Europe cracks down on illegal exports of toxic trash

While patrolling the port of Felixstowe, British authorities recently came across a shipment of what was said to be plastics. Instead, they found a load of damaged computer equipment, set to be dumped in Pakistan.

In the port of Antwerp, Belgian authorities recently searched a container officially loaded with copper scrap. However it was filled with plastics, metal, glass, and shredded car wrecks. Its illegal destination: China.

Across Europe, the waste business is booming. Because of tight regulations enacted by the European Union in 1994, proper waste disposal in European landfills or faraway dumping grounds has become prohibitively expensive. Enter the black-market trash brokers, who have taken to "port hopping" - moving toxic rubbish along the line of least resistance to underregulated areas in Africa or Asia.

"Information from all over Europe tells us companies are - deliberately or not - exporting waste through ports that are being least inspected," says Nancy Isarin, from the official environmental enforcement authority in the Netherlands.

But a cooperative effort known as the Seaport Project is cracking down. The project began last year, when enforcement authorities from six European countries joined hands, led by Ms. Isarin. Their coordinated investigation uncovered just how extensive port hopping has become. Of all international waste shipments inspected in the six participating seaports between June 2003 and May 2004, 20 percent turned out to be illegal.

"That was a real eye-opener for many people," says Melissa Shinn, a specialist at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) in Brussels, a federation of about 140 European environmental organizations. "These findings have really put the topic on the agenda."

One of the major successes of the Seaport Project was closing down a major operation based out of Ireland.

In the winter of 2003, 51 containers, which were labeled as rubbish, were intercepted in the Dutch port of Rotterdam from Ireland. In fact, they contained an array of illegal waste. The shipment was en route to India, Indonesia, and Singapore, where authorities were not aware of what was coming. The actual recipients in Asia were brokers, making it difficult to trace the destination.

Further investigation showed that this was not an isolated case. Companies throughout Ireland were allegedly partnering with middlemen in Belgium and the Netherlands to make illegal transports.

Once Seaport participants were informed, illegal shipments were stopped in Felixstowe and Antwerp. In the end, the Irish scheme was dismantled; 107 containers, with at least 2,000 tons of illegal waste, were sent back to Ireland.

Interpol was informed on the illegal activities, but prosecution remains a challenge. "Very often the suspected offender is abroad, which makes prosecution difficult," says Isarin. "[It depends] on the cooperation of judicial authorities in the other country."

Indeed, for the project to work port inspections must be done in a similar fashion and according to the same guidelines.

Other challenges also persist. The EEB complains that there's no accurate database on waste shipments. "Once we have all data we can see whether things get better or worse, which can tell us what we need to do or don't," says Ms. Shinn. And the Seaport Project is set to expire in 2006. "The time has come to institutionalize things," she adds. Isarin seems to agree. To continue after June 2006, she says, "We'll need structural financing as well."

Without it, observers say, the brokers will be on the winning end in this cat-and-mouse game.

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