Dirty cash for dirty trash

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here. 


“We’re polluting our own house and our own land. What are we going to drink?”

“You idiot. We’ll drink mineral water.”

Camorra Members discussing the dumping of toxic waste outside of Naples

A public health crisis is brewing in southern Italy. In the countryside around Naples, cancer rates have spiked, while in the city, the U.S. Navy has warned its personnel to avoid drinking the water. For decades the region’s Camorra organized crime group has engaged in a lucrative trash-for-cash racket, disposing of toxic waste for European industry at a fraction of the legal price. Burying the waste in the Neapolitan countryside has earned the clans billions of dollars. However, the Camorra is not alone in its involvement in the illicit disposal of toxic waste. As regulation have grown more stringent, and the cost of legal disposal have mounted, otherwise reputable firms have increasingly become entangled with organized crime groups throughout the world. As the situation in southern Italy shows, it is often innocent residents of the dumping zones who suffer most from the noxious trade.

The trade in toxic waste has existed for decades, with the industrial effluent from the developed world often exported to developing nations. However, two trends have driven the growth of illicit trade in toxic waste, and the involvement of organized crime groups. First, regulations and the cost of disposing of toxic waste have continued to mount. By and large this is a positive development, spurred by civil society and government concerns over the health and environmental impact of toxic waste disposal. However, regulations and the cost of toxic waste disposal differ dramatically between states. Some businesses have sought to financially profit from the regulatory heterogeneity, by shipping their waste to the least regulated, and thus most inexpensive, countries for processing. The second trend, efforts by the international community to restrict the legal trade in toxic waste, has emerged in response to business efforts to dispose of toxic waste on the cheap. However, despite international efforts the global trade in toxic waste continues. Efforts to restrict the legal trade have opened up a vast opportunity for global organized crime groups, who are able and all too willing to smuggle and dispose of the toxic effluent.

Camorra clans in Naples seem to have been early and enthusiastic adopters of the toxic waste business. In 1997, one Camorra member testified that millions of tons of waste were regularly moved to the areas outside of Naples and buried. The financial stakes of the market are huge. One NGO estimated the yearly value of illicit waste disposal in Italy at 16 billion Euros. Reportedly, the Camorra has begun to expand it waste disposal activities abroad, via shipments to Eastern Europe and East Asia.

The illicit trade is toxic waste is not a victimless crime. The toxicity of the products involved pose grave threats to both those involved in the trade, and the public at large. Over 100,000 were sickened in Côte d’Ivoire in 2006, when oil byproducts were dumped in Abidjan. A spectacular photo essay recently published on the largest e-waste dump in Ghana highlights the huge health risks for local workers and resident populations. In Italy, the illicit dumps outside of Naples are believed to have propelled a cancer epidemic. Wiretaps show that Camorra members involved in burying the waste knew the dangers it posed to the local community, yet they buried it anyway. While the Italian government has initiated efforts to clean up the waste, the public health challenge posed by the buried toxins is likely to endure.

Unfortunately, the illicit trade in toxic waste is likely to grow. The financial stakes are too high for international companies, the financial gains for organized crime groups too large to pass up, and the laws to soft to deter either the businessmen or the crime groups from engaging in the activity. As polities in Europe, North America, and East Asia buttress their regulations against toxic waste disposal, it is likely that the illicit trade will be routed to developing countries, posing grave health threats to the populations there. While there is no obvious panacea to the problem, the transnational nature of the illicit trade in toxic waste necessitates the strengthening of laws against illicit dumping in both exporting and importing countries, as well as robust international cooperation to identify what waste is being moved, to where, and who is responsible. Though such steps are only a preliminary effort, they will have a tangible and positive impact on public health for those who would otherwise be victimized by the greed of organized crime groups and their industrial partners.