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Our waste continues to fill landfills in Africa illegally

On 3 September, in the port of Salerno, 16 tons of special waste, in part also dangerous, were seized for Africa. In the containers there were 200 scooter engines that had been partially disassembled, others still fixed to the frames. There were brake discs, handlebars, wheels, mufflers, batteries: a total of 850 motorcycle parts along with eight car engines and 30 steering wheels, shock absorbers, braking units. The engines and many disassembled parts were still soaked in lubricants while the shipment was accompanied by a declaration of reclamation. Seven companies, based between Lazio and Puglia, were denounced for ideological falsehood, illicit waste trafficking and violation of the consolidated environmental text.

The seizure in the port of Salerno is just the latest case of a huge traffic of waste between Italy, but more generally, Europe, and African ports. In Turin, on August 30, the Customs Agency had seized a container bound for Ghana loaded with electrical and electronic waste which, instead of following the normal disposal process, was ready to be sent to illegal landfills in the African country. In the port of Genoa, in July, 57 tons of special waste stowed in nine containers that were supposed to house household goods had been seized. Hidden behind the building material was a large amount of discarded tires, fire extinguishers, LPG cylinders, batteries, solar panels, cell phones.

The illicit trafficking of waste to Africa is a phenomenon that is increasing despite the seizures and reports. According to the Customs Agency, in 2020 waste seized for illicit traffic abroad tripled: from 2,251 tons in 2019 to 7,313 tons last year. The profits for the criminal organizations are very high, the risks contained: the waste is collected by the companies that have to get rid of it, those who manage the traffic get paid for the disposal, and then send it elsewhere, avoiding customs controls.

From the Italian ports, especially those of Campania, a large flow of illegal waste continues to leave, which often, to circumvent the laws, is mixed with other, legal ones. Containers contain everything: plastic, paper, car and motorcycle parts, WEEE materials (Waste from electrical and electronic equipment). But also urban and so-called bulky waste. And hazardous waste that contains mercury, arsenic, phosphorus, often handled by children and teenagers who work in immense landfills for the recovery of aluminum and copper.

The destination countries involved are Senegal, Gambia, Togo, Sierra Leone, Nigeria but above all Ghana where, on the outskirts of Accra, there is the largest electronic waste landfill in the world, that of Agbogbloshie. It is estimated that more than 250 million tons of electronic waste, at least 85% from Europe, ended up in the immense landfill. The Basel Convention, which entered into force in 1992, on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, defines the trafficking of hazardous wastes to developing countries as “criminal”. However, it is easy to circumvent the rules: the Convention establishes an exception for electronic waste which will be repaired immediately upon arrival. It is enough to define waste as “second-hand electronics” to circumvent the controls for letting containers into the country.

The Agbogbloshie landfill in Ghana. (Gioia Forster / dpa)

In 2019, the former Minister of the Environment Sergio Costa said: «Africa cannot be our dustbin. There is an efficient collection and recycling system in our country, if there are any leaks we will check it ». Costa said this when commenting on a Guardia di Finanza operation that followed the e-waste journey from Italy to Africa. The ministry published a note:

“Computers, monitors, printers and mobile phones are sent illegally to Africa and Asia instead of being properly disposed of. Following the journey of discarded electronic devices by placing Gps bugs, we saw for example that some PCs and monitors thrown away in Italy were resold in thrift shops in Nigeria and Ghana. Unfortunately, many of the waste that takes the road to developing countries is burned to extract its precious materials, releasing toxic substances into the environment ».

There were 541 seizures of illegal waste in 2020 (compared to 373 in 2019). They occurred mainly in Campania (60%), but also in Liguria (21%). The waste, however, came from all over Italy. Those who rely on illicit trafficking do so to avoid the costs of recovery and disposal. Illicit exports often travel with cover items: a material is declared and then instead inside the containers there is something else. When the waste is mixed it is then impossible to trace the origin, and therefore also the level of contamination.

According to Legambiente between Europe and the United States, only 17% of the WEEE is treated locally. It has been calculated that 500,000 electronic devices can arrive in an African country to be managed in a month. According to calculations of the Sole 24 Ore, the regular disposal of a ton of plastics and rubbers can cost between 200 and 250 euros. Following the illegal route, the cost does not exceed 100-150 euros. He writes The sun 24 hours that according to a Europol report on the main criminal threats, illegal waste trafficking is among the most profitable after drug trafficking, counterfeiting and trafficking in human beings.

As Maria Teresa Imparato, member of the national secretariat of Legambiente and president of Legambiente Campania explains, “unfortunately in Italy the circular economy chain is still too limited, there are no plants. And this unfortunately favors illegal trafficking. If there were more plants, the virtuous and legal supply chain would grow and this would be the best contrast to illegal activity “.

According to Legambiente, the trafficking is managed by clans of organized crime: «their interests, however,» continues Imparato, «are intertwined with those of white-collar workers both in Italy and abroad. Fortunately, the increase in controls has lately been leading to increasingly harsh blows to traffickers. But, I repeat, we need more implants. Moreover, unfortunately, this being the case, honest entrepreneurs find themselves facing heavy unfair competition ».

There are also cases where illegal traffic is discovered once it arrives at the port of destination. In Sousse, Tunisia, 282 containers left from the port of Salerno are still under seizure. The story began in the autumn of 2019 when a contract was signed between an Italian company based in Polla, in the province of Salerno, Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali, and a Tunisian company, Soreplast. The contract talked about the sending of 120,000 tons of non-hazardous waste but the Tunisian Customs Agency, during a check, discovered that there was no plastic waste in the containers as declared but waste of all kinds from domestic separate collection, not intended to recovery but to landfill or incineration.

This is a type of waste that according to international agreements cannot be exported between EU and non-EU countries. Furthermore, the Tunisian company turned out to be a ghost company. The containers have thus been stopped in port for many months. According to the rules they must return to Italy, but there is a dispute between Tunisia and Italy over who should pay the repatriation and above all the preventive seizure in the port of Soussa which costs, according to estimates, 26,000 euros a day. “A similar case dates back to 30 years ago,” says Imparato again, “and then the ministry paid the expenses and then retaliated against the company that had carried out the fraud”.

Among the various illegal waste trafficking, there is one that is making a lot of money to the criminal clans: it is the resale of exhausted photovoltaic panels sold as new to governments of African countries. Criminal organizations thus pocket part of the financing decided by the African Development Bank which by 2025 intends to bring electricity to 900,000 citizens in various countries. The disposal of a ton of exhausted photovoltaic panels costs 400-500 euros. The criminal organization offers the entrepreneur who must get rid of it the possibility of circumventing the law by falsifying the freshmen and making the panels appear as used but still functional, or even new. In this way the entrepreneur not only does not spend on disposal, but also earns from the sale. The containers, loaded with tons of photovoltaic panels, thus depart from Italy and arrive in African ports where they are sorted thanks to corrupt customs officials.

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