Italian waste: the vast corruption network behind the environmental scandal

For several months, the major scandal of illegal importation of household waste from Italy has been shaking the country. Apart from the environmental aspect, numerous documents obtained by Inkyfada and the Italian investigation network IrpiMedia corroborate a trail of evidence exposing a vast network of corruption.
Written by | 09 March 2021 | 12 minutes | Available in ArabicFrench
On May 26, 2020, as Tunisia is gradually exiting the confinement period as borders remain closed, a cargo ship from Salerno (in the Italian region of Campania), docks at the port of Sousse. On board the ship are 70 containers with almost 2000 tons of waste. Several similar cargo ships will follow the same procedure until the end of July. In total, nearly 7,900 tons of waste  (filling 282 containers) will have made its way to Sousse. 

At the origin of this transit route we find the Italian company Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl (SRA), specialised in waste recovery and disposal, as well as SOREPLAST Suarl, a Tunisian offshore export company working with plastic waste recycling.

Behind a seemingly ordinary business transaction, a story of the illicit trafficking of household waste unfolds. Though presented by the Tunisian company (SOREPLAST) as plastic waste that was ready to be sorted, recycled and then re-exported abroad, the waste was actually potentially dangerous, urban household waste collected in the Naples region.

The scandal publicly broke on November 2, 2020, through the program " Quatre vérités" (" Four Truths") on the channel El Hiwar Ettounsi. Since then, this waste scandal has been making several heads roll, starting with Mustapha Laroui, the Environment Minister at the time of the affair, who was dismissed on December 21, 2020. 

So far, eight people have been imprisoned since December 21, 2020, including executives from the National Agency for Waste Management (ANGED), the National Agency for Environmental Protection (ANPE), the Ministry of Environment and Local Affairs, as well as a laboratory manager. A total of 24 people are currently involved in legal proceedings. These people are suspected of having facilitated the arrival of nearly 7900 tons of non-recyclable waste on Tunisian soil.

Numerous documents, accessed by Inkyfada in collaboration with the Italian investigation network IrpiMedia, has allowed Inkyfada to trace a vast network of corruption involving officials from Tunisian authorities. Back to the case.

  Organisational chart of the key players involved in the case. Click on each person for more details.  

ITALY TUNISIA National Waste Management Agency (ANGED) Ministry of the Environment and Local Affairs Directorate General of Customs Contract Moncef Noureddinne SOREPLAST Suarl Antonio Cancro Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl Antonello Barretta Consulat de Tunisie à Naples Regional Council of Campania Beya Abdelbaki Tunisian Consulate in Naples Habib Baazaoui Safety & Environment Engineering laboratory (S2E) Béchir Yahia Fayçal Bedhiafi Makram Baghdadi Hédi Bouaoun S.B.S Rim Haouet Abderrazak Marzouki Mustapha Laroui ITALY TUNISIA National Waste Management Agency (ANGED) Ministry of the Environment and Local Affairs Directorate General of Customs Contract Moncef Noureddinne SOREPLAST Suarl Antonio Cancro Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl Antonello Barretta Consulat de Tunisie à Naples Regional Council of Campania Beya Abdelbaki Tunisian Consulate in Naples Habib Baazaoui Safety & Environment Engineering laboratory (S2E) Béchir Yahia Fayçal Bedhiafi Makram Baghdadi Hédi Bouaoun S.B.S Rim Haouet Abderrazak Marzouki Mustapha Laroui
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disguised waste

In the small town of Polla, a few kilometers from Salerno, the representatives of the Italian company SRA and the director of SOREPLAST, Mohamed Moncef Noureddine, meet up. On September 30, 2019, the key players signed a contract concerning " the recovery and processing of household waste (category 19 12 12)".   

The deal is simple: the SRA, which collects urban waste in the region of Naples, is in charge of making the initial sorting. The waste will then be sent to SOREPLAST facilities in Tunisia, where it will undergo a second sorting and then be recycled. Finally, the Tunisian company - being solely an export company - is in charge of returning the transformed waste to Italy, in accordance with the terms of the contract.

There is seemingly nothing unusual about this procedure. Overwhelmed by its urban waste, it is customary for Italy to outsource their waste management to countries where the process has a " greater profitability compared to the country of origin", as stated in a letter obtained by Inkyfada from the SRA to the region of Campania. The contract foresees a cost of 52 euros per ton sent for transport, in addition to 85 euros per ton treated. " A very interesting price for SRA", notes one waste specialist. According to bank transfers reviewed by Inkyfada, SOREPLAST has to date received at least 230,000 euros from the SRA.  

