The dark business of European green waste

A narrow and dirty road, scattered with potholes, leads to muddy ground near the small town of Bolintin-Vale, in south Romania. Once a field for crops, the site has since been covered by piles of used building materials, plastic, tyres, and trash. The locals set fire to this waste to extract any valuable resource they can sell for a few Euros. Toxic fumes released from the burned garbage spread 25 kilometers, to Romania’s capital Bucharest, a city of two million people, is one of a major causes of air pollution.

The illegal landfill stretches over ten hectares. This is one of hundreds of such sites which have appeared in the last decade, due to a failure of negotiations between the EU and Romania, which acceded to the union in 2007.

“Currently, the burning has stopped in Bolintin-Vale,” says Octavian Berceanu, environmental activist and, until last year, the head of the Romanian National Environmental Guard, a state body which investigates environmental violations.

While our shoes sink into the landfill, Berceanu explains that car tyres are the type of waste which locals burn the most, because they can recover valuable metals from the material.

“The amount of tyres brought into Romania from the West is large,” he goes on. “They appear on paper as second-hand goods, but disappear on the road and are burned or buried in gravel pits. Some reach cement factories.”

The Village That Burns Tyres for Cement

The small settlement of Chișcădaga is located ten kilometers from the medieval fortified town of Deva, in western Transylvania. The streets are deserted mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but looming over the houses is the village’s own fortress: the HeidelbergCement factory.

When it rains, one can hardly see the difference between the ashen clouds and the toxic gas gushing from the factory’s chimneys. When there is no rain, Chișcădaga is swallowed in a mist of gray dust. The German company, HeidelbergCement, owns three factories in Romania, and ranks second largest in the world in cement production and third in concrete production. In the factory yard lies a mountain of tires.

“Now they’re stocking up,” says a local. “They will start burning them in the spring. Then you’ll see the real pollution.”

Chișcădaga plant. Photo: Adrian Mogoș

Other piles of tyres lay hidden among the surrounding hills. Used plastics and second-hand clothes are also burned to obtain the gas needed in the manufacturing process.

“Cement producers use waste through intermediaries,” explains a commissioner of the Romanian Environmental Guard. “All the cement factories have on their premises a buffer company that closes contracts.” In Chișcădaga, this is Thermo Recycling, a German-controlled Austrian business at HeidelbergCement, which produces alternative fuel for the cement plant.

The investment was made by an Austrian company, owned by Thermo Recycling’s shareholders. However, the spokesperson of HeidelbergCement Romania explains to us that the equipment used to burn waste and its location belong to the cement factory.

Asked about the type of garbage burned in Chișcădaga, the German representatives of the company assure us that HeidelbergCement does not work in Romania with suppliers who import waste.

HeidelbergCement factory in Chișcădaga (Photo: Adrian Mogoș)

“Our contracts contain a clause that obliges suppliers to use only waste generated in Romania,” the company states. “Every year, HeidelbergCement Romania requests all its suppliers to sign a document attesting that all the delivered waste is generated in Romania.”

But these statements are contradicted by investigations performed by the Romanian authorities. In the first ten months of 2021, several shipments of waste from Italy to Thermo Recycling were stopped at the Romanian border. The Environmental Guard also found large quantities of plastic and rubber waste in the possession of a company dealing with second-hand clothes, and were due to arrive in Chișcădaga.

Thermo Recycling’s name was also mentioned in a criminal investigation launched in June 2016 after the National Environmental Guard performed a spot-check on a truck inside the factory, with waste from Italy. According to the accompanying transport documents, this contained plastic and rubber waste.

The surprise came when the commissioners checked the goods. They found unsorted municipal garbage, but also medical waste which, according to European legislation, is hazardous, and requires a different export/import and recycling regime.

2016 inspection at Thermo Recycling

Thermo Recycling refused the waste transport, and the Italian shipping company and its representative were sued. The trial is still pending. We tried to find out how the incineration business works in the factory, but without success. Both Thermo Recycling and HeidelbergCement denied us access.

The prosecutor who investigated the case is Teodor Niță, who specializes in environmental crime and is a member of the European Network of Environmental Prosecutors, a European Union structure. He explains that the technology of cement factories in Romania is outdated.

