‘The new narcotics’—criminal networks exploiting waste for illicit gain

October 06, 2020

The global recycled plastics market has become a lucrative opportunity for criminal enterprises to exploit. 

Novel trafficking routes are on the rise, and the recycled plastic market—projected to reach valuations of USD 50.36 billion by 2022—has caught the attention of those looking to abuse market frameworks. This is the summary of the latest Interpol report, a comprehensive global study outlining how current waste management systems have given rise to criminal networks that are capitalizing on the opportunity to diversify their activities and infiltrate the economy. 

The report outlines the extent and complexity of this waste and the waste surplus crisis. It also unveils how recent shifts in the global import-export market, including tougher measures introduced by China to ban impure plastic waste imports, have catalyzed waste crimes around the world.

The shift of waste creation to crime

Between 2010 and 2020, global plastic waste production increased by an annual 10 million metric tons. We now produce 300 million tons of plastic a year, and our global consumption, coupled with policy changes from the world’s largest waste importers, has led to a surplus rapidly accumulating within nations’ borders. By 2030, 111 million tons of plastic waste will reportedly be displaced, and with rising domestic waste levels and declining export opportunities, this has created the perfect breeding ground for criminals. 

Opportunistic lawbreakers have capitalized on the difficulties of treating and monitoring this vast global surplus. This year alone, 2,500 tons of waste was trafficked from the Canary Islands to Africa, and 42 Spanish criminals were arrested for trafficking stolen waste from Spain to Asia, costing the city of Madrid EUR16 million. This “waste crime” is part of wider global transnational environmental crime, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Heralded as “the new narcotics,” it causes serious environmental pollution and threatens societal health and safety. It also undermines legitimate businesses and economic growth—for example, costing the U.K. economy an estimated £600m every year.

Waste crime can take many forms, including: 

- Operation of illegal waste management sites without licenses or registration 

- Landfill tax evasion

- “Fly-tipping” and burning of waste 

- Fraudulent use of fake documentation to deliberately mis-declare plastic waste 

- Subversion of legitimate processes by using legitimate business models to veil crime 

- Financial crime to support operations

- Illegal waste exports

The report revealed the prevalence of financial crimes within the waste market through evidence of recurrent incidents of tax evasion and fraud. However, a more concerning finding linked criminal networks and legitimate waste management businesses. Interpol revealed how organized crime groups infiltrate the waste sector via legitimate enterprises used as a cover for criminal operations. This “illegal within the legal” sentiment is echoed by Europol, who warn how criminals’ use of legal business structures are “inherent” features of waste crime. 

The issue is far more entrenched than perhaps thought and is growing across the globe; in Germany, for instance, 65 percent of all recorded environmental crime related to illegal activities is associated with waste. 


Now more than ever is it vital to take action. The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all areas of life—and the illicit plastic waste market is no different. Social distancing measures and lockdown procedures have led some waste management facilities to operate at drastically reduced capacity, or to even close production.

While reliant on preliminary data, global estimates of the impact of illicit waste crimes are staggering. Wuhan Hospitals reportedly produced over 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, versus 40 tons during normal times. Based on this data, it is predicted the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months. Furthermore, illegal waste disposal, known as “fly tipping” in the U.K., has risen by 300 percent during the pandemic. 

Looking ahead 

As countries introduce further legislation restricting plastic waste imports, criminals are predicted to adapt and re-route waste shipments. This threatens both vulnerable developing nations with very limited waste management and enforcement capacities and established markets, which will see waste disposed of in illegal landfills. 

It is clear that further action is required to bring criminals to account and help alleviate threats to our environment, global security, and public health. Interpol outlines four actions it believes will help strengthen enforcement:

- Develop risk indicators and financial investigations in response to detection and investigative challenges

- Enhance inter-agency responses to overcome limitations of power

- Enhance international waste traceability through better information exchange and intelligence sharing between import and export countries

- Bring clarity to rapidly changing import regulations

These also aim to tackle crimes linked to waste issues, including illegal labor, fraud, money laundering, and corruption. Action is already being taken, with intelligent data-driven approaches that nurture collaboration proving the most successful:

- Interpol’s Project Eden was launched in 2013 to detect and counter international illegal waste trade and disposal, including electronic waste. By engaging key players such as policymakers, law enforcement agencies, and the electronics and e-waste industries, it facilitates intelligence exchange and analysis to identify criminal networks, train law enforcement, and conduct targeted operations.

- The launch of the U.K. Joint Unit for Waste Crime, combining enforcement agencies, U.K. environment regulators, HMRC, and the National Crime Agency, hoped that by sharing intelligence and resources, partners could take swifter action more easily when investigating criminal waste operations and other connected illegal activities.

Increasing and encouraging recycling measures to tackle waste surpluses must continue. Yet as waste crime is “a rising threat with roots in a more fundamental problem: the inability to manage our plastic use and production,” any implications of policy changes must be better understood to influence and combat criminal activity. Despite stricter law enforcement, Interpol highlights that as waste management processes have adapted, so too have criminal enterprises. They are evolving in line with regulation, and concerningly, the report warns how if poorly enforced, regulatory changes may even provide opportunities for new criminal business to grow. 

To find out more and to read the full report, click here.


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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