Geneva, 12 May 2015 - Up to 90 per cent of the world's electronic waste, worth nearly US $19 billion, is illegally traded or dumped each year, according to a report released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Each year, the electronic industry - one of the world's largest and fastest growing - generates up to 41 million tonnes of e-waste from goods such as computers and smart phones. Forecasts say that figure may reach 50 million tonnes already by 2017.
A staggering 60-90 per cent of this waste is illegally traded or dumped, according to UNEP's "Waste Crimes, Waste Risks: Gaps and Challenges In the Waste Sector", launched today in Geneva, at the Conference of Parties to the three major conventions addressing the global waste issue, the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.
The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) estimates the price of a tonne of e-waste at around US $500. Following this calculation, the value of unregistered and informally handled, including illegally traded and dumped e-waste ranges from US $12.5 to US $18.8 billion annually.
UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNEP, Achim Steiner said: "We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste rolling out over the world. Not only does it account for a large portion of the world's non-recycled »waste mountain«, but it also poses a growing threat to human health and the environment, due to the hazardous elements it contains.
"Through enhanced international cooperation and legislative coherence, stronger national regulations and enforcement, as well as greater awareness and robust prevention measures we can ensure that the illegal trade and dumping of e-waste is brought to an end. This will create a win-win situation, whereby rare and expensive elements are safely recycled and reused, boosting the formal economy, depriving criminals of income and reducing health risks to the public," he added.
Innovative solutions to combat illegal and unsustainable handling of e-waste are emerging. Recovering valuable metals and other resources locked inside electronic products, for example, can reduce the amount of e-waste produced, diminishing pressure on the environment, creating jobs and generating income.
The growing volumes of e-waste, municipal waste, food waste, discarded chemicals and counterfeit pesticides, all contribute to increasing pressure on the environment. The report also points to the fact that every year, roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption globally - approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, worth over US $1 trillion - is lost or wasted.
The global waste market - from collection to recycling - is estimated to be worth US $410 billion a year, generating jobs and incomes. As with any large economic sector, it creates opportunities for illegal activities at various stages of the waste chain. Concentrated on making profit, operators are prone to ignore waste regulations and expose workers to toxic chemicals. On a larger scale, organized crime may engage in tax fraud and money laundering, as volumes handled go largely unregistered, allowing for substantial under and overreporting.
Currently, Europe and North America are the largest producers of e-waste, though Asia's cities are catching-up quickly.
Export of hazardous waste from European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Member States to non-OECD countries is banned; therefore it is not subject to notification or licensing. Instead, thousands of tonnes of e-waste are falsely declared as second-hand goods and exported from developed to developing countries, including waste batteries falsely described as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors declared as metal scrap. Both small and large-scale smuggling techniques can be observed all over the world, from organized truck transport across Europe and North America to the use of major smuggling hubs in South Asia, including widespread container transport by sea.
Africa and Asia are key destinations for large-scale shipments of hazardous wastes for dumping, and sometimes for recycling. Ghana and Nigeria are among the largest recipients in West Africa, although high volumes of e-waste are also transported to Cote d'Ivoire and the Republic of Congo. In Asia, China, Hong Kong, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam appear to bear the brunt of illegal e-waste shipments.
Inconsistency in regulations between exporting and importing countries - including what is classified as hazardous or contaminated waste - poses a challenge to effectively combatting illegal waste trafficking.
Technical guidelines on the criteria used to classify equipment as waste or non-waste are currently negotiated at the international level. Binding agreements on classification of waste through the conventions will be vital to preventing the dumping of waste in developing countries.
Insufficient control over waste removal is another loophole exploited by criminals, who collect payments for the safe disposal of waste, which they later dump or recycle unsafely.
Another source of income from illegal waste handling comes from recycling certain components, such as rare earth metals, copper and gold. The discarded electronics are recycled in conditions that are hazardous to health, and typically lead to subsequent dumping of the majority of the waste. Promoting safe recycling is vital to a better waste management.
Countries are encouraged to:
- Strengthen awareness, monitoring and information by mapping of scale, routes and state of hazardous waste, and possible involvement of organized crime.
- Strengthen awareness in the enforcement chain, and of prosecutors, of the risks of fraud, tax fraud and money laundering through the waste sector.
- Strengthen national legislation and enforcement capacities.
- Promote prevention measures and synergies, such as facilitate the proper return of illegal waste shipments and at cost to shipper.
- Proceed with a technical assessment of quantities and qualities of abandoned containers, particularly in Asia, and of dumping of hazardous waste worldwide.
- Further improve binding agreements on classification of waste.