 2020). The appearance of these informal recycling workshops could pose severe threats on people’s health. Children and workers are two kinds of populations that would be affected the most. Children that live in the environment of recycling e-waste show various indications of unhealthy sign. In Guiyu, boys aged 8–9 years had a lower forced vital capacity than those living in Liangying, a control town with no evidence of e-waste recycling (Grant et al., 2013). Lower forced vital capacity infers a relatively high level of blood chromium concentrations. Studies also show other potential diseases in children. As shown in Figure 7, olfactory memory, DNA damage, hearing loss, rapid onset of blood coagulation, and cardiovascular regulatory changes could all happen on children with the exposure of hazardous components in e-waste. Hence, with the development of the circular economy, the emergence of informal recycling sites could severely harm the health of children.

In addition, to reduce the cost as much as possible, the recycling processes in some countries could be non-complaint with no thorough protection. E-waste workers have reported stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness (Forti et al., 2020). This is mainly because workers could directly access to harmful components in e-waste through pathways listed in Table 9. Figure 8 presents other diseases on informal recycling workers. Even though adults have a relatively small chance of getting severe diseases, there is a significant risk of harm for workers. Overall, the circular economy could reduce the exposure of some hazardous components in e-waste, but informal recycling increases the threats of e-waste on human health.

Conclusion & Discussion

This paper provides a holistic analysis of the effects of developing the circular economy on dealing with issues caused by e-waste. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses are used in the paper. Overall, the circular economy produces economic return and effectively solves specific environmental issues and health troubles, but, still, certain regulations are needed in the future. From the cost-benefit analysis of recycling e-waste in Australia, it is undoubted that the economic return of recycling domestic generation of e-waste is promising. About 415 million € is earned when the recycling rate reaches 100%. However, the current recycling rate is limited by technologies and land. To recycle more valuable components in e-waste such as rare earth elements, governments have to subsidize the invention of new technologies. Moreover, the difference in compliant recycling cost and non-compliant recycling cost induces the trade of e-waste, leading developing countries to receive additional e-waste from developed countries. Fortunately, the existence of Basel Convention limits transboundary movements of hazardous wastes.

The circular economy contributes to the reduction of CO2 emission from traditional disposal methods such as incineration and landfilling. To stimulate the development of the circular economy, some countries have implemented high landfilling taxes and even banned landfilling, which decreases the chances of polluting ground water by leachate and inducing uncontrolled fire. Implementing more strict policies on landfilling and incineration promotes the development of recycling e-waste. However, the development of the circular economy has limited effects on dealing with ozone depletion caused by refrigerants in temperature exchangeable devices, so exploring new alternatives for refrigerant is necessary. The effectiveness of the circular economy on mitigating health problems caused by e-waste is questionable. Without regulations, informal recycling workshops have flourished. Because some of the workshop is family-based, children living in this environment are facing potential threats from various diseases. In addition, for lacking protection during the recycling process, workers of informal recycling workshops are directly exposed to harmful components in e-waste. The unregulated recycling process poses health threats on a wide range of the population, so national requirements of the recycling process and inspection institutions are needed to prevent people from being exposed to e-waste. The topic of the circular economy and e-waste is broad, and this paper only covers a general analysis with selected cases of three perspectives. Studies that focus on other perspectives or specific details of the circular economy and e-waste are needed in the future.

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