Rubbish conundrum: Tunisia cannot handle its own waste, so why is it importing Europe's?

A scandal that embroiled Tunisia's Ministry of Environment reveals the complicated nature of greenwashing

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Tunisia is drowning in rubbish. Piles of household refuse rot on street corners in neighbourhoods both working-class and upscale. The side of every major road is littered with piles of construction debris and countless plastic bags and empty water bottles. Last week, as record-breaking rain doused the country, dozens of towns and neighbourhoods flooded as rubbish choked culverts and storm drains, sending run-off into homes and sweeping cars away.

“We are at peak pollution,” said Nidhal Attia, the co-ordinator of the environmental programme at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Tunisia. “We consume without barriers," but a combination of corruption, poor governance, a critical lack of infrastructure and a proliferation of plastics in recent years means Tunisia's waste crisis continues to pile up.

All of Tunisia's waste is managed in landfills, and the country's largest, in Borj Chakir on the outskirts of the capital Tunis, takes in an estimated 3,000 tonnes of solid waste per day – well over the 44 tonnes per day permitted in EU landfills. Nearby communities are awash in plastic bags, their water polluted by run-off.

Despite Tunisia's struggle to handle its own waste, a sophisticated network of corrupt officials and organised crime has spent years importing Europe's waste under false pretences and dumping it in landfills and informal dump sites.

Late last December, a scandal rocked the country: Minister of the Environment Mustapha Laroui and 23 other officials were arrested in connection with the transfer of shipping containers packed full of nearly 7,900 tonnes of illegal household waste from Naples in southern Italy to the port in Sousse.

The Italian and Tunisian companies involved, whom prosecutors allege Mr Laroui and his ministry abetted, had signed a contract worth €5 million ($5.76m) to dispose of 120,000 tonnes of Italian waste in Tunisian landfills.

The “Italian waste scandal”, as it has come to be known, has shone a light on the complicated nature of trafficking in waste and Europe's quest to greenwash its dirtiest industries.

Not in my backyard

In 1991, Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, 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 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,” the memo said.

Outrage and scandal followed its publication, but the controversy at the time raised the profile of two recently penned environmental treaties – the Basel Convention and the Bamako Convention – designed to regulate the transit of toxic waste across borders. The latter was designed specifically to prohibit the import of any waste that cannot be recycled to Africa.

Though Tunisia signed up to the Bamako convention, several of its neighbours in the Maghreb did not. Morocco regularly imported household waste from Italy and other EU countries to burn in incinerators at cement factories, sometimes as much as 450,000 tonnes per year before the practice was banned in 2016.

Afef Marrakchi, an environmental law professor in the coastal city of Sfax, calls Europe's tendency to outsource its ecological troubles to the global south “environmental terrorism,” but recognises that the threat is hardly unilateral. On the sideline of a UN conference on hazardous waste and the Italian scandal, she pointed out that rubbish transport isn't a one-sided crime.

“The Basel Convention was ratified by both Tunisia and Italy, but the violation was committed by an Italian company on one side and Tunisian on the other,” she said.

“It's not international law that is at fault here, it's loopholes and dysfunctions at the internal level. If we want to protect Africa from this cross-border movement of waste, it requires the evolution of the law in African nations.”

Ms Marrakchi said the lack of ecological policy and co-operation between agencies in Tunisia makes it easier for European waste to slip into the country's ports. Environmental agents are forbidden from inspecting goods at customs, eliminating a second layer of security and control, one which criminals have exploited.

“They have a mafia-like system on both sides of the sea,” said Majdi Karbai, an MP in the now-suspended Parliament for the Democratic Current party who represents Tunisians in Italy.

“These companies recognised how the administration and authorisation network in Tunisia operates, and found ways to circumvent it,” he said, noting that the Ministry of the Environment refused to co-operate with their Italian counterparts to investigate the incident.

The containers of waste are still sitting in the Sousse port; the deadline for their return to Italy passed in January.

Ms Marrakchi says adaptable legislation at the national level, along with law enforcement, can play a key role in blocking illegal waste imports, but that both must remain nimble to tackle the problem.