“They do not have filters or, if they do, they do not use them because this is expensive,” he says. “The smoke comes out and it rains with dioxins and furans [a colorless, volatile liquid used in chemical manufacturing industries]. Around the factories, it is like the apocalypse! The earth is burned! Cancers [among those living close to the factories] have increased by 300-500%. It’s having a galloping effect! Another effect is economic. The cement that comes out is of poor quality.”

Prosecutor Teodor Niță

The magistrate also says that in the last ten years he has tried to explain to the 11 Romanian environment ministers that imported and local waste to be used in industry must be subject to an excise tax, because it is a product used for energy.

“The answer from one minister shook me up. She said: ‘We can’t do this because it would upset the big cement producers who have a very strong lobby’,” says Niță.

The Romanian authorities have tried to have more oversight on the types of waste burned in cement plants. In 2018 the factories had to introduce an additional online monitoring system that detects pollutants spilled into the atmosphere, and alerts the authorities if the permitted limits have been exceeded.

However, the monitoring of the extremely toxic substances of dioxins and furans is performed once in every six months, says a commissioner from the Environmental Guard. “The analysis of dioxins and furans are very expensive and what do factories do? A week before the lab comes [to analyze], the factories are burning a different kind of waste. ”

Prosecutor Teodor Niță outlines an even more tragic picture. “At night, when people sleep, cement factories open their filters,” he says. “In the morning, the doctors register another two cases of cancer.”

EU report: Legal Waste “Disappears” from Legal Market

A 2021 European Commission study shows that illegal waste activities are caused by firms operating in the waste field seeking to reduce their costs.

The same report states that in EU countries, such as France, Italy and Germany, large amounts of non-hazardous and hazardous waste are disappearing from the legal market.

The most common method of garbage trafficking is for exporters and intermediaries to redefine trash as second-hand goods. Thus, waste, which is mainly textile, electrical and electronic, is no longer subject to waste transfer laws.

The illegal waste market has an estimated value of 3.7 to 15.5 billion euros a year, with the most profitable businesses being non-hazardous waste. This data was confirmed to us by European law enforcement agency Europol. A spokesman for the agency tells us that “when we talk about illegal waste trafficking, we are also talking about an underground economy, corruption, forgery, and money laundering.”

The Europol representative also explains that in terms of the illegal waste business, the Schengen area represents a problem because there are no borders to stop criminals. In the Schengen area, shipments of waste are checked randomly rather than systematically, according to the police unit of the German custom (Zoll).

“Used Condom” Declared a Second Hand Good at Romanian border

A report by the Romanian Ministry of Interior in August 2021 points out the difficulties for the police and environmental guard in detecting the difference between waste and second-hand goods at the borders.

“Once the goods reach the Romanian border, the importer declares them to be ‘waste’ at the Revenue Services, so they do not pay taxes,” says an Environmental Guard commissioner. “When the transport is intercepted by the Environmental Guard or the Police, the importer declares the goods are ‘second-hand’, because they do not have proper documents for waste shipment.”

Romanian Environmental Guard inspects a lorry

But these declarations become absurd in practice. Prosecutor Teodor Niță tells us that in one case he found used condoms that were declared to be second-hand goods. In another, permethrin – an insecticide that causes neurological disorders – was found in the goods put up for sale.

Imported second-hand electronics and appliances must also be accompanied by a six-month warranty, as they are destined for resale. This did not happen, allegedly, in the case of a company from the Transylvanian town of Reghin, where 12 metric tons of such products were found.

The prosecutor’s office opened an investigation in August 2021 and the waste was due to be returned to Germany. We identified the source of the goods was from a Lutheran Church donation center in Kronach, Bavaria, and a dismantling company in the neighboring town of Sonnefeld.

Representatives of the donation center declined to comment. The Sonnefeld-based company stated the goods were checked by the German authorities and could prove with documents and photographs that these were second-hand.

During the investigation, we identified several shipments of waste from Germany which were declared illegal by the Romanian authorities.

The reason for this export of waste is economic: a German company can make more money from outsourcing its waste to Romania. “A German waste collecting company pays a lot of money to recycle the waste [at home], so only makes a small profit,” says Berceanu.

