Waste not want not: Plastic bottles from Australia await processing in the Plastic Waste to Fuel System at a plant in Hong Kong's rural New Territories, which can produce 1,000l of fuel oil a day from three tons of plastic waste. Picture: REUTERS
Waste not want not: Plastic bottles from Australia await processing in the Plastic Waste to Fuel System at a plant in Hong Kong's rural New Territories, which can produce 1,000l of fuel oil a day from three tons of plastic waste. Picture: REUTERS

European and North American companies have dumped waste in developing nations for years, often illegally. Now, with many pushing back, SA has no intention of becoming a replacement rubbish dump.

Since the 1980s, China has had an open-door policy for waste, taking in millions of tons for recycling every year. That is until 2018, when Beijing  decided to restrict imports of paper, plastic, metals and e-waste, reportedly aiming for zero waste imports by 2020. So transnational companies found other places to dump  waste cheaply.

But a string of southeast Asian countries announced recently  they plan to stop accepting the developed world’s rubbish. As more countries join in, regulating the waste industry will require increased co-operation between law-enforcement agencies and organisations.

In 2017 Interpol, in co-operation with many other agencies, detected roughly 1.5-million tons of illicit waste and reported 483 individuals and 264 companies in June alone. A year later, the World Customs Organisation (WCO) conducted Operation Demeter IV, intercepting more than 300,000 tons of illicit waste, including plastics, rubber, metals and electronic waste.

SA took part in such a transnational operation in October 2018, when Interpol launched Operation 30 Days at Sea. the environmental affairs department said 49 environmental violations and 10 cases of “serious environmental noncompliance” were detected in SA, resulting in penalties and criminal investigations. 

A Ukrainian ship that discharged sewage in SA’s coastal waters was  detained for three weeks and the operators hit  with two fines totalling  almost R3m. 

But authorities have found that enforcement is not without its challenges. “We haven’t had that many instances,” said Ishaam Abader, a deputy director-general at the environmental affairs department.

Even if the Green Scorpions,  the department’s enforcement arm, co-operates with all other enforcement agencies, they cannot inspect every container that comes into SA.

Attempts to disguise waste as a product, mostly in relation to e-waste, is another concern.

“It will be shipped under the disguise of donations – that it’s still in working condition,” said professor Linda Godfrey, a waste scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). “It arrives on the shores and in fact it really is just scrap.”

Abader said this was  why organisations such as Interpol are moving towards intelligence-driven policing. Co-operation with agencies across the world is crucial, as the aim is to identify potential perpetrators at the source. Operation 30 days at Sea, for example, included “276 law enforcement and environmental agencies across 58 countries”.

Co-operation is guided by the Basel Convention, which stipulates the terms for the movement and disposal of hazardous waste. However, individual countries are responsible for enforcement. While Abader believes SA’s low incident rate can be attributed to strict regulations and effective enforcement, he stressed that other African countries could be targeted for their shortcomings in this regard. This is especially the case for countries that are financially dependent on trans-boundary waste that may be more concerned with the financial benefits than with the environmental implications.

Godfrey agreed, and said she is concerned about African states becoming dumping grounds, especially now that many countries are turning waste away. “I always say that waste will flow from a country with strict policy and strict policy enforcement to a country with weak policy and weak policy enforcement.”

Godfrey said SA might also have a geographical advantage, given that it would be much more expensive to transport waste from Europe to the southern tip of Africa, passing potentially easier dumping sites along the way.

However, SA does not turn away all of the waste from abroad.  Abader explained there are strict requirements that need to be met, and that waste will only be considered if it can contribute to the circular economy.

“We need to know what’s coming in, what the content is, and also whether it will be safely processed and then disposed of,” said Abader.

“If we were to take it and just go put it on landfill, that’s not going to work for us ... we have to be able to deal with the waste efficiently and safely.”

Godfrey said there are also concerns about “cherry picking” processing, when companies import e-waste but only recycle the circuit boards – the most valuable part. But e-waste is made up of different materials, including glass, plastics and rubbers. 

In these instances the lower-value materials end up in landfill sites, with only a small part of the product being re-used. “We need to make sure that whoever is importing it has a solution for the entire product,” said Godfrey.

Abader described this as a “from cradle to cradle” system in which the producer is responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including its packaging.

SA can hardly afford to add waste from other countries to its landfills. Up to 90% of the 59-million tons of waste produced in SA ends up in landfills, Statistics SA reports. With less than 10% of households recycling their waste, coupled with rapid growth in solid waste and a shortage of land, SA is “running out of space for waste disposal”.

Despite this, figures from the South African Waste Information Centre show that SA recycles waste from Brazil and all of its neighbours, except for Lesotho.

Godfrey insists while waste should be disposed of or processed in a responsible manner, SA should first prioritise its own, before shipping it in from other countries. She questioned why SA would “want to import polymer or plastic as product into South Africa... and then send a large percentage of that to landfill” when we could reintroduce “our own resources back into our own economy to create jobs”.

The consequences of environmental crimes — which Abader said have become some of the most profitable — are not only becoming increasingly visible and concerning, but have also been tied to other transnational crimes.

“Criminal networks involved in waste trafficking have also been found to be involved in fraud, money laundering, human, drug and firearms trafficking,” Interpol states on its website. 

The concerted efforts by agencies and states across the world should, ideally, realise the ‘cradle to cradle’ scenario; but at the very least, ensure the costs of illicit dumping exceed that of responsible disposal.