Illegal Shipment of Wastes

Illegal Shipment of Wastes


In recent decades, cross-border waste transports – by means of road, railway and water – have increased worldwide with economic growth and globalisation. In some cases, waste transport involves the movement or shipment of hazardous wastes, which can create risks for both human health and the environment.[1] They can come in the forms of liquids, solids, gases and sludge,[2] and can also include by-products of manufacturing processes and discarded commercial products like cleaning fluids or pesticides.

Especially nowadays, so-called e-Wastes, or electronic wastes, pose another significant problem and are a hazard to the natural and human environments. Cell phones for instance are, among others, made of lead, mercury and plastic, and a vast amount of cell phones are thrown away every day, causing the hazardous substances to contaminate the environment and leading to human health issues.[3]

Illegal Trade in e-Waste

Manufacturing of electronic equipment is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors in the world.[4] As the sale of electronic products continues to increase, the demand for the natural resources needed for their production, especially rare earth elements, is also on the rise.[5] Naturally, the waste (also known as e-waste) that arises at the end of  an electronic product’s life span also increases at the same pace. As a result, more shipments of used electronic equipment are taking place to and between developing countries. Some of this activity can be linked to organised crime. As part of INTERPOL’s Operation Enigma, a major crackdown was conducted by the police, customs, port authorities and environmental agencies in 2013 at ports in seven European and African countries, and illegal e-waste was discovered in one third of the cases.[6] The secondary market for electronics is large in Africa and sometimes it is difficult to determine what constitutes waste or a used product.[7] This grey zone is exploited by criminals.[8]

Despite the fact that e-waste is classified as very harmful to human health, the global capacity to manage it in a way that is safe for the environment and health is limited.[9] Manual disassembly and open burning of e-waste, so-called smash and burn, in order to separate out the metals for recycling, is common.[10] The remaining waste is then deposited in an uncontrolled manner which, depending on its dispersion characteristics, constitutes a local or even regional threat to human health and the environment.[11] 

The discarded electronic equipment are often exported to countries in West Africa and Asia and include scrapped televisions, cell phones and other electronic waste – an estimated 50 million tons of personal computers alone are disposed of each year. This waste contains a host of hazardous constituents including lead, arsenic mercury, cadmium and other toxic metals that can have serious health and environmental impacts.[12]

Illegal Trade in Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste can be either traded or trafficked illegally cross borders. Apart from different interpretations of the words “illegal” and “waste”, strict environmental laws and price differentials among developed and developing countries all lead to corporations abusing the incongruent laws in place. Such illegal trade or trafficking destroys the recipient country’s environment, economy and social welfare. Fishers can turn into pirates if their source of living (marine life) is destroyed and people can face severe health problems as a result of exposure to the hazardous waste. 

There are many examples of trade in and dumping of hazardous waste. One of the more well-known examples is the dumping of hundreds of tons of chemical waste in Abidjan in Ivory Coast in 2006.[13] The waste was shipped into Abidjan via the Panama-registered Probo Koala, owned by the multinational company Trafigura, with its headquarters in the Netherlands.[14] At least 16 people died and over 100,000 people sought medical treatment for vomiting, nosebleeds or breathing difficulties.[15] Another example is the Italian Mafia’s trade in unsorted municipal solid waste, which is indiscriminately dumped on land or at sea regardless of content.[16]

[1] “Waste shipment”, European Commission, accessed August 8, 2013,

[2] “Wastes – Hazardous Waste”, Environmental Protection Agency, accessed January 13, 2014,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Annica Waleij et al., “The Role of Environmental Crime in Terrorism, Conflict and Criminality,” in Strategic Outlook 2013, eds. Magdalena Tham Lindell et al. (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency, FOI, 2013), (hereinafter “FOI 2013”), 67.

[5] Ibid., 66-7.

[6] “INTERPOL operation targets illegal trade in e-waste in Europe, Africa”, INTERPOL, accessed January 13, 2014,

[7] FOI 2013, 68.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “International experts outline global strategy to tackle e-waste threat at INTERPOL meeting”, INTERPOL, accessed January 13, 2014,

[13] FOI 2013, 68.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 

International Action

In the 1970s and 1980s, public resistance to the disposal of hazardous wastes increased as a result of heightened general environmental awareness and corresponding tightening of environmental regulations in many industrialised countries. People did not want hazardous waste to contaminate their immediate sorroundings, a syndrome known as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).[1] This in result led to an escalation of disposal costs, and in turn to some operators looking for cheaper disposal options in Eastern Europe and developing countries, where environmental awareness was less advanced and progressive environmental regulation and the enforcement thereof was lacking.[2] Against this background, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention) was negotiated in the 1980s, and entered into force in 1992.[3]

The Convention has the following as its principal aims:[4]

  • the reduction of hazardous waste generation and the promotion of environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, wherever the place of disposal;
  • the restriction of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes except where it is perceived to be in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management; and
  • a regulatory system applying to cases where transboundary movements are permissible.

In addition to the Basel Convention, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has, in 1992, put in place a Control System to supervise and control the transboundary movement of wastes destined for recovery operations between its member states.[5] The Control System was established by Council Decision C(2001)107/FINAL on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Wastes Destined for Recovery Operations, and its aim is to facilitate an “environmentally sound and economically efficient” trade of recyclable materials by making use of “a simplified procedure as well as a risk-based approach to assess the necessary level of control for materials”.[6] This however only applies to waste transport within the OECD area.

