Every year, our planet is burdened with billions of tons of solid waste, much of which is not managed properly. According to UN-Habitat, 40 to 45 per cent of global municipal solid waste generated either ends up uncollected or managed in uncontrolled facilities, such as open dumpsites. Up to 40 per cent of this waste is openly burned and responsible for a staggering five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This uncontrolled burning also contaminates the water we drink and the soil in which we grow our food.
In addition, the waste management sector is also highly vulnerable to criminal activities due to its scale, the high cost of disposal, and the complexity of its regulations. By undercutting the costs of proper waste management and through collusion with corrupt officials, criminal groups smuggle plastic and solid waste across borders, dispose of waste illegally, and further contaminate ecosystems.
According to the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Waste Management Outlook, the prevention and recovery of waste has positive consequences for emissions in all sectors of the economy.
The urgent need for action in this area was recognized by countries in 2022 when the Presidency of the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference launched a global initiative, “50 by 2050” to treat and recycle at least 50 per cent of the solid waste produced in Africa by 2050. With over 180 countries involved, this initiative marked a significant step toward a cleaner, greener future for our planet.
Yet only 13 per cent of climate commitments target the waste sector in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Efforts in waste reduction, reuse, recycling and energy recovery are key to creating a low carbon and circular society with sustainable consumption and production. In addition, controlling transboundary movements of hazardous and other waste and its illegal trafficking are important means to help countries meet commitments.
Clear and effective legal provisions and requirements are critical to the success of any compliance and enforcement programme. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) assists Member States to understand, prevent, detect, investigate, disrupt, and prosecute crimes in the waste sector.
Since 2018, countries in Southeast Asia – including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam – have become the top regional destinations for the inflow of both legal and illegal waste. Despite existing national and international legal frameworks, the existence of waste trade bans, and the restrictions put in place by regional governments in recent years, problematic waste is still reaching these countries.
Referring to a recent case of e-waste found in warehouses and landfills in Thailand, Mr. Teerat Limpayaraya, Public Prosecutor in Thailand’s Attorney General’s Office said,"only security guards and a warehouse owner were prosecuted with a very small punishment. And waste disposal has become a burden to local government and communities."
Funded by the European Union and implemented by UNODC, the UN Institute for Training and Research and UNEP, the Unwaste project aims to promote regional cooperation and policy dialogues to better understand the flows of illicit waste between Europe and Southeast Asia.
In addition, through the Passenger and Cargo Control Programme, UNODC is building the capacity of customs and law enforcement authorities in Southeast Asia to target plastic and hazardous waste trafficking in containers. Over 84,000 tons of plastic and other hazardous waste have been seized or identified during the course of this project. Of this, some 50,000 tons of dumped hazardous waste have been identified in abandoned containers.
UNODC has also developed a legislative guide on combating waste trafficking to support states to enact or strengthen domestic legislation against this practice. UNODC will also soon release a legislative guide on combatting pollution crime, as well as a Global Strategy on Waste.
At COP28, UNODC and partners held a side event on 3 December in the Waste and Resources pavilion on international regulations and national policies driving waste management and circularity.
“The lack of environmental legislation and enforcement, coupled with financial disparities between countries, drives illegal trafficking of waste – and waste trafficking is a very big business,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly at the event. Ms. Waly highlighted UNODC’s efforts assisting Member States to address the illegal trafficking of waste as a climate mitigation strategy and integrate the justice system’s response to waste crime into circular economy agendas.
The side event was organized through a partnership between the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS Secretariat), along with the ASEAN Secretariat, Nokia, the French Agency for Ecological Transition and the International Solid Waste Association.