Waste and garbage disposal have long been an extremely problematic issue in Italy. For example, the generalised failure in adequately managing the disposal procedure within the country by both state authorities and private enterprises have created the basis for appropriation of the garbage business by criminal organisations. Sadly well-known is the extreme case of the so-called “Land of the Fires” (“Terra dei Fuochi”), the area in the Campania region where the local mafia illegally disposes of any kind of waste, including the most toxic one, in open fields, by burying or burning it, provoking unaccountable damages in terms of environmental pollution and risks for human health.
The necessity to manage vast amounts of waste and the willingness to do so at a lower price has driven Italian enterprises to find more or less legal ways to outsource the disposal process abroad. Since then, Bulgaria, Portugal, Turkey and China became some common destinations for Italian rubbish. The frequent criminal infiltrations in the business, the unregulated procedures and the threat to the environment and citizens’ health has often caused the governments’ strong opposition, especially in the case of Portugal and China, which imposed severe limitations to the entrance of foreign, and in particular European trash in 2018.
More recently, Italian enterprises and criminal organisations’ focus shifted towards North Africa, and they started to consider Tunisia as an attractive partner in the garbage disposal issue. As a matter of fact, in September 2019, the waste treatment enterprise SRA (Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali, or Environmental Resources Development) based in Polla, in the province of Salerno, signed an agreement with the Tunisian company Soreplast, based in Sousse, on the import of non-dangerous waste material (mainly plastics) from Italy to Tunisia. The material was supposed to be recycled into irrigation pipes and re-exported. The contract established that SRA would have paid the low price of 48 euro per tonne for Soreplast to acquire 120,000 tonnes of garbage coming from 16 different towns of the Campania region, creating a 5,7 million-euro-worth business. Two hundred eighty-two containers in total have arrived in the port of Sousse since the beginning of the actual exchange.
However, in December 2020, Tunisian port customs authorities started to look concerned at the suspiciously numerous container ships coming from Italy. Eventually, they found out that, contrarily to what was declared in the agreement, they did not contain exclusively plastic waste material to be recycled, but a mix including non-recyclable household and hospital waste. According to environmental activist Hamdi Chebaâne, the very plausible hypothesis emerged that the waste was to either be burnt or thrown in a rubbish dump. The court of Sousse consequently opened investigations. The containers have been seized and gathered in the port of Sousse by the Tunisian judicial authorities, which also required either SRA, the Tunisian government or the Campania region to pay 26,000 per day for the space they are currently occupying on the quay. Since then, the judicial contentious between the two countries has basically been stagnating.
The situation becomes even more complicated when the investigations revealed that the Soreplast was probably a facade company not existing and operating in reality. As a matter of fact, it was founded in 2009, but it started to work only in 2019 (the same year the SRA-Soreplast partnership was formally initiated), while its headquarter was not found in the location where it was supposed to be.
The core reason for this circumstance to be considered an authentic environmental scandal is the violation of the 1991 Bamako Convention, which interdicted the import of dangerous waste into Africa. Consequently, SRA is accused of breaching the Basel conventions, having exported dangerous waste, classified with the Y46 code, into Tunisia. Moreover, the 1989 Basel Conventionestablished that the cross-border waste exchange is only possible when an agreement between the Ministries of Environment of both countries is met and in case the receiving entity can properly process the garbage. In this case, Soreplast was undoubtedly unable to recycle the garbage, while Tunisian authorities denounced the lack of any agreement or authorisation to import the waste material. Moreover, the departure from Italy of a kind of waste materials that did not coincide with the one declared in the agreement allows us to assume that Italian authorities are also responsible for not having checked the actual loads of the containers. The environmentalist Adel Hentati does not doubt that what happened was “an environmental crime punishable by law”.
Italian and Tunisian entities, both involved and to be held accountable, are adopting the strategy of silence and denial. On the one hand, SRA declared the percentage of recyclable plastic material was 95% of the entire load and accused the Tunisian authorities and the Campania region, which asked them to bring the containers back to Italy, of mistaking them of mafia criminals in an absurd “witch hunt”. On the other hand, it has not been possible to contact the owner of Soreplast, Mohamed Moncef Noureddine, till today. Furthermore, according to what was declared by general director Hébi Chebili, the authorities of the Ministry of Environment were not informed about the incoming waste exchange. However, since the court of Sousse has not excluded the possibility of a co-responsibility of the Tunisian counterpart, around 25 executives of the ministry of environment, including the minister Mustapha Aroui, the customs services, the National Agency for Environment Protection (ANPE) and the National Agency for Waste Management (ANGED) have been dismissed and, in some cases, arrested under the accusation of corruption. Significantly, Afef Hammami Marrakchi, professor of environmental law, stated that the event should be deemed as an environmental scandal which also reveals the country’s serious corruption problems.
Since the TV show Les 4 Vérités, on-air on the private channel El Hiwar El Tounsi, unfolded the illegal Italian garbage export in a detailed reportage, Tunisian civil society has been extremely active in protesting against the environmental threat. Independent journalist Hamdi Ben Salah, who was one of the first to uncover the traffic in 2019, for example, has encouraged citizens to take action. Hamdi Chebaâne, a member of the environmental coalition Tunisie Verte, repeatedly denounced Italy’s controversial waste policy towards Tunisia and referred to the ongoing crisis as “the biggest environmental scandal even occurred in Tunisia”. On 1st April, the protests reached the Italian embassy in Tunis, where numerous citizens gathered to ask for the return of the waste containers in Italy, reinforcing the protest with banners and slogan, the most evocative of which is undoubtedly Poubella ciao.