International calls for Italy to return illegal waste from Tunisia

Forty-four international environmental groups co-signed a demand yesterday (3 May) calling for the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius to order the immediate repatriation of Italian municipal waste that was illegally shipped to Tunisia last year.

Protests in Tunisia over illegal waste shipped from Italy
Photo credits: Réseau Tunisie Verte
In July 2020, Italian company Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali exported 282 containers to the Tunisian port city of Sousse, which it claimed was processed waste that would be recycled.

The containers were listed as storing plastic scraps for recycling, but customs officers in Tunisia discovered the cargo was made up of decaying household and medical waste that could not be recycled and that is barred from import under Tunisian law.

The Tunisian Ministry of Environment opened an enquiry into the containers in November, after Islamic news channel Mugtama reported that a local company had signed a deal to import 120,000 tonnes of household waste from Italy annually for 18 billion Tunisian dinar (£4.72 billion).

The exports became the subject of a national scandal in Tunisia when it was revealed that government officials had knowingly approved of the illegal shipments.

In December last year, Tunisia’s Environment Minister Mustapha Aroui was sacked from his position and was arrested alongside senior customs officials and members of Tunisia’s National Agency for Waste Management, and are all now facing prosecution for their involvement.

Tunisia has struggled to manage its own waste in recent times, with the United Nations Environment Programme, which is currently working on a waste management programme for Tunisia, referring to it as a ‘pressing issue’ within the country.

Earlier in 2020, the Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhkakh resigned from his position following revelations of a conflict of interest in his involvement in waste management companies. Fakhfakh has since denied any involvement in this case.

Under the terms of international treaty the Basel Convention, which aims to prevent the international transfer of waste, the Italian national authorities had until 8 January to return the illegal waste to Italy. However, no action has been taken yet.

This has since caused protests from Tunisian environmental groups outside the Italian embassy, calling for Italy to take its waste back.

Organisations that have co-signed the demand for Italy to repatriate the waste, including the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the Basel Action Network, Réseau Tunisie Verte (Green Tunisia Network) and Zero Waste Europe, have condemned Italian and Tunisian authorities for failing to act on returning the illegal waste, noting that the court in Rome currently responsible for the case has been adjourned until 15 July.

“Court squabbles between the Italian exporter, the insurance company and government authorities are entirely irrelevant to the obligation to repatriate,” said Sirine Rached of GAIA.

“The Italian national authorities must assume the immediate costs now, and remain at liberty to recover costs from the guilty parties later.”

“The postponed repatriation increases the risk of harm that Tunisians bear from these illegal shipments, as the toxic mix of Italian garbage continues to putrefy in the port of Sousse”, said Hamdi Châabane of Réseau Tunisie Verte.

Pierre Condamine, Waste Policy Office at Zero Waste Europe, commented: “We expect strong leadership from the European Union to ensure the waste is repatriated as soon as possible. Such practices are not acceptable and should be heavily punished." 

Semia Gharbi, of Réseau Tunisie Verte, added: “We don’t understand why the Italian government sits on their hands in this case. And we cannot understand how the European Commission allows Italy to sit on their hands.

“The law is clear, the shipments were unlawful and Italy must bear initial responsibility.”