Since customs officials at the port of Sousse, a city in eastern Tunisia, seized 70 large containers and then 212 others at the start of the summer, customs and the Ministry of the Environment have been passing the buck.
And heads began to fall: Sunday evening, Environment Minister Mustapha Aroui was sacked. No official reason has been provided, but the decision is linked to the waste matter, a government source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The cargoes in question contained household waste, the export of which is prohibited by Tunisian legislation as well as by international conventions, which judge them “dangerous“.
Justice took over Monday, with the arrest of 12 people, namely Mr. Aroui himself, customs officials and a director of the National Waste Recycling Agency (Anged), told Jabeur Ghnimi, spokesperson for the Sousse court of first instance (east), in charge of the case.
They were imported by a local company, Soreplast, just weeks after this dormant company restarted its activities, with the sole authorization to recycle industrial plastic waste for export.
Questioned before the announcement of his dismissal, the communication service of Mr. Aroui assured that the minister had “signed no document ” authorizing Soreplast to start importing waste.
Solicited on several occasions, the boss of Soreplast remained unreachable. He is now wanted by the courts.
AFP, on the other hand, obtained a copy of the initial request from the Tunisian company: on arrival of the containers, it requested authorization to import “temporary“of”post-industrial plastic waste in non-hazardous bales (…) to carry out sorting, recycling and re-export operations to European territory“. However, the contract signed by Soreplast with an Italian company explicitly states that”The objective is to recover (by Soreplast) waste and its subsequent disposal” in Tunisia.
According to a customs official, these documents show that Soreplast made a false declaration on the nature of the imported goods.
– Ramifications –
The contract was signed with a company based in the south of Naples, Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl, which specializes in the collection and treatment of waste in Campania (south).
The Italian company has also remained unreachable despite the steps taken by AFP.
The document, of which AFP has obtained a copy, provides for the elimination of a maximum of 120,000 tonnes, at a price of 48 euros per tonne – a total exceeding 5 million euros.
In Sousse, on July 8, it was finally decided to seize the containers to send them back to Italy, according to the customs official.
But, to this day, the waste is still in Tunisia.
And this case seems to illustrate the ramifications of the illegal waste trade, which is increasing in the face of the tightening of European standards, and the growing reluctance of Asia, long dump of Western waste.
In a report in August, Interpol warned of the dramatic increase in illegal plastic waste shipments since 2018.
This phenomenon is all the more worrying given that Tunisian infrastructure does not allow the country to overcome its own needs: only 61% of the capital’s waste is collected, according to a recent World Bank report, and the majority ends up in landfills in open sky.
The case was widely reported in the media.
– “Lobbies” –
“This case shows that there are major corruption lobbies“, affirms Hamdi Chebâane, expert in waste recovery and member of a coalition of associations”Green Tunisia“.
According to him, the Ministry of the Environment has come under significant pressure from businessmen in recent years to allow the import of waste, but “it’s the first time“that such a case is exposed.
“How did the customs allow the deposit of this waste on Tunisian soil, when there is no official authorization?“, accuses Béchir Yahya, director of recycling at the National Waste Recycling Agency, under the supervision of the Ministry of the Environment.
The Angel is accused by customs of having given the green light to get the first 70 containers out of the port.
The customs indeed required a certificate on the nature of their contents before letting them leave. The Anged official said in an email that it was plastic and not prohibited waste.
In this email from Mr. Yahya, a copy of which AFP was able to see, the latter specified that after reading the results of the samples taken, he did not see “no objection to the importation of these plastic products (…) which do not contain hazardous products“.
It is on the basis of this correspondence that customs authorized the removal of the 70 containers, assures a customs source.
But Mr. Yahya emphasizes that it was only a “personal opinion“unofficial,”no official document“, and that customs officials knew that this was by no means sufficient to allow importation.
The other 212 containers are still in the port, where activity was very dense when AFP visited in early December.
Legal experts were busy examining its content, according to the port director, who banned access to AFP despite authorization from the ministries concerned.