Tunisian senior officials arrested over Italian waste scandal

The scandal started when customs officials seized 282 containers in the Mediterranean port city of Sousse. The case set off alarm bells in Tunisia, which lies only a few hundred kilometres from Europe and struggles to deal with its own waste.
Monday 21/12/2020
A view of a container being carried by a crane above a freight ship at the port of Sousse, where containers of household waste from Italy are blocked. (AFP)
A view of a container being carried by a crane above a freight ship at the port of Sousse, where containers of household waste from Italy are blocked. (AFP)

SOUSSE, Tunisia – A scandal about household waste shipped from Italy to Tunisia saw Tunisian Environment Minister Mustapha Aroui sacked over the weekend and subsequently arrested along with other officials, including another former minister, his chief of staff and ten senior officials from the finance ministry and customs authority.

A number of the sacked officials are set to appear before judges Monday, a few under arrest, for immediate hearings in Sousse, local media reported.

Aroui had technically already been sacked at the time of his arrest by judicial police who surrounded his house.

Experts in the country believe that the last-minute sacking was an attempt to save face and preserve the state’s image ahead of a humiliating police arrest.

The case, which creates an unprecedented jurisprudence in the country, is the first of its kind since the 2011 uprising.

An administrative investigation recently launched by the finance ministry seems to have confirmed the involvement of the minister and various senior officials in corruption.

The waste scandal started in the summer, when customs officials seized 282 containers in the Mediterranean port city of Sousse. The scandal was revealed to the public by investigative reporters with the the help of civil society activists.

The containers were supposed to be carrying plastic scraps for industrial recycling — but were instead full of mixed, putrid household waste, which is barred from import under Tunisian law.

The case 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.

Dirty dealings

In Tunisia, the waste scandal has raised suspicions of dirty dealings in a country that already struggles to manage its own garbage disposal.

The containers were imported by Tunisian firm Soreplast, which claimed to have government permission to import and recycle industrial plastic scraps.

A copy of Soreplast’s formal request to bring the containers into the country stated that the company would “temporarily” import the waste “in non-hazardous bales… for sorting, recycling and re-export operations to European territory.”

The contract, which Soreplast signed with the Italian firm that sold the refuse, Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl, explicitly tasked Soreplast with “recovery of the waste and its subsequent disposal” in Tunisia.

Neither company was available for comment despite numerous efforts to contact them by national and international media.

In this file photo taken on September 2, 2020 Tunisia’s Minister of Environment Mustapha Laroui takes the oath of office. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on September 2, 2020 Tunisia’s Minister of Environment Mustapha Laroui takes the oath of office. (AFP)

According to a customs official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, these documents show that Soreplast made a false declaration on the nature of the imported material.

As the scandal grew, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked the environment minister, Aroui, late on Sunday without giving an official reason.

But a government source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was fired in connection with the waste issue.

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.