According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), there is a shocking amount of electronic waste – ranging from 60 % to 90% – that is illegally traded or dumped annually. UNEP defines e-waste as waste related to electrical and electronic equipment, such as computers, mobile phones, television sets, and refrigerators. Approximately 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste produced in 2014, valued at as much as $18.8 billion, was handled informally or illegally traded on a black market. It is estimated that this number will only increase to 50 Mt by 2018.
This black market has expanded for a number of reasons, including weak regulations, reduced environmental awareness, and high costs of treating and disposing hazardous wastes. Despite these obstacles, illegal waste activities must be stopped to avoid continued weakening of efforts to protect global health and the environment and generate employment opportunities. There are several protocols that manage the handling of waste, including The Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, as well as the UN Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.
E-waste contains many hazardous materials that make it difficult to manage. But it also includes some valuable materials such as gold, copper, and nickel. These make e-waste an attractive trading commodity in environments susceptible to criminal activity. Handlers of these illegal waste shipments make the most profit from money earned for “supposed” safe disposal of waste that, in reality, is illegally dumped or improperly recycled.
Major areas for large-scale illegal waste shipments tend to primarily take place in regions of Asia and Africa. Improper recycling occurs mainly in popular ports of entries. The weak enforcement practices and lack of monitoring, statistics, and reporting in these areas is what makes them so vulnerable to organized waste crime, and its attendant money laundering and tax fraud.
UNEP provides four major suggestions in their report to reduce the threats of improper e-waste management. They suggest strengthening awareness, monitoring, availability of information, national legislation, enforcement capacities, international treaties, and compliance measures. They also recommend promoting prevention measures and synergies (such as charging shippers for return of waste for improper disposal), and improving international agreements on classifications for waste. UNEP believes that these actions may be the only way that the black market for e-waste can be terminated.