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e-waste also electronic waste

noun [uncountable]

used electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers, televisions, etc., that have been thrown away

'Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a growing problem at college campuses across the nation. As more and more computers, printers, monitors, and other electronic items break down or become outmoded, questions often arise as to where to put this equipment, which often contains materials that are not biodegradable and sometimes toxic.'

Pittsburg Morning Sun 23rd October 2008

By 2012, all television transmissions in the UK will have switched from analogue to digital, rendering TVs only capable of receiving an analogue signal totally redundant. It's a disturbing prospect – the potential for hundreds of thousands of 'dead' televisions being abruptly disposed of and thereby creating a massive explosion in the growing problem of e-waste.

computers, televisions, mobile phones and electronic gaming devices form the biggest proportion of e-waste

The term e-waste, sometimes also occurring as expanded form electronic waste, refers to all electronic devices, surplus, broken or obsolete, which have been discarded by their original owners. According to estimates by the UN, the world produces up to 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year. The decreasing cost of electronic goods has only compounded the problem.

In practice, computers, televisions, mobile phones and electronic gaming devices form the biggest proportion of e-waste, since they are the things most likely to be replaced in the short term when people are keen to purchase the latest technology. In this sense then there's a correlation between the problem of electronic waste and what manufacturers describe as planned obsolescence, the intentional situation of a product becoming obsolete after a certain period of time, thereby forcing the consumer to replace it.

E-waste is particularly significant because disposal of electronic items can result in toxic rubbish, such products containing dangerous metals like lead, cadmium and mercury, which can contaminate air and water when they are dumped. Concern about the environmental issues surrounding e-waste has led governments across the world to implement laws prohibiting its disposal in landfills and issue directives on recycling. In the European Union, some responsibility has been placed back on the manufacturer in the form of directives which make them financially or physically responsible for their equipment at the end of its life (and thereby provide a competitive incentive for companies to design 'greener' products). There is also now tighter regulation on the movement of electronic waste, which traditionally found its way into Asian countries such as China and India.

Background – electronic waste

The term e-waste as an abbreviation for electronic waste takes inspiration from the use of the e- prefix as in e-mail, e-commerce, e-learning, etc. It differs from these examples however in that the e- prefix relates to electronic in its basic sense ('using electricity and electrical parts'), as opposed to denoting the idea expressed in the Macmillan Online Dictionary as 'on or using the Internet'.

Adopting the same theme, a national initiative in New Zealand aiming to raise awareness of the potential dangers of electronic waste, and providing an opportunity to dispose of it in an environmentally-friendly way, is known as e-day.

The prefix e- and its association with electronic data began life in the early eighties in the word e-mail, quickly assuming productive use on a range of expressions relating to emerging technologies. With English as the lingua franca of technology, e- soon became used cross-linguistically, favoured as an abbreviation for electronic regardless of how this translates into other languages.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 23rd September 2009.

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