Departing from Salerno on May 22, the first waste shipment reaches Sousse four days later. The containers are then blocked at the port for three weeks, before finally leaving the port on June 13. Declared with the Tunisian customs as post-industrial plastic waste, it is inspected by the second customs lieutenant in charge of the SOREPLAST goods whilst at the storage premises. This man reports being alarmed by a suspicious odour, before finding " various pieces of plastic, soil, wood and fabrics ..." when opening the containers. It turned out that the waste was in fact household garbage.

Khalil*, an environmental activist who is well-informed regarding the case, and one of few people to have witnessed the inside of the containers, states: " There were all kinds of things: bits of socks, shoes, cardboard, aluminium cans, car bumpers, toys, fabrics... Everything was decomposing".

Abderrazak Marzouki is the safeguard of the Basel Convention at the Tunisian Ministry of the Environment, a convention that regulates the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. In a confidential letter sent on December 13, 2020, to the Italian authorities after a personal visit to the port of Sousse,  Marzouki maintained that the waste in question was " final waste, very difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. The only option is incineration, but Tunisia has no incinerator". When contacted by Inkyfada, Mr. Marzouki did not wish to respond to any questions.

  An informed source has provided Inkyfada with a photo of the interior of one of the containers stored at the port of Sousse.  

SOREPLAST, A company with an obscure agenda

SOREPLAST was founded by Mohamed Moncef Noureddine in 2009, and has now been active in the waste sector for more than ten years. Ten days before his arrest warrant being issued by the public prosecutor of Sousse (on December 17, 2020) Mr Noureddine fled to Europe. He is still wanted by the police. His family, well-established in the Port El-Kantaoui neighborhood of Sousse, is said to be " linked to Ben Ali's inner circles and are very influential in the region. It is very easy for him to get in touch with a minister or an influential person", says Khalil*, an informed source who has known Mr Noureddine for more than 15 years. 

In 2012, SOREPLAST encountered problems with the tax authorities for falsely declaring the quantity of imported goods. The company subsequently put itself on standby and officially ceased its activities. In November 2019, two months after signing the contract with the Italian company ‘ SRA’, the Tunisian company resumed its activities once more. Moncef Nourreddine declared its incomes to the tax authorities for the previous year: 1,300,000 dollars, according to a document reviewed by Inkyfada, a sum that stands in stark contrast to the company's declared capital of 45,000 dinars.

Mr Noureddine then undertook a number of steps to prepare for the waste arriving in Tunisia. However, it was later established that " SOREPLAST did in fact not have the capacity to recycle the waste that arrived in Tunisia, which raises doubts about the genuine intentions of the company to carry out recycling procedures", according to a report from December 14, 2020 by the Parliamentary Commission for Administrative Reform, Good Governance and the Fight against Corruption.

The Basel Convention and European legislation (1013/2006) only authorises exporting waste to a non-EU country under the condition that the receiving country has the capacity and facilities to be able to recycle it. In other words, it is forbidden to send waste abroad to end up in landfill.

Inkyfada has gathered key dates related to the case between September 30, 2019 and January 23, 2021, and compiled several confidential documents. To explore further details of the chronology, click on the different icons below.

