In 2021, 3,700 tons of illegal waste were imported to Romania.
Next to Turkey, the Eastern European country has become the destination of choice for toxic or otherwise unusable waste shipments.
Smuggled loads include mixed waste (ex. glass and paper), plastic as well as miscellaneous items such as clothing and footwear.
In some cases, toxic waste is declared as scrap plastic to border control, as in the case of 70 containers transported from Belgium to Romania. (In reality, these contained wood, metal waste as well as other hazardous materials.)
The Romanian Black sea port of Constanta is confronted with waste from western European countries such as Belgium, Italy and the UK but also Asian countries such as Japan and China.
Said nations were adversely impacted by China’s 2018 blanket ban on foreign waste imports, an occasion that led to a global hunt for new waste dumping grounds.
Often, illegal waste imports in Romania get dumped on landfills, where they are burned rather than recycled, generating toxic smoke and particulate matter. The European Court of Justice has already launched legal action against Romanian cities such as Bucharest, Brașov, Iași, Cluj-Napoca and Timișoara for excess air pollution, a state of affairs exacerbated by said imports.
Earlier this year, Romanian Environment Minister Tanczos Barna stated that criminal organisations were largely responsible for these illegal waste dumping operations, with the country now tasked to take better care in verifying authorization documentation for all incoming cargo.
In 2018, Romania was one of the countries issued with early warning reports from the European Commission (EC) in for being at risk of not hitting the 50 % reuse/recycling target to be achieved by member states by 2020. In the same year, the EC also urged the country to enforce the closure of 48 illegal landfills. At 69%, Romania’s landfilling rate is one of the highest in Europe.
The country’s recycling rate at 13% is also below the EU average, which renders the illegal waste dumping situation particularly fraught as the Romanian waste management system, also with regards to necessary waste infrastructure, is ill equipped to handle the excess amount.
Paradoxically, the low waste processing volume is also responsible for Romania’s current waste import crisis.
As Romanians tend to not separate their waste, waste streams end up being mixed, which is less than ideal for recycling purposes. To continue operating, recycling facilities depend on foreign waste imports, a situation gradually being exploited by criminal units.
Authorities have tried to solve the general waste problem via initiatives such as higher tax rates for landfills yet have remained largely unsuccessful in their efforts.
In the specific case of illegal waste imports, the Romanian Environmental Protection Agency intends to strengthen legislation to render waste smuggling an imprisonable offence.