WasteAid Invited to Speak at UN Conference Exploring Waste Crime


Author: Jessica Stickland

Published: 5 June 2024

WasteAid’s Director of Programmes, Michelle Wilson, joined experts from around the globe at a special UN conference in Geneva last month to explore the issue of waste crimes and the environment.

She was invited to participate by UNCTAD (UN Trade & Development), as a key partner on FCDO’s global Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution Programme (SMEP). The event aimed to gain a better understanding of the scale, scope, and dynamics of illicit trade flows in solid waste so that policies can be better tailored to address the root problem from a development perspective. It also sought to foster collaboration among stakeholders so that a comprehensive approach to combat the illicit trade in waste could be developed.

According to UNCTAD, illicit waste trade is considered the most profitable environmental crime and encompasses activities across sorting, transporting, and disposing of waste that does not abide by regulations. The profit generated from illicit waste amounts to US$ 10–12 billion annually, which puts it on a par with other major crime areas such as human trafficking.

Michelle was invited to be a panellist where she, and others, were asked to reflect on the topic of waste crimes that affect the environment, particularly concerning imports and exports of textile.

Here, Michelle shares her thoughts on this important event.

This year’s conference theme was The Global Analysis on Crimes that Affect the Environment: Waste Crime and Trafficking. I was there in the capacity of representing WasteAid’s FCDO funded project, Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution Programme (SMEP) which focuses on the recovery and repurposing of secondary textiles in Uganda.

There were some excellent issues raised during the panel session. The UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) discussed the difficulties in tracking waste crimes due to a simple lack of harmonisation of the waste codes that are used in waste imports. There are currently four sets of codes that are; Basel Convention Codes, OECD Codes, EU Waste Codes and HS Codes all used by exporters. There was a general plea for harmonisation and consolidation across the import coding regime.

A hot topic in terms of textiles is the efficacy of bans on second hand textile trade. With potential secondary textile bans from Europe and into countries like Uganda, in the presentation I delved a bit into the evidence on efficacy of blanket bans. From my research evidence suggests that illegal trade occurs mainly where there are blanket bans on secondary clothing imports in place. For example, South Africa and Nigeria used to ranked 11th and 15th out of 50 destinations for used clothing exports from OECD countries, despite markets being officially closed and bans in place. From the evidence, it seems that outright bans are problematic to implement, create illegal trade and result in vital lost tax revenue for the state. A consensus seemed to be that rather than outright textile bans, a better approach would be to design an export/import coding regime that lets in textiles that can be resold and repurposed and to keep out those textiles that cannot.

WasteAid’s project in Uganda will hopefully help to contribute to this body of knowledge. The project also seeks to add to the body of knowledge of how much of the imported clothes become ‘waste’. For example from research carried out in Kenya and Ghana, rejection rates of second hand clothing appears to between 3% and 10%, far lower than the 40% figure read in reports from West Africa (Mountains of clothes washed up on Ghana beach show cost of fast fashion | The Independent. Our project in Uganda seeks to add to this body of knowledge and to support the development of policy which can protect jobs and the environment at the same time.

Global discussions to find local solutions to textile waste.

The UN event was useful and has clear implications for our project in Uganda. There are two key areas where I believe we can contribute to the global discussion on textile crimes.

  • Implication for the classification of imports of textiles: The Circular Textile Project in Uganda could help contribute to the body of knowledge on the type or volume of secondary textiles can be imported into countries like Uganda that can support vital jobs without harming the environment.
  • Blanket bans don’t work: Blanket bans on importation of secondary textiles simply push the trade underground where taxes/import duty is then lost, as well as vital jobs for the informal sector.

Read more about our work in Uganda here.