The INTERPOL Pollution Crime Working Group initiates and leads in a number of projects to combat the transport, trading and disposal of hazardous wastes or resources in contravention of national and international laws. According to the INTERPOL Pollution Crime Working Group, organised crime is involved in a variety of pollution crimes, including the illegal import/export of waste and illegal hazardous waste disposal.[7] INTERPOL projects on the illegal shipment of waste include the 2012 Operation Enigma Phase I on e-waste and the 2010 Operation Haz and Haz 2 against the illegal transportation of hazardous waste across the border between the USA and Canada.[8]

[1] “Overview”, Basel, accessed August 15, 2013,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “The OECD Control System for waste recovery”, OECD, accessed August 15, 2013,

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Electronic Waste and Organized Crime: Assessing the Links, Phase II Report for the INTERPOL Pollution Crime Working Group (May 2009)”, INTERPOL, accessed December 11, 2013,

[8] “Operations”, INTERPOL, accessed January 14, 2014, 

Featured International Institutions

Featured International Initiatives

Featured International Instruments

  • Basel Convention

    Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal
  • OECD Decision C(2001)107/FINAL

    Decision of the Council C(2001)107/FINAL concerning the Control of Transboundary Movements of Wastes destined for Recovery Operations, as amended by C(2004)20

EU Action

Shipment of Waste

The European Union has a system for the supervision and control of shipments of waste within its borders, with countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of the OECD and third countries that are a party to the Basel Convention, in place.[1]

EU Regulation (EC) No 1013/2006 aims at “strengthening, simplifying and specifying the procedures for controlling waste shipments to improve environmental protection”.[2] It also seeks to include into Community legislation the provisions of the Basel Convention as well as the revision of the OECD Council Decision C(2001)107/FINAL on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Wastes Destined for Recovery Operations, which was adopted by the OECD in 2001.[3] The regulation concerns almost all types of waste that is shipped, however, it does not refer to radioactive waste and a few others, “insofar as they are subject to separate control regimes.”[4] Under this regulation, the persons involved in shipments of waste must ensure that the waste is handled in an environmentally sound manner – which applies concerning the shipment process as well as the recovery or disposal of the waste.[5] In addition, it is required that the relevant authorities of all the countries concerned by the shipment are given notification of the shipment and give their consent prior to the shipment being carried out.[6] However, according to some estimates, the overall non-compliance rate with the Regulation could be as high as 25%, and in order to “strengthen Member States’ inspection systems, the Regulation was amended in 2014 through Regulation (EU) No 660/2014 of May 2014”.[7]

Shipment of Chemicals

Council Regulation (EEC) No 2455/92 concerning the export and import of certain dangerous chemicals, “establishes a common system of notification and information for exports to third countries of chemicals which are banned or severely restricted in the Community on account of their effects on human health and the environment”.[8] The Regulation furthermore implements the UNEP/FAO Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure and makes it mandatory for EU Member States.[9] This Regulation has been repealed by Regulation (EC) No 304/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 concerning the export and import of dangerous chemicals.

[1] “Shipments of waste”, Europa, accessed January 14, 2014, (hereinafter “Shipments of waste”).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shipments of waste.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Waste shipments, European Commission, accessed January 13, 2015,

[8] “Guide to the Approximation of European Union Environmental Legislation”, DG Environment, accessed January 14, 2014,

[9] Ibid.

Featured EU Institutions

Featured EU Initiatives

Featured EU Instruments

  • EU Regulation 1013/2006

    Regulation (EC) No 1013/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 June 2006 on shipments of waste
  • WEEE (Recast) Directive

    Directive 2012/19/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 July 2012 on waste electrical and electronic equipment
  • EU Regulation 304/2003

    EU Regulation (EC) No 304/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 concerning the export and import of dangerous chemicals (Text with EEA relevance)
  • EU Environmental Liability Directive

    EU Directive 2004/35/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 April 2004 on environmental liability with regard to the prevention and remedying of environmental damage

Role of Earth Observation

General conclusions from the Institute for Environmental Security workshop on “Satellite Monitoring for Legal Compliance and Enforcement on Environmental Law” (The Hague, April 2010) included the following:

  • Remote sensing can identify waste dumps and satellite imagery can be used to track the illegal transfer of waste;
  • Satellite data has a high potential for waste tracking (with GPS) and landfill monitoring – use depends on case and country to start investigations;
  • Satellites could support Interpol E-waste crime group for positioning, tracing and tracking;
  • While there are limitations to the use of satellite data to monitor moving objects like ships, elements of GPS, GLONASS or Galileo systems are relevant; and
  • There is a need for the ESA and others to work together to move the initiative to tracking position, direction and speed of shipments of hazardous waste, where legal privacy issues also have to be made clear as it depends on the purpose of the use of the data.

According to one of the leading experts in this field, Ray Purdy, of the Faculty of Laws, University College London (UCL), research has “found that many environmental laws could actually be monitored to some degree by satellite earth observation. Environmental laws in sectors including waste, water, dangerous substances, air pollution and climate change, and land and nature protection could in some circumstances be monitored this way. However, its potential as a monitoring tool should not be over stated.[1]

[1] Ray Purdy, "Treaty Verification and Law Enforcement Through Satellite Earth Observation: Emerging Legal Issues with Satellite Earth Observation" in Current Legal Issues for Satellite Earth Observation: Treaty Verification and Law Enforcement through Satellite Earth Observation, from the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) conference on Current Legal Issues for Satellite Earth Observation in April 2011, ESPI, Report 25, Vienna, August 2010. See also R. PURDY, "Using Earth Observation Technologies for Better Regulatory Compliance and Enforcement of Environmental Laws", Journal of Environmental Law 22:1, Oxford University Press, 2009, published on-line with permission at



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