$19bn e-waste black market ‘threatening the planet’

Up to 90% of the global electronic waste produced each year - worth nearly $19bn - is illegally traded or dumped, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

And the “mountain” of illegal e-waste is exhausting valuable resources and contains hazardous elements which pose a “growing threat” to the environment and human health.

UNEP’s ‘Waste Crimes’ report found that the electronics market generates around 41 million tonnes of e-waste a year, of which 60-90% is illegally traded or dumped. Interpol estimates that one tonne of e-waste can be sold at around $500 on the black market, thanks to harvestable precious metals .

UNEP executive director 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.”

A Friends of the Earth report released on Monday also revealed the impact of creating this endless cycle of e-waste, as the production of a single smartphone requires nearly 13 tonnes of water and 18 square metres of land. 

Tackling the threat

The UNEP report adds, however, that “innovative solutions to combat illegal and unsustainable handling of e-waste are emerging”.

For example, new techniques to recover valuable metals locked inside electronic products are becoming more readily available and can help the environment, as well as creating jobs and generating income.

Green groups and manufacturers are also focused on reducing the amount of waste in the first place through improved design and more circular business models.

The Green Alliance recently detailed six ways electronic manufacturers could conserve resources, including extending software upgrades and encouraging DIY repair.

The world’s largest electronics manufacture Samsung also recently told edie it is investigating new business models such as servitisation, trade-in, and leasing schemes in a bid to cut e-waste.

International co-operation

Steiner, however, said that more concerted government-backed effort would be need to fully tackle the e-waste issue.

He said: “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.”

Find out more about e-waste with edie’s top-10 facts.

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