Octavian Berceanu

“But when the same company exports this waste, their profit increases exponentially. Instead of paying 400 to 500 euro/metric ton, the company pays 200-300 euros to another firm in an Eastern European country, where it is difficult to trace the waste and it is lost.”

Officially “no illegal transport” of waste to Romania

Under EU law, when the state authorities discover a shipment of allegedly illegal waste, they are obliged to notify those from the country of origin about the goods.

Germany, the most industrialized EU state, appears in global statistics as the best national example in recycling. As thousands of tons of waste are shipped from there to Romania, we ask the German Federal Environment Agency for comment.

Harald Junker, a prominent representative of the Agency, tells us that the Romanian authorities do not notify their German counterparts of illegal transport. In addition, he argues that Europol’s information is not based on exhaustive data.

After four months of emailing with Junker, we surprisingly learn there were no illegal exports to Romania in recent years. However, the Romanian documents we had access to show the opposite, with much information sent to the German Environmental Agency.

“Crimes against the environment cause significant damage to human health,” states a Europol document. “Waste trafficking demonstrates the scale of the problem. Traffickers rely heavily on the use of fraudulent documents.”

German Waste Exports to Romania: Official Info Changed, Destinations Replaced

Fourteen years ago, German businessman Markus Dambeck established a waste import company in Romania called RIGK SRL. The Romanian company’s sole shareholder is RIGK Gmbh from Germany, with Dambeck as manager of both firms.

In November 2021, Dambeck and RIGK SRL were convicted of illegally importing waste. He received two years in prison under probation, while his company received a criminal fine of 20,000 euros. The Romanian Criminal Code punishes illegal import operations with imprisonment from two to seven years, and under certain conditions, it can go up to twenty years.

RIGK Romania bought 204 tons of plastic packaging from RIGK Germany between 2018 and 2019, court documents show. The waste was due to be recycled at the Romanian company, according to the transport document. Instead, it was temporarily stored at the RIGK premises and subsequently shipped to another city for recycling.

“The real destination has been changed on the national territory, and the accompanying documentation [relevant for European import/export] was also replaced,” the court decision states.

In front of the judge, Dambeck acknowledged the existence of this waste supply chain, but denied violating any Romanian or EU laws. He claimed the shipment of imported waste to another city was due to his company’s lack of a recycling facility and an environmental permit to perform this activity. Dambeck’s excuses were dismissed by the magistrate, who considered that such apologies did not justify breaking the law.

Since 2016, the import and transfer of ‘green’ waste to Romania can only be undertaken by those firms with a specific permit.. ‘Green’ waste, also called non-hazardous waste, is solid waste of plastics, plastics or mixtures of plastics that are not mixed with other wastes and must conform to certain rules.

Dambeck agreed to perform community service, and the judge suspended his sentence. Dissatisfied with this outcome, he appealed.

We speak to the businessman, and ask him how he ended up being convicted. He tells us he is “a victim of the Romanian authorities which are trying to close my business”.

German Trash Shipped to Romania, Returned to Germany, Possibly Forwarded to Poland

Dambeck is not alone among foreign investors who believe the Romanian authorities have something against the waste business. A similar argument was raised by the manager of the German company Melor Edelmetall-Recycling GmbH.

Melor, which is also the subject of a cross-border investigation by Greenpeace, exported almost 900 tons of waste to Romania in 2021 by sea, according to data from the Romanian Border Police. The prosecutor who is investigating the case gave us a different figure: 1,860 tons.

Melor trash shipped to Romania (Photo: Romanian Coast Guard)

Hamburg. The third largest port in Europe. Millions of containers enter and leave every year. A major export product is waste. This was the place of departure for Melor’s containers of trash between March and May 2021 to Romania.

The destination of the containers was Otodix SRL, a company located 50 km north of Bucharest. The containers were forbidden to enter Romania by the authorities at the Black Sea port of Constanța, and returned to the sender. Prosecutors drew up a criminal case for illegal waste transfer.

