Tunisia on Monday arrested a dozen people — including its environment minister — in a scandal over hundreds of containers of household waste shipped from Italy to the North African nation.
The 282 containers were seized this summer by Tunisian customs officials in the Mediterranean port city of Sousse.
They were declared to be carrying plastic scraps for industrial recycling — but were instead filled with mixed, putrid household waste, which is barred from import under Tunisian law.
The case shines a spotlight on the murky global trade in waste, which has grown despite stricter regulations aimed at preventing rich countries from dumping their hazardous refuse on poorer countries.
The containers were imported in two shipments by Tunisian firm Soreplast, which said it has government permission to import and recycle industrial plastic scraps.
A copy of Soreplast’s import request seen by Agence France-Presse stated that the company would “temporarily” import the waste “in non-hazardous bales ... for sorting, recycling and re-export operations to European territory.”
However, the contract Soreplast signed with the Italian firm that sold the refuse, Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl, 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 AFP.
Amid the scandal, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked minister of environment Mustapha Aroui late on Sunday.
Twelve people have since been taken into custody, including Aroui and a top ministry official, Sousse court spokesman Jabeur Ghnimi said.
Also detained were officials of the National Waste Recycling Agency (ANGED), the National Environmental Protection Agency, the customs service, the owner of a private laboratory and a Tunisian diplomat in Naples, Italy.
The owner of Soreplast remains at large, Ghnimi said.
A total of 23 people have been questioned, accused of charges including “use of false documents” and “participation in the prohibited import of hazardous waste,” Ghnimi added.
The global waste trade has been growing as more industrialized and urbanized countries dump their garbage in developing countries.
Interpol in August warned that criminal organizations 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 (US$59) per tonne — a total of more than 5 million euros.
On July 8, Tunisian officials decided to confiscate the containers and send them back to Italy, a customs official said on condition of anonymity. However, they remain in Tunisia.
AFP journalists visited the busy port early this month and saw the remaining 212 containers stacked in a storage area.
Judicial experts were examining their contents, the port’s director said, but refused to grant AFP access to the garbage, despite authorization from the relevant ministries.
The case has set off alarm bells in Tunisia, which lies only a few hundred kilometers from Europe and struggles to deal with its own waste.
Just 61 percent of waste in the capital Tunis is collected and most of that ends up in open-air landfills, a World Bank report said.
“This case shows that big lobbies” are at play in Tunisia, Hamdi Chebaane, a waste management expert and member of environmental coalition Tunisie Verte, said prior to the arrests.
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