According to the international police organisation Interpol, criminals generated income of between €70bn and €210bn from environmental crime worldwide last year, including transporting waste illegally and operating illegal landfills. However, combating environmental crime is difficult. One major barrier to effective policing is the shortage of personnel and resources at all levels of investigation. "I would need a thousand people, but only a few are available,” said Sasa Braun, an Interpol environmental crime investigator, in an online event in late September. The expert-level talk "The EU against the environmental mafia” was initiated by two Green party members of Germany's parliament, Canan Bayram and Lukas Benner.
Mr Braun criticised the imprecise legislation at the German and European levels as well as what he described as the "absurdly” low level of fines for environmental crimes, which in some cases were a mere €3,000. " We have a phenomenon that environmental crimes are not being prosecuted rigorously enough,” the investigator said.
In many cases, environmental crimes are often treated as trivial offences despite being part of a "global threat". Organised crime is also increasing, he said, noting that in Brazil there are criminal gangs specialised in environmental crimes. Mafia-structured organised crime groups (OCG) in Italy also engage in a lot of environmental crime activity. In Sicily, for example, entire communities were built on top of illegal landfills. In 2020, environmental crime generated revenues of €10.4bn in Italy alone, according to the environmental organisation Legambiente.
Calls for greater powers to investigate environmental crime
Mr Braun called for changes in investigatory powers and the establishment of joint operation centres at the federal level in Germany as well as a collective database.
Dominik Brodowski, junior professor for criminal law and criminal procedure at Saarland University, is also in favour of certain adjustments in investigative powers. However, criminal law alone cannot save the environment, said the professor, explaining that corruption is also a major problem. Many criminals were obtaining waste storage permits through bribery, he said.
"Waste crimes are not a new problem but are becoming more visible”
Freelance journalist Michael Billig, who has been covering illegal waste shipments and waste trafficking for years, noted: "Waste crimes are not a new problem but are becoming increasingly visible.” As a free-lancer, it had been much harder just a few years ago to pitch stories on this topic to editors. This had now changed and there was growing public interest, he said.
Furthermore, the journalist doubts the accuracy of the figure published last year by the German Federal Statistical Office showing that plastic waste exports in Germany declined by 25 per cent to around 766,000 tonnes. "I don’t have the sense that things have improved in terms of plastic waste exports.”
Moreover, Mr Billig wishes that the media would pay more attention to problems relating to environmental crime. According to the journalist, Germany has a good legal framework for addressing environmental crime, but enforcement remains a problem. Mr Billig also expressed the wish that German authorities become more involved. He noted, for example, that Poland had increased its investigations of environmental crime in recent years and shared the resulting findings to German authorities, who, however, had not accessed the information gathered by the Polish authorities.