Key dates Irregularities Financial transactions 2019 2021 30/09/2019 Contract between SOREPLAST Suarl and SVILUPPO RISORSE AMBIENTALI 23/12/2019 Italian analyses 20/02/2020 Authorisation by ANGED 21/02/2020 Agreement between SOREPLAST – ANGED 27/02/2020 Email sent to UOD Salerno – The Tunisian Consulate in Naples 18/03/2020 Reply from the Tunisian consulate in Naples to UOD Salerno 14/04/2020 Decree by the Regional Council of Campania 15/05/2020 Authorisation by the ANPE 16/05/2020 Authorisation by ANGED 22/05/2020 Departure of 70 containers from Salerno 26/05/2020 Arrival of 70 containers to Sousse 01/06/2020 Arrival of 60 containers to the port of Sousse 09/06/2020 A false declaration is submitted to customs by SOREPLAST 10/06/2020 Collection of samples 13/06/2020 The first containers leave the port 22/06/2020 Bank transfer by the SRA to SOREPLAST 24/06/2020 Customs report The last containers leave the port 25/06/2020 Arrival of 72 containers to Sousse 30/06/2020 Bank transfer by the SRA to SOREPLAST 08/07/2020 A meeting is held at the customs offices in Sousse Decree n°2 is issued by the region of Campania A bank transfer is made from SRA to SOREPLAST 15/07/2020 Technical validation of three different project files to the benefit of SOREPLAST 16/07/2020 Declaration by SOREPLAST 20/07/2020 Arrival of 80 containers to Sousse Two bank transfers from SRA to SOREPLAST 21/09/2020 Bank transfer from SRA to SOREPLAST 23/09/2020 Uncustomary general meeting held at SOREPLAST 23/10/2020 Notification of the Tunisian Ministry of the Environment 02/11/2020 Details of the case revealed in the media 17/12/2020 Search notice issued for Moncef Noureddine 21/12/2020 Arrest of Mustapha Laroui, former Minister of the Environment 23/01/2021 Deadline for Italy to retrieve the waste in order to achieve an amicable settlement Key dates Irregularities Financial transactions 2019 2021 30/09/2019 Contract between SOREPLAST Suarl and SVILUPPO RISORSE AMBIENTALI 23/12/2019 Italian analyses 20/02/2020 Authorisation by ANGED 21/02/2020 Agreement between SOREPLAST – ANGED 27/02/2020 Email sent to UOD Salerno – The Tunisian Consulate in Naples 18/03/2020 Reply from the Tunisian consulate in Naples to UOD Salerno 14/04/2020 Decree by the Regional Council of Campania 15/05/2020 Authorisation by the ANPE 16/05/2020 Authorisation by ANGED 22/05/2020 Departure of 70 containers from Salerno 26/05/2020 Arrival of 70 containers to Sousse 01/06/2020 Arrival of 60 containers to the port of Sousse 09/06/2020 A false declaration is submitted to customs by SOREPLAST 10/06/2020 Collection of samples 13/06/2020 The first containers leave the port 22/06/2020 Bank transfer by the SRA to SOREPLAST 24/06/2020 Customs report The last containers leave the port 25/06/2020 Arrival of 72 containers to Sousse 30/06/2020 Bank transfer by the SRA to SOREPLAST 08/07/2020 A meeting is held at the customs offices in Sousse Decree n°2 is issued by the region of Campania A bank transfer is made from SRA to SOREPLAST 15/07/2020 Technical validation of three different project files to the benefit of SOREPLAST 16/07/2020 Declaration by SOREPLAST 20/07/2020 Arrival of 80 containers to Sousse Two bank transfers from SRA to SOREPLAST 21/09/2020 Bank transfer by the SRA to SOREPLAST 23/09/2020 Uncustomary general meeting held at SOREPLAST 23/10/2020 Notification of the Tunisian Ministry of the Environment 02/11/2020 Details of the case are revealed in the media 17/12/2020 Search notice issued for Moncef Noureddine 21/12/2020 Arrest of Mustapha Laroui, former Minister of the Environment 23/01/2021 Deadline for Italy to retrieve the waste in order to achieve an amicable settlement
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a series of false declarations

In order to obtain an approval to receive household waste, even though they do not have the appropriate facilities for it and officially are specialised only in polymers (plastic), SOREPLAST resorts to false declarations. On the Italian side, however, the true contents of the containers are declared.

Before the first containers arrive at the port of Sousse, Moncef Noureddine announces to customs that their content mainly consists of industrial plastic waste. The company is thus trying to pass off mixed household waste as non-hazardous recyclable waste. However, according to an Italian report carried out on December 23, 2019, it only contained 55% plastic. 

Analyses are also conducted at the port of Sousse in June, but report the content to be 93% plastic, in line with the declarations of the Tunisian importer. The director of the laboratory that performed these analyses is now in detention, accused of having falsified the results. These results have been refuted by a recent analysis ordered by the investigating prosecutor in charge of the case, Tareq Saied. This new analysis revealed the content to be merely 50% plastic, according to a source with insight into the case.

Moreover, when Claudia Salvestrini, director of the Polieco Consortium (Consortium for the Recycling of Waste Polyethylene Products), was contacted by our Italian colleagues at IrpiMedia, she stated that " the fact that a single material prevails among the waste does not necessarily make it recyclable: there may be a given quantity of plastic of which only 2% is recyclable".

In a confidential email sent to the Italian authorities and dated October 23, 2020, Abderrazak Marzouki confirms that SOREPLAST " has neither the material and human resources, nor the technology necessary to sort imported waste". If the company was never able to actually recycle the waste, did it in reality intend for it to be sent directly to landfill?

AN EXPORT PROCESS COMPOSED OF IRREGULARITIES

Apart from the number of false declarations regarding the nature of the Italian waste and the recycling capacities of SOREPLAST, the documents obtained by Inkyfada point to a number of circumventions of regulations and established practices for the export of waste. The export of waste follows strict protocols that are regulated by a number of international treaties, such as those of Basel and Bamako on the transboundary movement of hazardous waste (which may apply to household waste of the category 19 12 12). 

