Illegal trade in waste: overview of Operation Demeter IV

28 November 2018

Operation DEMETER IV targeted illegal transboundary movements of waste.  A total of 75 Customs administrations participated in the joint global operation, the biggest Customs operation targeting illegal trafficking of waste to date, which yielded over 326,133 tonnes and 54,782 pieces of different types of waste.

The most frequently seized commodities included mineral slag (283,671.925 tonnes), plastics (9,816.018 tonnes), e-waste (245.277 tonnes and 14,826 pieces), waste rubber (1,032.970 tonnes), municipal waste (518.420 tonnes), clothes (5,371.804 tonnes), paper (25.705 tonnes), batteries (62.226 tonnes), and metal scraps (8,212.226 tonnes).  A total of 214 seizures were reported, comprising 199 cases involving waste.  The largest seizure was a shipment of smelting slag (approximately 180,000 tonnes) from Spain, intercepted by China Customs.

Operation DEMETER IV, initiated by China Customs and coordinated by the Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for the Asia/Pacific region (RILO A/P) and the World Customs Organization (WCO), was supported by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention and its Regional Centre in Beijing (China), INTERPOL, EUROPOL, the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), and UN Environment's Asia and the Pacific Office.

Throughout the operation, conducted between 4 June and 8 July 2018, Customs officers shared intelligence and applied risk assessment, profiling and targeting techniques to identify and control high-risk consignments shipped on all routes and via all means of transport.

Over the past three decades, waste primarily generated by developed countries has ended up in the territories of developing countries, largely in Southeast Asia and West Africa.  This increases pressure on developing countries to process growing numbers of waste shipments.

Under the Basel Convention, which regulates transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, Parties have the right to prohibit the import of waste.  In addition, they may not export waste without the prior consent of the States of import.

On 1 January 2018, China, the world’s biggest importer of waste, introduced an import ban on 24 types of solid waste.  As a result of this ban, China’s neighbours and certain African countries have increasingly found themselves targeted by shippers of illegal waste.

If hazardous waste is shipped without the prior consent of the States of import, this is regarded as illegal and the States of export are required to take the waste back or dispose of it in an environmentally sound manner, under the terms of the Basel Convention.

“Illegal waste trafficking is a little-known, lucrative business with devastating consequences for human health and the environment.  Operation DEMETER IV once again demonstrates the commitment of the WCO and the international Customs community to tackle illegal trafficking and protect public health by enhancing cooperation and law enforcement,” said the WCO Secretary General, Kunio Mikuriya.

The RILO A/P, based in Seoul (Republic of Korea), hosted the Operational Coordination Unit (OCU) and played an important role during Operation DEMETER IV, acting as a focal point for information exchange.  Eight RILOs took part in the operation.

Participants relied on the CENcomm, the WCO’s secure and encrypted communication tool, to exchange crucial intelligence and information and coordinate their operational activities during the course of this global enforcement initiative.

The WCO Deputy Secretary General, Ricardo Treviño, represented the Organization at the debriefing on Operation DEMETER IV, held on 20 November 2018 in Shanghai (China) and attended by over 150 representatives from 53 WCO Members and 11 international organizations.

During the debriefing, Mr. Ni Yuefeng, Minister of the General Administration of China Customs, referred to the operation as a major success in terms of international collaboration.  He went on to say that "China Customs will continue to work with international organizations and other Member countries and regions to construct a prosperous, clean and beautiful world together".  During the debriefing, China Customs proposed that Member Customs administrations establish a long-term mechanism for global cooperation, aimed at monitoring transboundary movements of solid waste and combating related smuggling activities.

Following the debriefing, a WCO workshop was held at the Organization’s Regional Training Centre in Shanghai, from 21 to 23 November 2018, to hold further discussions on environmental crime issues.  The DEMETER concept will be pursued and plans are already being made for a similar operation in 2019.