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Corruption, Ecology

Antwerp as a worldwide hub for illegal plastic waste

Abstract: The port of Antwerp plays an important role in the international plastic waste trade, which is increasingly falling into criminal hands. Inadequate controls, understaffing at customs and broken scanners open the door to abuse, according to research by Humo and others. Containers full of illegal plastic waste leave Antwerp for Asia, to be dumped there. 

by Dominique Soenens

Published in Humo, February 21 2021 

Figures from Comtrade, the United Nations statistics office, show that our country exported almost half a million tonnes (478,792) of plastic waste in 2019. That figure makes tiny Belgium the fourth largest exporter in the world, after Germany, Japan and the United States. The bulk of those exports are through the port of Antwerp. 

Problematically, that trade is increasingly falling into the hands of criminals, Interpol warned in a report published in August last year. The port of Antwerp is popular because of its good location and existing international routes, but there is more. There is much less control, sounds unanimous among a dozen traders we spoke to. The port presents itself as a place where containers are handled quickly. 

‘Things are friendlier in Antwerp,’ says an anonymous Dutch trader. ‘It is faster and more flexible. At the port of Rotterdam, a lot more checks are done. They make X-rays of containers there. That is done much less in Antwerp.’ Another trader: ‘At the port of Rotterdam, the chances of being selected for a check are many times higher. That’s why we prefer to trade via the port of Antwerp. 

“The chance of being caught is indeed smaller in our country. In the Netherlands, customs have more powers, which means they can do more inspections. Here it works differently. If customs suspect they have found a container of illegal waste, they have to contact us, after which we take over. There are five of us to check and handle illegal waste shipments at the port. Inspections uncover around 15-30 per cent illegal shipments, which is a good percentage. But with that, we are at our ceiling. To carry out more checks, we need more staff.” 

Marc De Strooper (inspector and environmental expert at Omgevingsinspectie Vlaanderen)

According to an insider, the port authorities are not in favor of more checks: “They are trying to give themselves the most flexible image possible.” But the port of Antwerp refutes that it deliberately chooses to carry out less stringent checks to increase the port’s attractiveness. 

“Because of our location, the port is highly sought after. The Antwerp mentality is internationally known as very flexible and hands-on. It is in no one’s interest that we position ourselves as a port without a lot of procedures and administration. That said, we always strive for simplicity.” 

Barbara Janssens (Port of Antwerp spokesperson)

According to the customs officers we spoke to, politicians are reluctant to hire extra people, a sore point that has been felt for years. 

“The staff shortage is not being addressed. There is more and more cooperation with so-called Authorized Economic Operators, private companies from the transport sector that are allowed to carry out certain customs formalities themselves. Thus, even more control is being relinquished. There are also things going wrong elsewhere. For instance, the fixed scanners are often faulty and with the mobile scanners customs officers can hardly do their job. Added to this is the pressure – including from the city administration – to prioritize the war on drugs. As a result, less attention goes to the smuggling of illegal plastic waste.” 

Peter Veltmans (ACOD trade union)

As a result, few checks happen, although customs spokesman Francis Adyns contradicts this. 

“We did 442 checks on plastic waste in 2019. We check 1.5 per cent of containers, a figure in line with other European ports. It may involve a physical check, a check of documents or a scan. That does not mean that the remaining 98.5 per cent escapes our attention: we do a risk analysis on all containers and then pick out a few. Eventually, we want to move towards 100 per cent scanning. That is also in the coalition agreement.” 

Francus Adyns

Ben Kras of Dutch waste management company Kras Recycling shakes his head when talking about inspections in the port of Antwerp. “In the port of Antwerp, the Environment Inspectorate works with five people to check that huge area. That is madness. In Rotterdam, it employs 20 people, and they are now expanding that to 30.” The layout of the Antwerp port also plays into the hands of criminals. There are numerous approach roads: a big difference from the port of Rotterdam, where all transport must go in and out through a single point. Criminals take advantage of that weak point.” 

“Recently, it became known that criminals who were selected for an inspection and had to drive to the customs’ fixed scanner took a diversion to replace the container with one with a legal content. To avoid such fraud, customs officers are now required to accompany the selected container to the fixed scanner in pairs. That means they are unavailable for other tasks, further reducing already limited manpower.” 

Peter Veltmans

To solve the problem, customs bought trackers to track the transport of suspicious containers to the scanner, but they did not work as they should have last year. They turned out to be spotty, poorly functioning devices. And another problem presents itself: the various authorities and organisations in our country do not communicate with each other or do not communicate enough. 

“In Belgium you have three administrations that do not always speak the same language. For criminals, this is convenient. It is enough to cross the border to create a false trail.” 

Frans Geysels (head of the Federal Unit Public Health and Environmental Crime)

“In Europe, you have 28 different legislations. We are officially a union, but we don’t notice that at all. That patchwork of rules and laws is pernicious for our sector. In Belgium, you also have three different governments with their own rules. Get started. I don’t understand how that can work.” 

Kras

UNDERCOVER 

Once containers leave the port of Antwerp, an opaque journey begins towards Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam or Turkey. With an intricate web of documents, criminals look for the weak spot. Properly sorted and recyclable plastic may be exported without any problems. But for contaminated plastic or a mixed cargo, a declaration must be made, followed by an inspection. Criminals have an arsenal of means to evade these. Ships sometimes shuttle back and forth from port to port to create a diversionary trail. Or containers at the port of Antwerp are filled with clean plastic at the front, while contaminated waste sits at the back. Traders are also allowed to specify which waste they transport. That gives them another opportunity to circumvent the legislation: they can mark difficult-to-recycle plastic waste on documents as raw material, thus bypassing import restrictions from Antwerp to China, among others. 

“We are seeing more and more of this. We did some 15 spot checks on such shipments, and in half of them it turned out to be plastic waste.” 

De Strooper

To find out how easy it is to get plastic waste from Antwerp to the other side of the world, we log on to scrapo.com, a website where traders worldwide buy and sell plastic waste. We post pictures of some bales of waste, with a description and a selling price. We get responses from a handful of traders: one from India, two from Turkey and one from Britain. The latter allows himself to be addressed by the name John Adam, but answers with a different, Indian-sounding name when we call him. “I’m interested in your plastic waste. How much can you deliver per week?” When we agree on a price and promise to send him a shipment for inspection, we ask where our waste will eventually end up. “We ship it to Malaysia or something. You know how it goes, buddy.” To the Turkish traders, we ask if they are not afraid of stricter regulations, now that their country, too, wants to put more limits on European waste imports. “No, it is not clear to anyone how things will work out in practice. We just carry on.” 

However, international scrutiny is growing, just as the environmental impact is becoming increasingly clear. In 2018, China decided it no longer wanted to be the dumping ground for western plastic waste, forcing traders to look for other destinations. Since then, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, Cambodia, India and especially Turkey became popular destinations: countries where labor costs are low and environmental laws flexible. 

“Companies always look for the country where they can work the cheapest. We ourselves opened a recycling plant in Kosovo. The minimum wage there is 300 euros per month. That way we can compete with recycling companies elsewhere in the world. Otherwise, it would be a hopeless task. It’s very simple: trading plastic waste is business. It’s about making money.” 

Kras

After China’s ban, other Southeast Asian countries are also looking more strictly at plastic waste imports. Malaysia sent seven containers back to Antwerp early last year. They were filled with French waste sold by a Dutch trader through the port of Antwerp, and then through Hong Kong, to an unlicensed Malaysian company. “Customs had found out that the codes on some declarations had been altered,” Malaysian investigator Mageswari Sangaralingam says. At one point, Penang state investigated as many as 400 containers of illegally imported plastic waste. Much of it went back to Belgium, France and Britain. Malaysia was still the world’s largest importer of plastic waste in 2018. According to Malaysian government data, Belgium was then the seventh largest exporter to the country. 

IN THE FIK 

Dumping plastic waste in distant countries is taking its toll on the environment. According to a 2015 article in Science, half of all plastic produced since 1950 has ended up in a landfill in open nature. Still according to the article, 4 to 12 million tons of discarded plastic ends up in oceans every year. In 2018, environmental organization Greenpeace found supermarket packaging from Belgium on the Malaysian island of Pulau Indah. Place of departure: the port of Antwerp. Belgian plastic waste also ends up in the wild in Turkey, even though it was officially declared as recycled. Companies in Europe are supposed to check what happens to their waste, but this often remains a dead letter. Valipac, the organization that monitors recycling of packaging at companies in our country, went to Turkey after images of Belgian packaging surfaced. In its own words, it determined that nothing was wrong. 

“We did not see anything contrary to local legislation.” 

Iingrid Bouchez (Valipac spokesperson)

As controls become stricter elsewhere in the world, plastic waste is increasingly being dumped illegally in Europe, Interpol points out in its report. Thus, pollution is reaching our backyards and rivers. Fires are reported in open fields, abandoned factories, recycling plants and warehouses. Officially, these are accidents, while there are often suspicions that the fires were set to make illegal waste disappear. The number of illegal dumping sites is also increasing in France and Spain, according to Interpol. 

“We point the finger at Turkey, but in France everything is still just dumped. In Poland too. This is hypocritical. It is simply a fact that 10-15 per cent of all plastic is non-recyclable. The targets imposed by Europe are unrealistic.” 

Kras

Do Ben Kras or his suppliers question where the plastic he trades ends up? 

“Of course, but we don’t always have a grip on it. Even if you deliver a load to a licensed recycling company, it cannot be ruled out that it then passes it on through the back door to illegal companies. That happened very often in China. There, the government has now closed the door, but in Vietnam it is still wide open. We are powerless against this way of working. For us it is also a risk: the Vietnamese government, just like the Chinese, can decide at any moment that enough is enough. In any case, you can see that there is increasing demand for transparency. The images of plastic wasteending up in nature have a big impact on public opinion. You also notice this with our suppliers: supermarkets ask us where their waste will end up.” 

Kras

Governments realize that something must be done. Since the beginning of this year, there has been a tightening of the Basel Convention, which regulates the international shipment of hazardous waste. The tightened rules mean there will be more control over plastic waste and its journey. Highly necessary, says Interpol, as the difficulty of tracing waste from source to processor plays to the advantage of criminals. Under the new, stricter rules, only clean and sorted plastic waste may be freely traded from EU countries. Several experts welcome the new rules, but not everyone is convinced they will curb illegal flows. Stricter rules, according to some stakeholders, only increase the search for illegal circuits and weak spots. And internationally, the port of Antwerp is just such a weak spot. 


This research is a collaboration between Humo, research platform Lighthouse Reports, De Groene Amsterdammer, ‘Pointer’ and De Tijd. 

This publication was realized with support from the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten and the journalismfund.eu. 

You can read the original article here: https://www.humo.be/nieuws/containers-vol-illegaal-plasticafval-vertrekken-uit-de-haven-van-antwerpen-er-zijn-maar-vijf-controleurs~b4df026e/