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Piles of electronic waste. (Image Credit: Curtis Palmer / Flickr)

Piles of electronic waste. (Image Credit: Curtis Palmer / Flickr)

Up to 90 percent of the world’s electronic waste, including tossed cell phones, laptops and televisions, is illegally traded or dumped every year, at a value of up to $19 billion, according to a new report published this week by the United Nations Environment Program.

Last year, approximately 41.8 million tonnes of electronic waste was produced, and that number is predicted to rise to 50 million tonnes by 2018. Between 60-90 percent of that waste is dumped or traded illegally at a value of $12.5 billion to $18.8 billion, annually.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste rolling out over the world,” Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary General and executive director of UNEP, said in a statement.

In the report, “Waste Crime-Waste Risks: Gaps in Meeting the Global Waste Challenge,” the authors say that increasing amounts of waste that cannot be easily disposed of is creating a lucrative market for illegal trading and dumping that is creating hazardous environments for populations. 

A previous report found that Agbogbloshie, located outside Ghana’s capital Accra, has become the world’s largest e-waste dumpsite and that the amount of e-waste there will increase 33 percent in the next four years.

Agbogbloshie near Accra, Ghana, 2012. (Image Credit: Lantus / WikiMedia Commons)

Agbogbloshie near Accra, Ghana, 2012. (Image Credit: Lantus / WikiMedia Commons)

“Without any significant enforcement efforts dedicated to the mapping, investigation and possible prosecution of criminals involved in illegal waste collection, illegal dumping and transport activities are likely to grow, as will the associated threats to human health and environmental security,” the UNEP authors wrote.

Last year, the UK successfully prosecuted a case of illegal e-waste export, sentencing a licensed waste processor to 16 months in jail for illegally exporting 46 tons of hazardous electrical waste to Nigeria, Ghana and other destinations. Despite being a licensed waste processor, the defendant collected e-waste such as cathode ray TVs and freezers with ozone-depleting substances, and instead of properly testing them to ensure they were safe, he simply shipped them to West Africa, and stood to make an estimated £32,000. 

It was the first time the UK sentenced a person to jail for illegal e-waste trading and the case illustrates the myriad challenges involved in enforcing proper recycling and disposal of e-waste. 

The authors of the UNEP report recommend a number of steps to reduce illegal e-waste dumping and trading activities. First, they write, it will be important to raise awareness of the issue, strengthen monitoring capabilities, and encourage stakeholders to expose waste crimes. Worldwide, both national legislation and international treaties should be strengthened and implemented. Finally, parties responsible for the illegal shipment of waste should be forced to pay for its proper disposal and best practices on how to deal with e-waste should be shared.

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