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Green Customs Operation Seizes 30,000 Tons of Illegal HazWaste

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 17, 2009 (ENS) – A joint Customs initiative across Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and Africa has netted more than 30,000 tons and 1,500 pieces of illegal hazardous waste in 57 seizures, ranging from household waste and scrap metal to discarded electronic goods and used vehicle parts.

Between March and May 2009, Customs agencies from 64 countries worked together to target the illicit cross-border shipment of hazardous and other waste en route from Europe to countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa.

The 50-day operation, code-named Operation Demeter, was coordinated by the World Customs Organization Secretariat.

Customs officials from 64 countries participated in Operation Demeter. (Photo credit unknown)

World Customs Organization Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya said, “The international Customs community and its partners cannot allow the illicit trade in environmentally sensitive goods to continue unabated when it has such devastating affects on the health and safety of people around the globe.”

The object of the exercise was to increase the flow of information among customs administrations to help in tackling cross-border environmental crime.

“Rising international concerns about the fragility of the environment spurs us on to strengthen Customs border controls through focused capacity-building initiatives and enhanced exchange of information, as this will ensure that the illegal activities of syndicates involved in this trade are dealt a massive blow.”

Customs officials at over 300 seaports and other selected points intensified their risk profiling and physical controls to identify high risk shipments, and notified each other of any suspicious shipments across the continents.

They were supported by their national environmental agencies, the Secretariat of the Basel Convention, the European Union Network for Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law, and the seven World Customs Organization Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices in the participating regions.

The majority of seizures took place in European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy before the waste could be shipped.

Ship unloads in the Port of Lagos, Nigeria. (Photo by Elrina753)

Iron scrap destined for Asia topped the list in terms of quantities seized.

Africa was the destination of choice for household waste such as used refrigerators containing the ozone-depleting gas CFCs and old television screens. Of the 1,500 pieces seized, 1,100 were destined for countries on the African continent.

On June 9, Customs officers at a container terminal in Lagos, Nigeria opened a container after it had been under surveillance for one month based on intelligence provided by their counterparts in Europe. The container was fully loaded with waste television sets but remained unclaimed.

“Although most of the hazardous waste can be used as secondary raw material,” said Mikuriya, “it can still do detrimental damage to the environment if not recycled in an environment-friendly manner, which is often the case in developing countries lacking proper facilities, a fact which criminals use to their advantage.”

Under the the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, governments have the right to prohibit the import of waste.

Cargo containers in the Port of Rotterdam (Photo by Michielpol)

Parties are prohibited from exporting waste without pre-consent from importing countries. Where this occurs without consent it is regarded as illegal trafficking and exporting countries are obligated to take back the waste or dispose of it properly in accordance with the terms of the Basel Convention.

Katharina Kummer Peiry, executive secretary of the Basel Convention, said, “Operation Demeter has confirmed the critical role of Customs authorities, the crucial importance of effective information sharing systems and the necessity for international cooperation to combat the illegal traffic of hazardous wastes.”

“I note that the vast majority of seizures took place in European countries before the export actually took place,” she said, “a positive signal as it means earlier intervention in the illegal traffic waste chain.”

Peiry said the operation provided useful information on the types of waste streams that are the object of illegal traffic as well as on the countries of destination for these wastes.

Operation Demeter was part of the global Green Customs Initiative launched in June 2003 by the United Nations Environment Programme, the international criminal police organization Interpol, the World Customs Organization, and the secretariats of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, MEAs, with trade provisions.

These MEAs include – the Basel Convention, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals in International Trade, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Mikuriya pledged to continue cooperation with Green Customs initiative partners to build expertise for Customs officials working on the front line, develop enhanced tools to support these officials and and implement global Customs operations aimed at “squeezing the life-blood out of this illegal trade.”

“Coordination, cooperation and communication are the enemies of those who profit from this trade,” said Mikuriya. “The success of Operation Demeter can be attributed to our desire to protect the environment for future generations, the strong political will and commitment of WCO Member Customs administrations, and excellent cooperation with our partners at the national, regional and international level.”

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