Tunisia was victorious this weekend in a protracted David versus Goliath rubbish battle against Italy. On Saturday, a consignment of 7,900 tonnes of toxic waste illegally sent by Italy to Tunisia was sent back where it came from after an almost two-year legal wrangle spearheaded by small local environmental NGOs.
With its extensive white sandy beaches, sparkling turquoise sea, unbroken sunshine and lavish resorts, the pretty Tunisian seaside city of Sousse is best known as a holiday destination. But it has recently become famous for a much smellier reason: Since 2020, more than 200 big shipping containers filled with 7,900 tonnes of Italian toxic waste have been stuck in limbo in a port warehouse.
Between the end of May and the beginning of July 2020, 282 containers were exported by Italian company Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali (SRA) from the port of Salerno, in Italy’s Campania region, to this Tunisian port city. The Tunisian company importing them, Soreplast, declared to customs that they contained scrap plastic left over from manufacturing processes, which Soreplast said it would then recycle. But they were revealed to instead contain household and hospital waste, which is legally prohibited from being imported in Tunisia.
The Italian company SRA was established in 2008 through the sale of a branch of another company, Fond.Eco. Both companies ended up at the centre of a judicial investigation in 2016 conducted by Salerno’s Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate. Tommaso Palmieri, who runs both companies, was accused of leading an organisation that recycled bulk waste. SRA is also one of the companies included in an Italian parliamentary report on the link between the waste industry and organised crime.
€5 million contractThe containers were the first shipment of a €5 million contract to dispose of 120,000 tonnes of Italian waste in Tunisian landfills. Soreplast was being paid €48 per tonne of waste.
213 of the containers were stored at the port in Sousse, the remaining 69 were sent to a warehouse outside the city. The containers and their contents rotted away in these warehouses for over a year until they were officially seized by the Tunisian government last July. They – and their pungent odours – were to remain in place, however, for another seven months.
On December 28, 2021, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio went to the capital Tunis for talks with President Kais Saied, in particular to address this thorny issue. At the end of this meeting, the Tunisian presidency published a Facebook statement, stressing “the need to accelerate the repatriation of the waste as soon as possible”.
An agreement was finally signed on February 11 to return the rubbish to Italy. The Tunisian ministry of environment said in a statement posted after the meeting on its Facebook page that “the signing of this agreement is part of the continuity of the consultation process between the two countries, which began in 2020”. The statement continued: “Among other things, this agreement provides for the immediate return of 213 containers in the first instance, out of a total of 282 containers, after 69 of them were involved in a fire.”
The ministry added that consultations are continuing with regard to finalising the return of the remaining waste after containers were damaged by a fire, which broke out in the importers’ warehouse in the governorate of Sousse. They did not elaborate on the state of the containers post-fire or when any subsequent transfer might take place.
‘Important victory’Last Friday, the first 213 containers were loaded on a Turkish ship, chartered by the Italian authorities. The ship left Sousse at 8pm local time on Saturday.
Only a handful of people were invited to watch from the docks, including a number of politicians, one television network and members of one voluntary network, Réseau Tunisie Vert, an NGO that had fought hard for this waste to be sent back to Italy.
“It was a very symbolic moment, watching them load up the boat and seeing it sail away into the night, we couldn’t believe it was finally happening,” said Nidhal Attia, member of the network and the co-ordinator of the environmental programme at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Tunisia, speaking with FRANCE 24.
“This is a very important victory for Tunisian civil society. It was a very different kind of environmental battle than we are used to fighting, so this result will definitely boost the courage and the will of the people to take on issues like this.”
Italy’s dustbin When news about the waste mountain mouldering at the port first emerged in local media, it provoked outrage from the population and local NGOs, who said they refused to allow their country to become Italy’s dustbin.
“This type of trade is immoral and environmentally destructive; it is not acceptable to import waste from Italy to Tunisia for landfilling. Landfilling of waste can generate toxic leaching and contribute to the degradation of human health and the environment,” said Mohammed Tazrout, campaigner for Greenpeace Middle-East and North Africa, in a joint statement published by a number of NGOs.
Having developed into something of a David versus Goliath battle over the last two years, the outcome was the result of a united protest from a number of local and international NGOs, who kept constant pressure on the Tunisian government until they finally agreed a method with the Italian government to send back most of the containers.
“We met with three successive government ministers to push them into this result. We wrote to the president twice, with no reaction, and we reached out to international forces like the United Nations,” said Attia. “It was a major campaign.”
On December 21 2020, the Tunisian Minister of the Environment Mustapha Larou was arrested and about 25 officials – a dozen of whom were also arrested – were charged. The list of suspects also includes the name of Larou’s head of his cabinet, the directors of the National Waste Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency, customs officials and the laboratory responsible for analysing waste from abroad. It also includes Beya Ben Abdelbaki, the Tunisian consul in Naples. One person missing from the list – and indeed Tunisia – is the owner of Soreplast, who has fled abroad.
“We have been pushing the ministry for the environment for more transparency for almost two years to share the information they have, but they held back until now,” said Attia. “There has been a complete lack of transparency about how the deal came about so far. People have been arrested and are waiting for their trials, but even when that is over, we don’t know if we will learn how this deal happened in the first place.”
Trafficking waste to Africa In 1991, then Chief Economist of the World Bank Lawrence Summers signed a memo that defended the decades-old practice of trafficking waste from developed countries in the global north – where strict environmental regulations make its disposal prohibitively expensive – to less developed countries.
“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that,” Summers’ controversial memo read. Summers later claimed he was being “sarcastic” in this section.
Outrage followed its publication, but the scandal did serve to raise the profile of one relatively recent environmental treaty, the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of hazardous waste, while also providing the impetus for the subsequent 1998 Bamako Convention These treaties were created to regulate the transit of toxic waste across borders. Bamako was specifically designed to ban the import of any waste that cannot be recycled to Africa. This Tunisia deal would appear to be in direct breach of that.
All of Tunisia’s waste is managed in landfills. The country’s largest, in Borj Chakir on the outskirts of the capital Tunis, takes in an estimated 3,000 tonnes of waste every day, a figure that is considerably more than the 44 tonnes per day permitted in EU landfills. Plastic bags are strewn everywhere and the waste has polluted nearby water sources.
“This Italian deal shows how our environment is another sector that is directly affected by corruption and bad governance,” said Attia. “We don’t talk about it enough as it is eclipsed by other priorities such as the economy. But what would all this waste do to our environment, to our land, if it was buried in our soil?”
“This was just the first wave of containers and there would have been many others if we hadn’t caused such protest. This scandal really highlights, at both a national and even international level, the current limitations of recycling. It will not be able to put an end to the problems of waste management,” Attia said.
“We need to transform the way we treat domestic waste; we can’t simply bury it all in landfill sites.”