Global criminal enforcement of illegal waste exports – a renewed focus?

by Morgane Horn (with an introduction by Tjeerd Hendel-Blackford) 27 Apr. 2018

We look back at Interpol’s “30-days of action” global enforcement action to combat illegal waste exports and we examine to what extent the problem is being dealt with, to the backdrop of Earth Day 2018 and its focus on ending plastic waste pollution.

Transboundary shipments of waste are regulated by the Basel Convention (for hazardous waste) transposed into EU law by Regulation EC/1013/006 (for both hazardous and non-hazardous waste). The Parties to the Basel Convention undertake to put in place measures, including legal and administrative measures, to implement and comply with the provisions of the Convention. Of the 186 Parties, only Haiti and the United States have signed the Convention but have not yet ratified it.

Back in June 2017, Interpol discovered more than 1.5 million tons of illegal waste worldwide during its “30 days of action” campaign.

In previous investigations it carried out, Interpol focused on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Following research undertaken in 2015 by the Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT) project, it was found that in Europe, only 35 percent (3.3 million tons) of all the electronic waste (e-waste) discarded in 2012 ended up in the officially reported amounts of collection and recycling systems.

The remaining 65 percent (6.15 million tons) was either:

  • exported (1.5 million tons);
  • recycled under non-compliant conditions in Europe (3.15 million tons);
  • scavenged for valuable parts (0.75 million tons);
  • or simply thrown in waste bins (0.75 million tons).

The 2017 “30 days of action” global campaign involved the cooperation of 43 countries and Interpol broadened its scope to cover all types of illegal waste, such as industrial, construction, domestic and medical waste. However, the illegal waste that was seized was mostly electronic or metal waste derived from the automotive industry. Interpol identified 85 sites where the waste had been illegally disposed of and 326 individuals as well as 244 companies were reported to be involved in criminal or administrative violations.

Results confirmed that Asia and Africa are the main destinations of illegally exported waste from Europe and North America, although the traffic also exists between European countries. The Dutch authorities discovered more than 10,000 tons of waste that could be part of a traffic within Europe and from the Netherlands to West Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The “30 days of action” campaign also uncovered new transnational trafficking routes used by criminal networks, thereby preventing the transfer of 300 tons of hazardous waste from Cyprus to Central America.

It is important to remember that Interpol has the mission to assist and coordinate law enforcement efforts among its members, and as such it does not carry enforcement powers itself. This is why in-country enforcement activities are critical: all investigations and arrests in each Interpol member country are carried out by the national police in accordance with national laws. “Waste crime is seen as a low-risk, high-reward crime for organized criminal networks which exploit differences in legislation between countries and regions, as well as weak enforcement systems” reports Interpol.

But has the world turned a blind eye to this problem since the Interpol action nearly one year ago? There are very strong indications that this is not the case as the problems posed by illegal waste export have been amplified by several recent key developments:

1. A global campaign and awareness of the proliferation of plastic waste – particularly in marine environments.

2. A regulatory enforcement crackdown in China on imports of foreign waste, which have been severely restricted.

3. Illegal waste shipments to Africa (and particularly Nigeria) have also been thrown into the global media spotlight, following a United Nations University report on this.

This increased enforcement activity can have knock-on effects for business, as highlighted by Jeff Sacre, Executive Director of CHWMEG, Inc., a nonprofit trade association comprised of companies interested in efficiently managing the waste management aspects of their environmental stewardship programs:

“As the cost of compliance for responsible waste stewardship increases, the potential for behavior changes to avoid cost and the resulting “leakage” of waste from the legal process and system may occur. These nefarious activities may be intentional by the waste producer, or schemes presented to the producer by illegitimate consultants as cost savings opportunities. As the world moves away from landfills toward treatment and recycling, the opportunities for illegal waste trade naturally increase. Manufacturers (and government agencies) need to face these changes with the recognition that tougher regulations create a greater need for due diligence. The Interpol investigation clearly underlines the need for responsible manufacturers and other waste-producing organizations to have a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation protocol to assess and monitor the risk related to their hazardous and non-hazardous waste vendors.”

— Jeffrey A. Sacre, Executive Director of CHWMEG, Inc.

The environmental, health and safety cost resulting from the illegal disposal of waste is such that for the next five years, the fight against illegal waste trafficking will be one of the European Union's top 10 priorities in the combat against organised crime.

This development further emphasizes the need for companies to secure better traceability of their waste, starting by requesting completion certificates from third-party facilities that treat, store, dispose, recycle, or transport their waste. The reputational cost alone following the finding of a company’s waste at an illegal site can amount to millions in lost investments, dropped shares and decreased sales, to name a few. Adding fines, mitigation costs, compliance and litigation fees, as well as criminal charges, the consequences of illegal dumping can become considerable.

The increased global focus on illegal waste shipments highlights the need for proper waste management systems and should make waste generators even more diligent in ensuring the proper handling of the waste they dispose of; not only when handing the waste over to the next vendor, but throughout the entire supply chain until final disposal.