Italy pressed to remove illegal waste shipment from Tunisia

“Tunisian and Italian authorities are showing no determination whatsoever for the return of this waste. Their laxity is inadmissible,” said Hamdi Chebaane of Tunisia Verte.
Friday 26/03/2021
Sousse port where hundreds of illegal containers of Italian household waste still wait to be sent back. (AFP)
Sousse port where hundreds of illegal containers of Italian household waste still wait to be sent back. (AFP)

TUNIS--Italy and Tunisia were pressed on Thursday to clear hundreds of containers of waste illegally shipped and stored at the port of Sousse in the North African county.

In the summer of 2020, Tunisian customs officials seized 282 containers that had been shipped from Italy which documents claimed were holding plastic scrap for industrial recycling.

But the containers were found to comprise a mix of household waste which is barred from import under Tunisian law.

Authorities in Rome had given the Italian firm that sold the refuse, Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali SRL, 90 days to retrieve the cargo from December 9, but the deadline passed without it doing so, said Jabeur Ghnimi, a spokesman for a court in the Mediterranean port city of Sousse.

Tunisian conservation groups condemned the lack of action.

“Tunisian and Italian authorities are showing no determination whatsoever for the return of this waste. Their laxity is inadmissible,” said Hamdi Chebaane of Tunisia Verte.

Chebaane, who is also a waste management expert, said a protest is due to be held Sunday outside the port of Sousse.

The waste scandal saw the sacking in December of former Tunisian environment minister Mustapha Aroui and the arrest of people, including customs officials.

In total 26 suspects, including Aroui, are facing prosecution, according to Ghnimi, including the manager of the Tunisian import firm who is still at large.

Tunisia accuses the Italian company of failing to meet the deadline to remove the containers from Sousse.

“Tunisian authorities are deploying huge diplomatic efforts to find an amicable solution as soon as possible… but it is the Italian company that is slacking,” said Ali Abbes who is handling the case for Tunisia.

Trash trade booming

The global waste trade has been growing as more highly industrialised and urbanised countries get rid of their garbage in developing countries.

Interpol warned in August that criminal organisations have profited from an “overwhelming” surge in illegal waste shipments, particularly to Asia but also other parts of the world.

The garbage often ends up in countries that are ill-equipped to cope with it and endure heavy pollution when waste is burned and dumped in landfills instead of being recycled.

Soreplast’s contract with the Italian firm, which collects and processes waste in the southern region of Campania, stipulated that it would dispose of up to 120,000 tonnes of waste at 48 euros ($59) per tonne — a total of more than five million euros.

On July 8, Tunisian officials decided to confiscate the containers and send them back to Italy, the customs official said.

But they remain in Tunisia.

The case has set off alarm bells in Tunisia, which lies only a few hundred kilometres from Europe/

Just 61% of waste in the capital Tunis is collected, according to a recent World Bank report, and most of that ends up in open-air landfill sites.

Environmental outcry

A coalition of environmental groups, Tunisie Verte, is taking the government to task.

“This case shows that big lobbies” are at play in Tunisia, said Hamdi Chebaane, a waste management expert and member of Tunisie Verte.

He charged that the environment ministry has come under heavy pressure in recent years from businessmen wanting to import waste.

Bechir Yahia, the head of Tunisia’s national recycling agency Anged, accused the customs agency of allowing the waste to enter Tunisia “with no official authorisation.”

But the customs service countered that Anged, which operates under the environment ministry, gave the green light to remove from the port the first 70 containers.

In an email exchange between Yahia and customs officials, he states that he saw “no objection to the importation of these plastic products… that do not contain dangerous products” after seeing the results of samples taken from the waste.

Yahia now says the email expressed only his “personal opinion” and was “not an official document,” adding that customs officers were aware that it was not enough to authorise import of refuse.

Judicial experts were examining the containers’ contents, the port’s director said, but refused to grant reporters access to the garbage despite authorisation from the relevant ministries.

Environmentalists worry about what would have happened if the case had not come to light.

“This huge quantity, which Tunisia would have been unable to bury, where would it have been sent?” said Chebaane.

The scandal shines a spotlight on the global trade in waste, which has grown despite stricter regulations aimed at preventing rich countries from dumping their hazardous refuse on poorer countries.

The global waste trade has been growing as more highly industrialised and urbanised countries get rid of their garbage in developing countries.

Interpol warned in August 2020 that criminal organisations have profited from an “overwhelming” surge in illegal waste shipments, particularly to Asia but also other parts of the world.

The garbage often ends up in countries that are ill-equipped to cope with it and so experience heavy pollution when waste is burned and dumped in landfills instead of being recycled.

Tunisia does not have the proper infrastructure to treat the waste.