Point of View

Illegal waste trafficking: more data is key to getting a better grip on this trade

22 February 2019
By the WCO Secretariat

A rising global population and higher standards of living have in turn led to an exponential increase in the consumption of goods, resulting in greater quantities of waste. The word “waste” covers a very wide spectrum of discarded material, encompassing household items, electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste), and industrial and agricultural waste, including pesticides. It also includes waste of any size and scale, from decommissioned ships, to oil or liquid waste, and billions of tyres.

This waste is divided into two categories: hazardous, and non-hazardous. Hazardous waste is waste that poses substantial or potential threats to public health or to the environment. Part of the waste is traded at the international level, moving from developed to developing countries, due to the difference in treatment and disposal costs. The movements of waste are also demand-driven. Hazardous waste, such as e-waste, contains valuable secondary raw materials, making it a “trading good.”


The main international agreement regulating this trade is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal. The Convention defines what must be considered as “hazardous” waste. However, it allows its 186 Parties to complete their own respective list of wastes considered hazardous under their national legislation, and recognizes the right of Parties to set their own requirements concerning transboundary movement procedures applicable to such waste (Art. 3.1). Additionally, countries are forbidden from exporting waste classified as hazardous to another country without prior consent, and have the right to refuse imports of waste classified as hazardous (Art. 4.1).

Other international environmental agreements (IEAs) have also been concluded to ensure that waste is not dumped or recycled in an unsafe manner. The Basel Convention is one of the few – alongside the Bamako and the Waigani Conventions – to define an illegal activity under the Convention as a crime.

Waste trade

Between 1992 and 2012, the volume of waste traded grew from 45.6 million tonnes to 222.6 million tonnes, an increase of more than 500% in just two decades! The proportion of the world’s waste being exported to developing countries grew by 40% between 1998 and 2009. Considering that, in 2016, the world generated 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste, the global waste trade today places severe pressure on developing countries.

Africa and the Asia/Pacific regions are key destinations for large shipments of waste, especially e-waste, plastics, and various scrap metals. In West Africa, significant recipients include Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. In Asia, favoured destinations include Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in the South, and China, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Vietnam in the Far East.

Since 1 January 2018, China has banned the importation of 24 types of solid waste and scrap, including scrap metal, plastic waste, and e-waste. Although comprehensive statistics on global trade flows are lacking, estimates show that until that date, China was by far the biggest importer of waste, receiving half of all global waste imports, with Hong Kong acting as a major transit point.

Illicit flows

Illegal activities take different forms: transporting waste on the black market, mixing different types of waste, declaring hazardous waste as non-hazardous, or classifying waste as second-hand goods. Indeed, when products are classified as second-hand goods, they are no longer governed by international waste regulations and can be traded with developing countries. For instance, e-waste and used car parts are often disguised as second-hand goods, and end up being recycled in an unsafe manner.

Although many developing countries rely on the import of second-hand materials and used e-waste for resources and raw materials, international and national regulations as a whole still lack specific requirements for distinguishing scrap and/or second-hand material from waste, despite stringent regulations prohibiting or restricting the import of hazardous and other waste. This leads to an enormous grey area when distinguishing legal from illegal waste shipments, making enforcement very difficult.

These imports also put pressure on port infrastructure. Since China introduced the ban, neighbouring countries and certain African countries have become increasingly targeted by shippers of illegal waste. Even when shipments are legal, these countries find themselves lacking the capacity to accommodate them at their ports and other points of entry.

Lack of data

It should be stressed over and over again that there is still not enough data available to get a clear picture of illicit international waste flows. In order to identify trafficking trends as accurately as possible and enhance risk management, countries must register their seizures in their national enforcement database, as well as in the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) database. Such data will enable the targeting of Customs and law enforcement operations to be refined, whilst providing qualitative intelligence.

In the training domain, the recently updated Green Customs Guide to Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) has been developed under the Green Customs Initiative (www.greencustoms.org). The Initiative brings together several international organizations involved in the protection of the environment, with the aim of enhancing the capacity of Customs and other relevant border control officers to monitor the trade in environmentally-sensitive commodities covered by trade related conventions and MEAs.

Operation DEMETER

In order to get a snapshot of illicit trade flows in waste and to strongly encourage further attention and action from Customs administrations, the WCO decided, in 2009, to organize an enforcement operation called Operation DEMETER. During the seven-week long operation, Customs administrations in 65 countries targeted illicit cross-border shipments of hazardous and other waste en route from seaports in Europe to seaports in Africa and the Asia/Pacific region.

This first operation was especially successful as it enabled important data and intelligence to be collected on illegal transboundary movements of waste across the globe. Most of the seizures were made in Europe, before the waste could be shipped, and it was the first time that European Customs administrations shared export information with Customs administrations in other regions. More notably, the operation revealed major discrepancies in national legislation governing transboundary movements of waste.

A second, third and fourth incarnation of the operation was launched in 2012, 2013 and 2018 respectively. This time, all modes of transportation and all routes used for the illegal shipment of waste were targeted. Once again, seizures were mostly made at European departure points, with West Africa as a major destination region, especially for used car parts and, increasingly, for e-waste.

DEMETER IV saw the best results in terms of the volume of waste seized, yielding over 326,133 tonnes and 54,782 pieces of various types of waste, including mineral slag, plastics, e-waste, waste rubber, municipal waste, clothes, paper, scrap metal and batteries. The largest single seizure was a shipment of about 180,000 tonnes of smelting slag from Spain, which was intercepted by China Customs.

During the course of each operation, Customs officers shared intelligence and applied profiling and targeting techniques to identify high-risk consignments shipped on all routes and via all modalities. Participants relied on CENcomm, the WCO’s secure and encrypted communication tool, to exchange information on concealment methods and on the identity of the infringers and the parties involved. It goes without saying that sustained communication between Customs administrations could result in more timely interception of illegal shipments and better intelligence.

The DEMETER operations point to the need to stimulate multilateral action on a regular basis in order to keep law enforcement efforts going, and to ensure that the fight against environmental crime remains high on Customs’ priority list. Another DEMETER operation is due to take place in 2019, and it is hoped that Customs administrations will once again join together to demonstrate their commitment to fighting illegal waste trafficking.

These operations also enable the WCO to obtain seizure reports from Customs administrations, which are then fed into the CEN. However, the amount of data collected during the course of an operation is obviously not enough to gain a really good picture of this trade, and merely provides a snapshot of what is happening on the ground.

The biggest challenge

Illegal waste trafficking is a little-known, lucrative business with devastating consequences for human health and the environment. A lot of knowledge can be extracted from databases through the use of data mining techniques, supporting effective frontline enforcement at borders.

Unfortunately, collecting decent amounts of quality data from Customs administrations remains the biggest challenge. Solving this challenge will not only contribute to better enforcement, but also have a far-reaching impact on efforts to protect the environment, as well as the safety of people around the world.


More information