© Nick Fewings


Waste trafficking: suggestions to improve enforcement

24 February 2021
By China Customs

It is estimated that the world population has surpassed 7.4 billion, generating over 10 billion tonnes of varying types of waste per year. Waste can be traded at international level as long as commercial transactions are in compliance with the rules set by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal as well as with any additional national requirements which Parties to the Convention may decide to introduce. With 187 Parties, the Convention has near universal application, as transboundary movements with non-Parties are usually prohibited.

On 1 January 2018, China introduced a ban on 24 types of solid waste and scrap, including metal scrap, plastic waste and e-waste headed for the country’s recycling processors which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The move was part of the efforts deployed by the government to improve the waste recycling system and was coupled with initiatives to promote the sorting of household waste and green and low-carbon lifestyles.

This is in line with the preamble of the Basel Convention which provides that the most effective way of protecting human health and the environment from the dangers posed by such waste is the reduction of their generation to a minimum in terms of quantity and/or hazardous potential and that hazardous wastes and other wastes should, as far as is compatible with environmentally sound and efficient management, be disposed of in the State where they were generated.

Fewer seizures

Data show a decline in waste imports following the entry into force of the ban: there were 13.49 million tonnes of solid waste imported into China in 2019, representing a 39.8% decline compared with 2018. Most of this was made up of waste paper (10.36 million tonnes), imports of which dropped by 39.1%. Imports of metal scraps (3.12 million tonnes) dropped by 41.5%.

Tackling illicit trade in waste has been the focus of China Customs for many years. As part of Operation Blue Sky, during specific periods of time between 2017 and 2020, China Customs strengthened its enforcement capacities for dealing with the import of materials that do not meet the government’s definition of recyclable. In 2019, 372 criminal cases were initiated for waste trafficking relating to the import of a total of 761.8 thousand tonnes of waste. This number declined year after year with a 22.6% and 50.88% year-on-year reduction respectively. In 2020, the number of criminal cases dropped to 217.

China Customs also mobilized the international Customs community by initiating Operation DEMETER in 2009 with the support of the WCO Secretariat. The Operation has since been organized on a regular basis and benefits from the support of the Secretariat of the Basel Convention and its Regional Centre in Beijing (China), INTERPOL, Europol, the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), and UN Environment’s Asia and the Pacific Office. During Operation Demeter VI, in 2020, participating administrations reported 119 infringement cases connected to the illegal movement of waste, and 12 connected to the illegal movement of ozone-depleting substances and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).


Waste trafficking into China seems to have been curbed. Nevertheless, China Customs like other Customs administrations is still encountering a number of obstacles when it comes to waste enforcement, which can only be solved by cooperation.

Repatriation of waste

The first is repatriation of intercepted illegal waste shipments. The Customs Administrations of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have managed to repatriate several illegal shipments to the source countries or regions. However, authorities often report a lack of support from the importer and/or exporter of the waste as well as an absence of joint monitoring of the whole repatriation process.

Lack of quality data

The second challenge is the lack of quality data collected at international level. Illegal waste trafficking is a little-known business as countries do not share enough information on seizures and legal cases. Organizing operation DEMETER on a regular basis has enabled the WCO to obtain seizure reports from Customs administrations, which are then fed into the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) database. However, the amount of data collected during the course of an operation is obviously not enough to gain a really good picture of the trade, and merely provides a snapshot of what is happening on the ground.

Lack of impact measurement

The third challenge is that there is little knowledge of the impact of Customs enforcement on the waste industry. Have the entry into force of the ban and effective enforcement contributed to improving the waste industry and building a recycling economy? Answering this question would require Customs to sit down with private sector representatives and environmental policymakers. The Secretariats of the WCO and the Basel Convention could join forces and conduct more policy research on this issue.

Way forward

Another DEMETER operation is due to take place in 2021, and it is hoped that Customs administrations will once again join together to demonstrate their commitment to fighting illegal waste trafficking.

To optimize enforcement operations both at global and domestic level, China Customs would like to offer the following suggestions:

  1. Cooperation mechanisms with police, environmental authorities, other law enforcement agencies, the private sector and the public should be established. In China, under the National Anti-Smuggling Programme, the Customs Administration has set up communication mechanisms with other law enforcement agencies to ensure a whole-of-government approach and proper information sharing.
  2. Public awareness campaigns on the impact of waste should be developed. China Customs has organized public events highlighting the problems posed by the illegal trade in waste.
  3. Cooperation with the private sector should be promoted, since business plays an important role in disposing of and repatriating seized waste.
  4. Training on risk analysis and intelligence sharing must be delivered at national and international level to enable law enforcement officers to work more efficiently.
  5. Information on regulations and procedures must be provided to the waste management industry to improve compliance.
  6. More quality data should be reported to the WCO CEN for a better grasp of the latest trends in the illicit waste trade worldwide

More information