Otodix, owned and managed by Sorin George Păduraru, also exports waste. In May 2021, two containers on their way to Malaysia were also prevented from leaving by the authorities in the same port and returned to Otodix.

The Melor-Otodix business deal was brokered by a Belgian company. One of its three managers, a Dutch citizen of Chinese descent, set up a recycling company in Romania together with the Otodix boss.

Otodix registered headquarters (Photo: Adrian Mogoș)

As we started to trace the waste, we tried to find out Melor’s manager’s opinion on the return of his waste.

He does not respond to our request, so we visit the company’s headquarters 20 km from Hamburg. Initially, a company representative tells us by phone that he is aware of the criminal investigation in Romania, but refuses to comment.

Soon, the manager appears nervously at the company’s gates. He pretends to know nothing about any criminal case. Then, he suddenly says that he has had enough of this subject and that “the Romanians started something there, but in the absence of any analysis”.

We consulted the laboratory analysis, made at the request of the Prosecutor’s Office, which Melor’s manager claims does not exist. The waste shipped was a mixture of plastic, wood, paper, batteries and accumulators, copper and aluminum alloys, asbestos and rubber insulation, which is against the law.

The conclusion: some waste was hazardous. The garbage was most likely destined to be incinerated in Romania, a source in the Environmental Guard told us. A policeman working on the case confirmed Melor is a suspect in an ongoing criminal investigation.

Melor trash inspected in Constanta (Photo: Romanian Coast Guard)

The head of Melor tells us all his waste is clean and claims it is legal for up to six percent of waste to be contaminated. This is false, says Erwin Verheuge, Chief Inspector of the Belgian Police and author of a handbook on waste shipments for the European Commission.

To be contaminated, a shipment must contain a maximum of six percent mixed “green” waste. This margin is not accepted in all EU countries, and the percentage does not refer to hazardous waste. “It is enough to find a few batteries and/or pieces of asbestos in a transport to be considered illegal,” the officer says.

We followed the route of the German waste, which was rejected by the Romanian authorities, and found out that containers arrived in the port of Hamburg at the end of June 2021 and were unloaded.

Three months later, a suspicious shipment of waste sent by Melor was stopped at the German-Polish border. The import documents stated these were ‘Synthetic fibers’, but the Polish authorities who inspected the goods revealed the waste was a mixture of metal, rubber, electronic parts, plastic and cables. It was remarkably similar to the waste banned in Romania.

From the documents we had access to, the transport broker was the same Belgian company. According to the Brussels Environment Agency, it is not registered as a waste dealer/collector/broker in the Belgian capital region and does not have an environmental permit for the storage or treatment of waste at the address mentioned in the transport documents.

We asked the Polish authorities for details about the transport. Initially, they denied its existence. After we brought the evidence to their attention, they admitted that the waste was marked as illegal by the Polish Environmental Protection Inspectorate, was stopped and then returned to Melor in November 2021.

Romanian authorities have “no idea” about level of waste flooding country

China’s decision in 2018 to ban imports of certain types of waste generated a global tsunami, as exporters of rubbish scrambled to find alternative dumping grounds.

The EU had been sending 85% of its plastic waste to China, but as a result of the restrictive measure, exports halved. Gradually, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria have become more attractive for the illegal waste businesses – an industry which is worth billions of euros.

Trash deposited in a courtyard for alleged recycling

“The main reasons why the less developed EU Member States are countries of destination for waste are related to: [their minimal] customs formalities, the authorities’ limited level of control, the high level of corruption, and the cheap disposal of waste,” states a 2021 Romanian Ministry of Interior report.

During our documentation, we learnt the Romanian authorities have no idea about the exact amount of waste flooding into the country.

“Europe does not have enough storage and recycling capacity,” says Octavian Berceanu, former head of the Environmental Guard. “Unfortunately for Romania, much waste ends up here. The authorities were taken by surprise. I found officials and businessmen involved in organized crime structures. The money [involved in these deals] also goes to politicians.”

The lack of coherence in Romania’s policies had also been detected by European officials. A 2019 EU Council report reveals there is no single comprehensive law in Romania to regulate waste issues. There are 70 laws that refer to waste, which means bureaucratic chaos. There are cases when the same waste offense is punished differently by alternative laws.