Above all, " the exporting region [must] inform the competent authorities in concerned regions of any transboundary movement of hazardous waste, in writing (...)" (Article 6). In this case, the Italian Ministry of Environment should have contacted its Tunisian counterpart to assess the feasibility of sending the waste to Tunisia. 

Instead, the National Agency for Waste Management (ANGED) serves as a liaison, through some of its employees.

The report of the parliamentary commission of inquiry (among others), mentions the name of Makram Baghdadi, a simple administrative assistant within ANGED, who is " close to the leader of SOREPLAST", according to Khalil*. By means of false signatures, he is said to have given SOREPLAST the necessary authorisations to import the waste.

Beya Abdelbaki, the Tunisian Consul in Naples, did herself advise the Region of Campania to contact Mr Baghdadi in a letter dated March 18, 2020, thereby bypassing any authorisation by the Tunisian Ministry of Environment. " I became aware of the case in September", said Hédi Chébili, Director General of the Environment and Quality of Life, at the Ministry of the Environment and Local Affairs.

On June 24, the Directorate General of the Customs office in Sousse was alerted by one of its employees about the dubious nature of the containers arriving in Tunisia. A meeting was therefore held on July 8, to which many stakeholders were invited (ANGED, ANPE, the Customs Authority, Ministries of Trade and Industry...). The only person absent from the meeting was a representative of the Ministry of the Environment, who claimed that " he was contacted the same day via phone by the Customs Authorities, way too late to arrange a trip". During the meeting, suspicions of illegal waste trafficking is brought up for the first time, and as a result, the 212 containers are still blocked at the port of Sousse. However, there is no mention of the nature of the waste, even though it has been known for at least two weeks.

Waste route from Salerno to the SOREPLAST depot. Click on each point for more details.

TUNISIA ITALY Sousse Tunis Naples 4 THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA Sfax 4 Sebkha Sidi El Héni M’saken Hammam Sousse 1 Official headquarters of SRA Official headquarters of SRA The official headquarters of the Italian company that sent almost 7900 tons of waste to Tunisia. 1 2 Port of Salerno Port of Salerno The point of departure for the waste shipped by SRA to the port of Sousse between May and July 2020. 2 3 Port of Sousse Port of Sousse The point of arrival for the waste arriving from Salerno between May and July 2020. 3 4 Official headquarters of SOREPLAST Official headquarters of SOREPLAST SOREPLAST is the Tunisian company with which SRA has a signed agreement. Part of the waste (the equivalent amount of one of the 70 containers that arrived at the end of May) is stored in a depot at the headquarters. 4 5 SOREPLAST depot, Moureddine SOREPLAST depot, Moureddine Most of the waste (69 out of 70 containers) was stored here after leaving the port of Sousse on June 13, 2020. 5 Sanitary landfill of Sousse in Oued Laya Sanitary landfill of Sousse in Oued Laya On February 21, 2020, SOREPLAST signed an agreement with ANGED to get access to this landfill. SOREPLAST has declared a deposit of 129,769 tons of waste at the landfill on July 16, 2020, but there is no official documentation confirming this. SOREPLAST depot, Sidi El Héni SOREPLAST depot, Sidi El Héni This depot was supposed to sort and valorise waste. However, according to our sources, no waste has been sent there. TUNISIA ITALY Sousse Tunis Sfax 4 4 Sebkha Sidi El Héni M’saken Hammam Sousse THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA 1 Official headquarters of SRA Official headquarters of SRA The official headquarters of the Italian company that sent almost 7900 tons of waste to Tunisia. 1 2 Port of Salerno Port of Salerno The point of departure for the waste shipped by SRA to the port of Sousse between May and July 2020. 2 3 Port of Sousse Port of Sousse The point of arrival for the waste arriving from Salerno between May and July 2020. 3 4 Official headquarters of SOREPLAST Official headquarters of SOREPLAST SOREPLAST is the Tunisian company with which SRA has a signed agreement. Part of the waste (the equivalent amount of one of the 70 containers that arrived at the end of May) is stored in a depot at the headquarters. 4 5 SOREPLAST depot, Moureddine SOREPLAST depot, Moureddine Most of the waste (69 out of 70 containers) was stored here after leaving the port of Sousse on June 13, 2020. 5 Sanitary landfill of Sousse in Oued Laya Sanitary landfill of Sousse in Oued Laya On February 21, 2020, SOREPLAST signed an agreement with ANGED to get access to this landfill. SOREPLAST has declared a deposit of 129,769 tons of waste at the landfill on July 16, 2020, but there is no official documentation confirming this. SOREPLAST depot, Sidi El Héni SOREPLAST depot, Sidi El Héni This depot was supposed to sort and valorise waste. However, according to our sources, no waste has been sent there.

well hidden waste depots

SOREPLAST does not only lack the technical means necessary for the valorisation of waste (balers, shredders, granulation machines...), but also the physical space to store both the machinery and the waste. 

