Illegal Pollution

Illegal Pollution


Pollutants can contaminate the environment, whether it be on land, water or air. As such, illegal activities that result in pollution take two main forms, namely the illegal dumping of waste and the illegal emission or discharge of substances into soil, water or air. Illegal pollution or pollution crime occurs both nationally and internationally. Illegal pollution becomes an international concern when the pollutants cross borders into other countries. For the most part, illegal pollution is a result of economic incentives. In general, circumventing environmental laws and regulations allows businesses or individuals to dispose of waste without being subject to charges. Internationally, differences in the strictness and enforcement of environmental laws between countries encourages actors to take the waste to a country with less strict environmental regulations or weaker enforcement of the latter. 

Thus, both the illegal dumping of waste and the illegal emission or discharge of substances are often environmental crimes that are transboundary and thus, in order to effectively combat illegal pollution on land, in water or air, internationally coordinated responses are required.

Illegal Dumping of Waste

Illegal dumping of waste can refer to the unlawful disposal of wastes larger than litter onto land (landfilling) or into water and the unlawful deposit of e-waste within and outside national borders. Like all forms of pollution, illegal dumping of waste can have adverse effects on the environment and the quality of human lives, not to mention significant costs on communities. The fees that have to be paid for the lawful dumping of waste at proper waste disposal facilities can sometimes be higher than the fine for illegal dumping, thereby having a non-deterrent effect.

Illegal Emission or Discharge of Substances

The illegal emission or discharge of substances mainly includes the discharge of pollutants, often chemical by-products of production processes, into the air or the seas. Unregulated or illegal emissions from manufacturing can be substantial and have posed serious problems for public health and safety and the environment in many countries for decades. Examples include the release of mercury from power plants or coal plants and toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide.  In addition, the discharge of oil or waste from vessels into the sea can range from small scale to massive. In fact, the large number of small scale discharges of oil, chemicals, ballast, process water or waste in sensitive areas (e.g Baltic Sea) mean that they are in fact often more detrimental than the effect of a few massive discharges in less sensitive areas. It is believed that 5 to 15% of all large vessels break the law by discharging their waste oil into the ocean.[1]

[1] “Illegal Dumping”, Marine Defenders, accessed December 12, 2013,

International Action

The environmental impact of land, water or air pollution is widespread and particularly evident nowadays.

Pollution in the seas

In the first half of the 20th century, oil pollution of the seas was recognized as a serious matter, which led to national and international actions. In 1954, the United Kingdom convened the International Conference on Pollution of the Sea by Oil to reach a common agreement that would prevent pollution of the sea by oil discharges. Participating governments were able to agree on the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (OILPOL Convention), which placed a ban on oil discharge by vessels to which the Convention applies within certain prohibited areas.[1] Following the entry into force of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Convention in 1958, the OILPOL Convention became part of the IMO and hence the depository and Secretariat functions in relation to the Convention were transferred from the United Kingdom Government to the IMO.[2]

Subsequently, OILPOL rules were strengthened in the 1960’s and 1970’s following the wreck of the Torrey Canyon in England and the need to afford additional protection to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. In 1969, the IMO Assembly decided to convene an international conference in 1973 to prepare a suitable international agreement for placing restraints on the contamination of the sea, land and air by ships.[3] While the 1973 International Conference on Marine Pollution recognised that accidental pollution was significant, the Conference considered that operational pollution was still the bigger threat. This led to the creation of an international marine pollution treaty known as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention), which incorporated much of OILPOL and its amendments into Annex I, covering oil.

Due to worries that the MARPOL Convention may not be ratified and thus not enter into force, and following a large number of tanker accidents in the years 1976/77, the IMO decided to convene another conference – the 1978 Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention. The outcome of the conference was the Protocol of 1978 relating to the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Protocol). As the 1973 MARPOL Convention had not entered into force at the time when the Protocol was agreed on, the 1978 Protocol absorbed its parent Convention.[4] Together, they aim to achieve the prevention of pollution by oil, dangerous and hazardous substances; whether in bulk or packaged, sewage and garbage, and for vessels’ engines emissions to air.

It was agreed by the parties to the Conventions that any violation thereof that takes place within the jurisdiction of any Party to the Convention is punishable either under the law of that Party or under the law of the flag state.[5] Furthermore, under Article 17, “the Parties to the Convention accept the obligation to promote, in consultation with other international bodies and with the assistance of UNEP, support for those Parties which request technical assistance for various purposes, such as training, the supply of equipment, research, and combating pollution.”[6]