There are no specialized judges in this sector, the number of prosecutors dealing with waste are very few, and the Police do not give special importance to crimes in this field. Convictions are few, punishments are low, and some prosecutors do not seem to understand how organized crime networks work in this area.

“The illegal waste market in Romania is bigger than the illegal drug market,” says the prosecutor Teodor Niță. “It’s not a joke. It’s not a risky statement. Waste is much more, more dangerous and more money is involved. I think the legislation has lagged behind. In ten to 15 years we will become a European landfill country where our people will live like rats among the mountains of garbage.”

Romania: Influx of EU Waste, But Lacking Recycling Capacity 

For decades, the Romanian authorities have ignored the garbage business. Following countless signs of alarm, the country finally decided the waste would enter its territory only through 15 border crossing points from February 2022 onwards. Is Romania ready to control these businesses once it enters the Schengen zone of free movement [which does not yet have a set date]?

For 19 years, the Border Police did not have statistics on illegal waste, although they should have such data. Then, in 2020, they had several cases, and in the first ten months of 2021, they stopped almost 14,000 tons which did not meet the legal conditions for entering Romania.

This number looks good in statistics, yet not all these transports were illegal. Take the case of barges with thousands of tons of scrap metal transiting Romania to Turkey.

After the cargo was put ashore, it turned out that the percentage of impurities was very small, so the Environmental Guard gave the green light to the transport, which deeply displeased the Border Police.

In 2021, the Romanian Environmental Guard carried out almost 3,000 inspections related to the transfer of waste, filed 34 criminal notices and issued eight fines totaling around 58,000 euros. In addition, it banned 142 shipments from entering the country. Statistics also show that four shipments of aluminum waste from Romania were not accepted in Turkey.

The illicit waste market is a worrying global phenomenon, according to a November 2021 Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) report.

GI-TOC, a global organization of 500 experts, draws attention to the fact that about two billion tonnes of plastic waste are generated annually in the world, of which only 13.5% is recycled. Thus, the global market for recyclable plastic waste, estimated at over €44 billion by 2022, cannot be ignored by criminal groups.

The report pointed to the next illegal waste destinations following China’s 2018 decision: “Romania in particular is already experiencing a substantial flow of plastic waste from EU countries, although it has the second lowest recycling capacity in Europe. Poland receives waste from the EU and the United Kingdom that is erroneously declared recyclable.”

According to GI-TOC, the EU in 2020 had a recycling capacity of 8.5 million tonnes per year, well below the annual quantity it produces, of about 53 million tonnes. Germany is one of the countries that exports the most waste, followed by France and Italy.

EU Ensures Open Borders For Trash

In 2007, EU Member States signed the Lisbon Treaty, setting the Union’s objective to eradicate illegal shipments of waste by 2020. Two years on from this target, we find the phenomenon is far from being annihilated.

With the Covid-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc and the first lockdown was enforced, the European Commission sent a memorandum to the member countries to ensure a `green line` for waste shipments, similar to food or fuel.

EU officials believe that waste companies provide an essential service to society, so they have to move their waste from the West to the East without delay “in order to become a resource for another industry or to get the most appropriate treatment in the EU. This is beneficial for the protection of health and the environment,” states the European Commission memo.

The trade in waste on the West-East chain existed even before the fall of the Iron Curtain. A business run by the Communist secret police, the Securitate, in the late 1980s seriously endangered the health of Romanians and was on the verge of destroying the Danube Delta, now a UNESCO heritage site.

Out of 4,000 tons of extremely toxic waste, 2,400 tons were donated to a Romanian town hall by a foreign company. In the early 1990s, the Romanian oil tanker where the toxic waste was still stored disappeared permanently.

Currently, waste transactions involve both “white-collar workers” and cross-border organized crime networks. One solution could be the digitization of waste in a system which tracks the transport of waste online, similar to the monitoring of the movement of wood. To have a record of where waste has come from and where it is going could help the fight against black money and corruption.

The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.


2 thoughts on “The dark business of European green waste”

  1. Hi my friend! I want to say that this post is amazing, nice written and include almost all important infos. I would like to see more posts like this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *