We’ve written before about the problem of e-waste (see here and here), and a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme underscores the urgency of the situation. In a nutshell, discarded electronics contain valuable substances that are worth recycling, but far too much of the recycling is done informally by workers – many of them children – who lack sufficient protections from the hazardous materials these products contain. Shipments of old computers, phones, and other electronics are often dumped in developing countries, and entire towns can be contaminated with lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, or other hazardous substances.

UNEP’s new report tallies the e-waste increase that we can expect in the next few years. As purchases of mobile phones and computers increase, the report predicts that global e-waste generation will increase by 40 million tons each year. The report also includes country-specific predictions, including that in South Africa and China “by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500% in India.”

The UNEP press release about the report offers some solutions:

Developing vibrant national recycling schemes is complex and simply financing and transferring high tech equipment from developed countries is unlikely to work, according to the report.

It says China’s lack of a comprehensive e-waste collection network, combined with competition from the lower-cost informal sector, has held back state-of-the art e-waste recycling plants.

It also notes a successful pilot in Bangalore, India, to transform the operations of informal e-waste collection and management.

Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa are cited as places with great potential to introduce state of the art e-waste recycling technologies because the informal e-waste sector is relatively small.

Kenya, Peru, Senegal and Uganda have relatively low e-waste volumes today but likely to grow. All four would benefit from capacity building in so-called pre-processing technologies such as manual dismantling of e-waste.

The report recommends countries establish e-waste management centers of excellence, building on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management.

The US should follow the EU’s lead and require that producers shoulder responsibility for the disposal of their products. As individuals, we should also make sure to dispose of old electronics responsibly (Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards program has tips).