“You have to evolve quickly because the mafia evolves quickly too,” she said.

A system rotten to the core

Tunisia's Ministry of the Environment has a long history of scandal and misappropriation of funds, particularly under the presidency of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali between 1987 and 2011. After the 2011 revolution, an independent audit found that “colossal funds” were channelled through the Ministry of Environment and its agencies for environmental projects that were never realised.

“The department of the environment itself was created in 2005, not to develop policies and innovative projects for waste treatment or sanitation stations, but to receive resources from international donors and invest them in personal projects benefiting the clans in power and their relatives,” said Faouzia Bacha Amdouni, a lawyer who presented the audit's findings in 2014.

She cited examples of how the elite used the Ministry of Environment as its slush fund.

Spending included: the landscaping of the Carthage International School – the private school run by Ben Ali's wife – for approximately $125,000; the purchase of a bus for the presidential election campaign; nearly $300,000 for toys for the children of families in power; and a florist bill for $7,200.

After the revolution, many former officials stayed in their posts, making meaningful policy changes a challenge, according to Mr Attia.

“The state didn't embrace the problem of waste. They didn't even take the time to start by understanding it or make a conscious choice about how to handle it,” he said.

Many of the ad hoc, uncontrolled dumping areas used in the 1990s became controlled landfills, but hundreds of illegal dumping sites still exist around the country, and there is no municipal plan for recycling or composting.

Mr Attia says little thought or money has been put into improving the system – from educating the public to investing in infrastructure – leading to what he calls “a slow violence” committed by the state on communities whose health suffers as a result.

Much of Tunisia's environmental law is vague and unfinished, and chronically underfunded local municipalities – which are responsible for collecting household waste – are still waiting for the laws and decrees that govern rubbish to be written.

The country's previous solid waste management strategy ended in 2016; a new one has yet to replace it officially.

Sounding the alarm

“We need to ring the alarm about the existence of an environmental crisis in the country,” said Mr Karbai, the MP in Italy. “We still don't see it acknowledged as a problem.”

Though Mr Karbai and other opposition MPs have tried to put forward solutions, they stalled in the deadlocked – and now suspended – parliament.

Fadhel Kaboub, a Tunisian economist, said these failures are a chronic problem of short-term thinking in a government “where we have ministries without strategic policies."

“We need to stop thinking about waste management as a cost, a burden, a problem, and start thinking about the cost of inaction, think about the economic opportunities and the environmental risks associated with short-termism,” Mr Kaboub said.

Despite the failed legislation, several grass roots organisations are trying to raise awareness, and diving – sometimes literally – into reducing waste in landfills themselves.

Nessim Zouaoui, the founder of Tounes Clean-up, a non-government organisation focused on the rubbish crisis, said returning to Tunisia after several years away was a wake-up call for him.

“You've got this beautiful country that you are selling your friends on as a paradise, but it's actually disgusting, full of plastic, literally everywhere. There's no there is no place in Tunisia where you cannot find plastic. Even in the desert, it's there,” Mr Zouaoui said.

The young entrepreneur uses his Gen-Z business savvy to promote environmentalism. Slickly produced Facebook posts invite communities to come out for clean-up days in public spaces; well-lit photos of the shocking amounts of rubbish collected from beaches, parks and neighbourhoods are shared on Instagram.

72 heures d'activités en continuité, sous le thème “Clean Up Kerkennah Wetlands” seront organisées dans les îles ...

Posted by Tounes Clean-Up on Monday, October 25, 2021

In one recent action, they gathered a team of snorkelers and scuba divers to remove hundreds of kilograms of abandoned fishing net and tackle from coastal waters.

Mr Zouaoui knows that the actions are just a drop in the ocean, but feels they're starting a conversation.

“It's more of a philosophical question: Is this what we want? Unlimited growth? OK, but we're going to sacrifice the natural environment, the beauty of what we have, and then one day it's all going to be a block of concrete,” Mr Zouaoui said.

“And if this – this pollution, this plastic – isn't what we want, what can we sacrifice or change to get where we want to be?”

Updated: November 01, 2021, 8:58 AM