Apart from the MARPOL Convention, another notable international legal instrument is the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention). It was one of the first international conventions that has the protection of the marine environment from damaging human activities as its core function. As such, its objective is to advance the effective control of all sources of marine pollution of the sea, including by the dumping of wastes and other matter.[7] There are currently 87 State Parties to the London Convention. In 1996, the London Protocol was agreed on as a further addition to the London Convention. The London Protocol entered into force on 24 March 2004 and currently has 45 State Parties. The purpose of the Protocol is in line with that of the Conventio. However, the Protocol is more demanding. For instance, the “application of a "precautionary approach" is included as a general obligation.”[8] Furthermore, under the Protocol, all dumping is prohibited, except for possibly acceptable wastes, which are defined on the so-called “reverse list”.[9] The reverse list includes the following: dredged material, sewage sludge, vessels and platforms, inert, inorganic geological material (e.g. mining wastes) and bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel and concrete.[10] According to the IMO, the London Convention and its Protocol have been successful in that they have contributed to the reduction in unregulated dumping and incineration activities that were pervasive in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.[11]

Additionally, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) also has a programme concerned with the health of marine ecosystems called the UNEP Global Programme of Action for the Protection of Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA). The GPA was adopted by the international community in 1995 and “aims at preventing the degradation of the marine environment from land-based activities by facilitating the realization of the duty of states to preserve and protect the marine environment”.[12] It is unique in that it is the only global initiative directly addressing the link between terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems.[13] The implementation of the GPA is primarily the task of Governments, in close partnership with all stakeholders including local communities, public organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.[14] UNEP, as the secretariat of the GPA, and its partners will facilitate and assist Governments in their tasks.

Pollution of the air

Currently, air pollution is most commonly viewed in the context of climate change, and international action in this regard is one of the most prominent, in particular through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Notable conventions that relate to air pollution are the 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protetion of the Ozone Layer and the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Furthermore, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol deals with air pollution and its impact on the climate. Although the above-mentioned Conventions and Protocols focus on air pollution and its effects on human health and the environment, little reference is being made to the illegality of certain kinds of air pollution.

Pollution on land

Besides pollution in the seas and in the air, pollution on land is another significant problem encompassing a variety of practices. The most notable international instrument related to the issue of Hazardous Wastes is the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention). Currently, 180 states and the EU are parties to the Convention. The overarching objective of the Basel Convention is to protect human health and the environment against the negative effects of hazardous wastes. In specific, it aims to reduce hazardous wastes, restrict the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and putting in place a regulatory framework that applies to cases where the movement of wastes can be permitted.[15]

In order to enforce national and international legislation concerning pollution, INTERPOL’s Pollution Crime Working Group, which is a part of the Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee, deals with pollution crime on a project basis and on a global level by bringing together experts in the field and criminal investigators. Its projects aim to combat “the transport, trade and disposal of wastes and hazardous substances in contravention of national and international laws”.[16] Projects that the Working Group carry out refer to illegal activities relating to electronic waste, the seas and climate change and corruption.

[1] “International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954”, Admirality and Maritime Law Guide, accessed 15 December 2014,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL)”, IMO, accessed December 12, 2013,

[5] IMO-MARPOL History.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1972), art 1

[8] “Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter”, IMO, accessed December 13, 2013,

[9] This implies that all dumping is prohibited unless explicitly permitted.

[10] IMO, “The London Convention and Protocol: Their Role and Contribution to Protection of the Marine Environment”, accessed December 13, 2013,

[11] Ibid.

[12] UNEP Global Programme of Action for the Protection of Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (5 December 1995) p 7.

[13] UNEP, “Global Programme of Action for the Protection of Marine Environment from Land-based Activities”, accessed December 13, 2013,

[14] UNEP, “About the GPA”, accessed December 13, 2013,

[15] “Overview“, Basel Convention, accessed 15 December, 2014,

Featured International Institutions

Featured International Initiatives

Featured International Instruments

  • MARPOL Convention

    International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships
  • MARPOL Protocol

    Protocol of 1978 Relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships
  • London Convention

    Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter
  • London Protocol

    1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter

EU Action

The EU has made significant legislation to combat pollution of the sea from ships. The laws apply to ships that are active in EU waters as well as ships registereed in an EU member state, regardless of where they sail.[1] The making of EU law in the area of oil pollution of the seas has been influenced to a large degree by two major oil spills in 1999 and 2002.[2]

The European Parliament and the Council passed Directive 2005/35/EC (“Ship Source Pollution Directive”) to deal with pollution by ships with the introduction of penalties, including criminal penalties, for infringements of the Directive. Infringements that constitute a criminal offence according to the Directive include major or minor but repetitive discharges of oil as well as other noxious substances.[3] In fact, the Ship Source Pollution Directive transposed the MARPOL Convention into European law[4] so as to minimise discrepancies between the Member States’ enforcement of the Convention.[5] Directive 2009/123/EC amended the Ship Source Pollution Directive to advance the enforcement of the Directive through criminal penalties.[6]

