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War on waste: how the EU is tackling illegal shipments to developing countries

War on waste: how the EU is tackling illegal shipments to developing countries
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Cyril Fourneris
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Every year Europe exports millions of tonnes of waste to developing countries, and not all of it legally. Cyril Fourneris explores EU efforts to combat the illicit waste trade and initiatives to make better use of it in Europe.

The rubbish bag that you toss in the bin, or even your old phone, may end up on the other side of the world. Every year, Europe exports millions of tonnes of waste to developing countries, with potentially adverse impacts on the local environment.

In this highly lucrative business, it is estimated that a third of shipments are illegal and criminal organisations are making billions. The European Union has therefore decided to limit waste exports and encourage recycling across Europe.

An alarming case of illicit household waste trafficking is well remembered as the "Italian waste" affair. The facts date back to 2020. Nearly 300 containers full of waste arrived at the port of Sousse, in Tunisia. Civil society played a crucial role in obtaining the return of much of the waste to Italy, and a number of judicial sentences on both shores of the Mediterranean.

We're talking about a network of what is known as the eco-mafia, which also involved companies, politicians
Houssem Hamdi
Tunisian anti-waste trafficking activist

Houssem Hamdi, is at the forefront of efforts to ensure such incidents are never repeated. He is the founder of an association promoting recycling in Tunis. He's one of the whistleblowers of the Tunisie Verte network, which has fought to have waste sent back to Europe. "It was a sacred evening," Houssem recalls. "A small victory for Tunisia, for Africa and for all good environmentalists. It was also a way of sending the message to the other countries on the southern shore, that it can be done. We're talking about a network of what is known as the eco-mafia, which also involved companies, politicians and so on. I'm sure it's the tree that hides the forest." he says.

A thriving toxic market

Many grey areas remain in relation to this case, and illegal waste trafficking is still going on. This year, Italian customs seized another 82 tonnes of waste on en route to Tunisia.

Maidi Karbai, a former member of the Tunisian parliament has been sounding the alarm for years: "The Basel Convention requires that certain types of waste cannot be imported. But some reports say that certain ports, such as the port of Bizerte, have become hubs where they can import waste and also export it to other continents and other African countries," he says

Waste management is a thorny issue in Tunisia. The country has launched a major modernisation plan, but in practice waste is often buried unsorted in huge landfill sites. Some are controlled, others are illegal. The Road to Green visited one in the southern suburbs of the capital, in the company of Heikel Khomsi, an activist from the AMIS environgmental group.

"You can see the water stagnating and then becoming polluted," Heikel says, pointing to a narrow stream of filthy water. "You can see the colour, it's not clear. So it's infecting the water table. The problem is that this is a wetland, so it's an area where you can't put rubble because it stops the water circulating. And above all, no household waste, because it gives off what we call leachate, which is even dangerous."

Exporting Europe's waste

EU crackdown on illegal waste

A new European regulation has just come into force. Countries that are not OECD members, such as Tunisia, will have to prove that they have the capacity to treat waste sustainably in order to receive it. The export of plastic waste outside the EU will be banned. The regulation also includes new tools to combat these eco-mafias.

These new tools will be deployed in ports like Genoa in Italy, one of the Mediterranean's main shipping hubs. Customs officers here are at the forefront of the fight against illegal waste trafficking More than a million containers pass through these docks every year. Some of this waste is exported under false customs declarations.

These materials have been processed incorrectly and, on top of that, are being sent to a country that has no infrastructure capable of processing and recycling them properly
Andrea Biggi
Italian Cusoms Agency

Officers showed us a container full of burnt rubber, which had been stopped before it left for Thailand.

"These materials have been processed incorrectly and, on top of that, are being sent to a country that has no infrastructure capable of processing and recycling them properly," explained Andrea Biggi, a senior officer the Italian Customs Agency's anti-fraud section.

"We produce a lot of waste in Europe," he said. "This waste could be re-used and recycled, and companies are paid for that, but some don't do it. Criminal organisations try to make money out of the surplus, and profit from the money invested in recycling these materials."

Italian customs participate in a new European rapid alert system, which is activated when they identify suspicious cargo. They can be scanned and inspected. Another example was found in a container that was supposedly carrying equipment to Malaysia. After examing the old TV decoders inside the customs officers revealed it was, in fact, e-waste.

"The products are crushed and the printed circuit board is extracted and burnt to recover the precious metals," said Augusto Atturo, of the Italian Customs Agency.

We try to build a bridge from the EU and the country of destination, and investigate in the country of export if there is a network behind and work in order to dismantle the network."
Luigi Garruto ,
Investigator with EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF,

Luigi Garruto, an investigator with the Europan Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, explained that such material can "end up in illegal landfills here and there, with a high impact on the environment in Malaisia for sure, just to collect a few grams of precious materials ".

The European Union has also strengthened the law on environmental crime, with tougher penalties and an extended list of offences. OLAF, plays a key role in coordinating investigations.

"For environmental cases," said Garruto. "It's essential to put together not only customs authorities who are our natural counterparts, but also environmental authorities. So, we try to build a bridge from the EU and the country of destination, and investigate in the country of export if there is a network behind and work in order to dismantle the network."

Dirty business, precious resource

Waste can be dealt with as a precious resource. The new rules encourage the transfer and recovery of waste within the EU, as we discovered at a recycling plant in Escaupont, northern France, belonging to Derichebourg Environnement. This new facility recycles old electronic cables. It has a capacity of 20,000 tonnes a year, the equivalent of two Eiffel Towers.

"At the end of the line, we obtain copper," said Gaston Desclozeaux, the plant's Operations Manager. "We sell it to copper refiners, mainly in Belgium and Germany.

What we really need here is a strong policy from Europe, an incentive policy. Just as we have ambitious recycling targets, we also need incentives for manufacturers to consume recycled materials
Tess Pozzi
Derichebourg Environnement recycling company

Copper was listed by the EU as a critical material to boost the the electrification of industry and economic output. The group recieved funds from the French recovery plan to relocate this activity.

"Before, we used to export [the cables] to Asia because there wasn't enough [copper] consumption in Europe, explained Desclozeaux. "This enables us to supply European copper refineries and avoid sending strategic metals to Asia.

The circular economy is a priority of the Green Deal. But less than 12% of the materials consumed in the EU today come from recycling.

Tess Pozzi,the head of Public Affairs, Derichebourg Environnement believes more incentives are needed: "What we really need here is a strong policy from Europe, an incentive policy. Just as we have ambitious recycling targets, we also need incentives for manufacturers to consume recycled materials, and today this is still very inadequate. We need to develop the incorporation of recycled materials into the new products we consume on the European continent.".

Click on the video above to watch the episode in full.

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