Organized Crime and Waste Management

Author: Regina Paulose


For several years, the U.S. government had been collecting a small fee for nuclear waste storage. Although the fee was being collected through consumer electric bills, the government had not begun to store nuclear waste. The fees collected went into a fund. In 2014, a federal court ordered the government to stop collecting the fee. That year, the fund was estimated to be at $31 billion dollars.


Given the amount of money that can be generated to dispose of nuclear waste, it is no surprise that illicit networks have found a profitable business in the waste industry. This is true particularly where there is weak government regulation. According to Valentina Baiamonte, researcher at UNICRI, illicit waste trafficking poses


“a serious threat for destination countries where untreated hazardous waste is dumped into the ground or waters, or manually disassembled with little or no regard being paid to health and safety issues for the population, and to the enduring damages caused to the environment. Illegal waste management represents however, also an increasing threat for producing countries, as a consequence of fraud, and tax evasion, but also “pollution” of the legal economy by criminal actors through money laundering and control of legitimate companies active in the waste management sector.”


In 2009, an Interpol study found that illicit networks use simple tricks to engage in illegal waste trafficking. They accomplish their objectives by “mislabeling containers” or “mixing waste with real consignment.”[1] Although the Basel Convention and the Bamako Convention enjoy international support between governments, it has not deterred criminal networks from partaking in the activity.

Now the impact of various types of waste dumping is felt by citizens in different parts of the world. In Somalia, it has been reported by ministry officials that European companies have been dumping hazardous waste into the ocean which has impacted aquatic life, the water, and the people. In Italy, the “triangle of death” in the Campania province, the rates of cancer are 47% higher than the national average in Italy. The water is too toxic to drink. A mafia member admitted for several years that the clan hazardous waste and trash wherever they could find a spot. Similarly, electronic waste, or e-waste, “is the fastest growing waste stream in the world” and easily “diverted” to the black market due to “lack of sufficient auditing and oversight.” The value to criminal networks in e-waste comes from the extraction of metals from e-products. The extraction and burning process is harmful to the environment and to people. Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network, noted that in countries such as Nigeria and China that children sort through the equipment and burn discarded items, inhaling toxic air.

It is imperative that existing gaps in this arena are addressed to lower the incentive for organized networks to create a larger footprint. First, countries should discuss best practices on how to dispose of waste. Particularly, lesser developed countries should have more bargaining power in negotiations so that their countries are not targets for toxic waste dumping. On a national level, governments should include different stakeholders in these conversations, such as local law enforcement, legitimate corporations, and citizens of various communities that could be impacted. Haiti’s cholera outbreak has exposed how education could have helped United Nations peacekeepers to make better decisions.

Second, loopholes in regulations need to be tightened. At one point, New York tackled garbage hauling by organized crime groups with tighter regulations, oversight, and prosecutions. Local and national agencies can help monitor waste and disposal, given the enormity of the issue. They can also cooperate with each other to ensure regulations are enforced. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency  works with the Department of Justice to address environmental crimes. It is crucial that citizens of different nations have a platform to report hazardous waste dumping or related environmental crimes so that law enforcement can stay ahead of the problem. Laws which help whistle-blowers should be considered on an international level, as importing and exporting illegal waste clearly has detrimental consequences.

More resources to track and monitor waste should be implemented. With e-waste, for example, the enormity of e-waste flows is difficult to track but tracking capabilities would provide opportunities to prevent black market diversions.

Finally, cities around the world have an opportunity to create innovative solutions to address waste. Cities in countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Sweden, Singapore, and the United States, have come up with environmentally sound solutions, which not only reduce the environmental impact but take opportunities away from criminal networks. Of course, individually we can each take the opportunity to learn about the products we purchase and the kind of impact it has when it becomes waste.


[1] Electronic Waste and Organized Crime Assessing the Links, Phase II Report for the Interpol Pollution Crime Working Group. May 2009, pg 2-3.