In addition, Directive 2006/11/EC of 15 February 2006 was passed by the European Parliament and the Council “for [the] protection against, and prevention of, pollution resulting from the discharge of certain substances into the aquatic environment.”[7] However, at the end of 2013, the Directive was repealed by the Framework Directive on Water, which was established by Directive 2000/60/EC in 2000 by the European Parliament and the Council.[8] The Framework Directive is an overarching instrument that has as its purpose the protection of inland waters, groundwater, transitional waters and coastal waters. However, the Framework Directive was brought into question due to a report highlighting the severity of chemical pollutions in Europe’s waters. According to the study, almost half of European bodies of water are threatened by chemical toxicity, and Science Daily comments that “unless there is noticeable change to the current situation, the objectives and targets of the Water Framework Directive will not be met, due to toxicity from chemicals in the freshwater ecosystems.”[9]

Other notable EU legislation on the waste and the marine environment include:

  • Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (“Marine Strategy Framework Directive”) and its Marine Strategy;
  • The Marine Strategy Framework Directive’s Marine Strategy

Much of the EU legislation is concerned with the pollution of marine environments; however, EU environmental legislation encompasses two major and notable frameworks concerned with air quality and waste management, and thus with air pollution and hazardous and illegal waste dumping respectively.

According to the EU Commission, air pollution has been “one of Europe’s main political concerns since the late 1970s.”[10] In 2008, Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and the Council on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe came into force. The Directive merges most existing EU legislation dealing with air quality into a single Directive and sets out air quality objectives and limits for member states. In November 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain has to take urgent steps to clean up illegal air pollution in some of its cities, including London. According to John Vidal of the Guardian, “the landmark case […] will allow people to sue the government for breaching EU pollution laws and will force ministers to prepare plans for many cities to improve air quality.”[11]

Concerning waste management and the issue of hazardous wastes, the EU has in 2008 passed Directive 2008/98/EC (Waste Framework Directive) of the European Parliament and the Council.[12] The Directive is the basic framework regarding waste management in the EU, and includes the ‘polluter pays principle’ as well as provisions on hazardous waste and waste oils. A 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice highlights the enforceability of the EU’s legislation concerned with waste. The Court fined Italy €40 million as a result of the country’s failure to combat the illegal dumping of waste – a prevalent problem in Italy causing multiple concerns for human health.[13]

[1] The Republic of Ireland’s Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, “Ship Source Pollution Prevention”, accessed December 13, 2013,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Europa, “Ship-source pollution and criminal penalties”, accessed December 13, 2013,

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Directive 2009/123/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 amending Directive 2005/35/EC on ship-source pollution and on the introduction of penalties for infringements

[7] “ Protection of the aquatic environment against discharges of dangerous substances (until 2013)“, EU, accessed 16 December 2014,

[8] See Directive 2013/39/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 August 2013 amending Directives 2000/60/EC and 2008/105/EC as regards priority substances in the field of water policy.

[9] “ Chemical pollution of European waters is worse than anticipated“, Science Daily, accessed 16 December 2014,

[10] Air Quality, EU Commission, accessed 16 December 2014,

[11] EU court rules UK government must clean up dangerous air pollution, Guardian, accessed 16 December 2014,

[12] Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (Waste Framework Directive), European Commission, acessed 16 December 2014,

[13] EU court fines Italy €40m for failing to clean up illegal waste, Guardian, accessed 16 December 2014,

Featured EU Institutions

Featured EU Initiatives

Featured EU Instruments

  • EU Directive 2009/123/EC

    Directive 2009/123/EC of the European Parliament and European Council of 21 October 2009 amending Directive 2005/35/EC on ship-source pollution and on the introduction of penalties for infringements (Text with EEA relevance)
  • Ship Source Pollution Directive

    Directive 2005/35/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 September 2005 on ship-source pollution and on the introduction of penalties, particularly criminal penalties, for infringements
  • Dangerous Substances Directive

    Directive 2006/11/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 february 2006 on pollution caused by certain dangerous substances discharged into the aquatic environment of the community
  • Industrial Emissions Directive

    Directive 2010/75/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 November 2010 on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control)
  • Marine Strategy Framework Directive

    Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy

Role of Earth Observation

Enforcement authorities can make use of two major methods – Visual Aerial Detection and Remote Sensing – to detect and prosecute offenders of illegal pollution, especially in aquatic environments.[1]

Visual Aerial Detection

According to the Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution, (CEDRE), “Aerial observation is the main tool used to detect operational pollution by ships. It enables the pollution to be identified, located, accurately described and, where possible, allows the polluter to be identified. A pollution observation report is drawn up to enable legal action to be taken.” [2]

Remote Sensing

Further, “Remote sensing is a complementary method of observation, in addition to observation by the human eye. French Customs, for instance, have two specialised planes (Polmar II and III) equipped with specific equipment: Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), infrared and ultraviolet scanners, microwave radiometers, very low light level camera. Very low light level cameras are able to identify vessels at night. Radar, scanners and microwave radiometer are used to characterise the pollutant.” [3]

[1] Detecting Illegal Discharge, CEDRE, accessed December 17, 2014,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


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