A keen eye on illegal waste shipments

How Dutch Customs monitors the transfer of waste to, from and within Europe. "Unfortunately this industry also attracts rogue market parties."

On the instructions of the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, Dutch Customs ensures that no waste is illegally transferred to, from and within Europe. The aim is to protect, preserve and improve the environment and public health. At the State Inspectorate Terminal on the Maasvlakte, containers with waste are inspected almost every day that do not seem to comply with the prevailing conditions for transport. The know-how of Environment expert, Shanna van Lenten, often comes in handy in these cases.

“Waste is worthless, you might think. If you see what kind of junk we sometimes encounter in containers, you can hardly imagine that the costs of shipping outweigh the benefits. But in that you are mistaken. Disposing your waste in an environmentally-hygienic manner is an expensive affair, especially in Europe. Having it processed or simply dumping it in a cheap, faraway country is a financially attractive alternative for many. And then we are talking about huge sums of money in the enormous worldwide flow of waste, which naturally attracts rogue market parties. Organizations that sometimes deal with other shadowy activities – from drug trafficking to human smuggling.”

“According to EU law, any goods that the owner wants to discard is waste. Thus, in principle, it can be anything. The basis of our supervision is the European Waste Shipment Regulation – EWSR – which has a green and orange list. The first list consists of waste types that are, in principle, less environmentally harmful and can be recycled well; the categories in the second list are a lot more damaging and more difficult or impossible to reprocess. The European Commission has asked virtually all countries in the world which of those many types of waste they want to accept and under what conditions. That information is put into tables, and that is what we work with. We ask four questions for each physical inspection of a batch of waste: is this really waste, is it mixed with other materials, where is it going and is it allowed to go there? The country of destination may wish a total import ban on a certain waste product, but it can just as easily accept it without any conditions. It may also require a notification: a specific license with surety, signed by its own environmental authority and that of the country of origin. And finally, it can have a consignment come and inspect it on arrival itself.”

“There is a lot of waste being shipped out from the port of Rotterdam, varying in nature, to all corners of the world. And it is still sometimes fiddled with. For example, we often encounter large shipments of waste paper with India or China as the destination. Usually this is bona fide, but once in a while such a shipment is heavily polluted – above the accepted percentage. In 2017, an attentive colleague, after opening a container to be inspected, smelled acidic rotting air – too penetrating to be coming from old milk cartons. He decided to have the cargo unloaded. The first few meters behind the doors there were nicely stacked bales of paper, but towards the headboard it turned out that there was all kinds of junk: used paint sprays, diapers, IV lines, textiles... This was clearly a case of smuggling. Based on that one discovery, we finally selected nearly 500 containers for inspection, all from the same British paper dealer. In 160 of them, we found that the contents was seriously contaminated. In Asia, that paper and waste – 4,000 tons in total – could never be separated by machine, only manually, with major health risks for the local community. We reported the irregularities to the inspectors of the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, who act according to administrative law in such cases. They warned the Irish supplier and asked the authorities in Ireland to be more alert to such shipments. In the end, 107 containers were returned; the remainder of the consignment was processed responsibly here – and paid for by the exporter.”

“If we stop a shipment of waste, the provider often has a way out: he can choose another destination, a country that will allow his shipment. However, he is already in violation and receives an official report from Customs and possibly a hefty fine. Unfortunately, we see that players in this sector are generally not really impressed by such a penalty; they calculate it as business risk. Moreover, it does not always lead to a conviction; sometimes we lose a case. You could become pessimistic, when doing this job. However, this just makes us extra motivated. We realize only too well that we carry out this task for countries that do not have the people and the means to tackle this problem. These are countries where the most dangerous waste is dumped without any noteworthy supervision and where entire families dabble on garbage dumps to earn a nickel by collecting tiny bits of usable waste material. Our concern for a cleaner environment and better public health does not stop at the EU’s external border.”

“I myself am increasingly positive when it comes to the waste issue. I have seen bright spots, especially in recent years. Without a doubt, international attention is being paid to the negative sides of trade in waste and initiatives are being taken everywhere to do something about the excesses. The World Customs Organization, for example, has recently made e-waste – electronic waste – a spearhead of customs supervision. And many African and Asian countries that previously did not look so closely, have now put stricter demands on the waste that enters their territory, which helps us to enforce this more stringently. Moreover awareness is growing in the Western world. More and more governments are formulating ambitious targets to achieve a largely circular economy where, within a few decades, almost all waste will be reused. It feels good to make a contribution to this whole movement with our service, even if it is only modest.”

This is only one of the many interviews in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2017’. All together these stories give a good impression of the broad and exciting playing field in which our service operates. Click here to read the full publication.

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