In the industrial area of Sidi Abdelhamid (a stone’s throw from the port of Sousse), the official head office of SOREPLAST is supposedly housed, but it is difficult to locate the actual premises of the company. In this industrial labyrinth, where the industrial lots align, no one is able to tell us where the offices of the company are located. In reality, the company only has one office and a modestly sized depot, too small to receive the 2000 tons of waste that set sail for the port last June.

To find the waste you have to go to Moureddine, a small rural town 15 km from Sousse, where the locals seem to be well aware of the Italian waste: " We’ve seen the blue containers pass by, there have been  a lot of them", say several witnesses. Only the investigating judge in charge of the case has been able to see the waste in person, locked away in a huge steel shed at the outskirts of the village. 

Opposite this depot, a brand new red and grey building bears the sign " SOREPLAST - a company under customs control". The absence of windows and the traces of building materials suggest that the company only recently established itself in Moureddine. " This building appeared in August", confirms a local who regularly passes by the site with a flock of sheep.

A resident of Moureddine passes by a building bearing the SOREPLAST sign on the outskirts of the village.

To the right of the building, the depot where the waste has allegedly been located since June 13, 2020.  

If the location is difficult to find, this is partly due to the fact that there is no mention of it anywhere in the documents that Inkyfada managed to obtain, and for good reason: " the request of SOREPLAST to deposit the waste at Moureddine was refused by ANGED. There are no machines that are able to sort the waste here", an informed source relays. The waste was thus deposited there illegally. 

However, there is another site mentioned in the obtained documents: that of Sidi el Héni, in the hinterland of Sousse, about 20 kilometers from Moureddine towards Kairouan. On July 15, Moncef Noureddine obtained the authorisation from ANGED to move his sorting unit there due to a lack of space in the official Sousse depot. The 212 remaining containers that have been stuck at the port since June 24 were supposed to be transported there, however, the site remains unused.

Additionally, the depots of Moureddine and Sidi el Héni are both located a few kilometers from the huge landfill of Sousse, in Oued Laya, where all the household waste from the region is brought to be disposed of in the open air. For Khalil* (the previously mentioned environmental activist with insight into the case), this is no coincidence: " it is clear that SOREPLAST intended to dispose of the waste from Italy directly in the landfill, without carrying out any recycling procedures", he says. "It remains to be seen whether some of this waste has already in fact been taken to the landfill." 

Inkyfada managed to obtain a copy of an agreement signed in February 2020 between SOREPLAST and ANGED, that serves as proof of the claims above. The agreement would have allowed the company to access the landfill in Sousse to deposit the non-recyclable portion of the waste. In a document sent on July 16 to the Italian company, SOREPLAST declared to have already handled the first 1900 tons of waste received through the first shipment on May 26. According to this declaration, 1840 tons of waste had been recycled, and 129 tons of non-recyclable waste had been brought to the Sousse landfill. However, a source at the Sousse landfill denies having seen any trace of this waste. When contacted by Inkyfada, the mayor of Moureddine rejects all accountability and maintains that he did not know anything about what happened to this waste. 

Towards the end of September, when suspicions of the illicit trafficking of waste spread internally, and the Ministry of the Environment took notice of the case, SOREPLAST organised an uncustomary meeting during which the company modified its corporate purpose to " recycling and recovery of waste and garbage". But it was already too late. 

During autumn 2020, details about the affair had progressively spread until it publicly exploded at the beginning of November. The scandal then took a diplomatic turn on October 23, 2020, when Tunisia officially requested Italy to retrieve the waste.

On the Italian side, the Region of Campania calls on the SRA to unblock the standstill, but the company does not budge and the waste remains at the port. "Currently, the waste presents a major risk of contamination (due to the presence of leachate and unwanted gas emission)", Abderrazak Marzouki cautioned in a letter to his Italian counterpart Sergio Cristofanelli on December 15. Several weeks went by without any follow-up or response from the Italian authorities.

Meanwhile, the Campania region were asking the SRA to retrieve the waste, which the company refused to do unless fully compensated by the Tunisian or Italian state. On February 2, 2021, the Campania Regional Administrative Court found SRA's appeal to be inadmissible. Case to be continued.