Report: Pollution crime is highly profitable, organized and harming the planet

4 August 2022
A new INTERPOL report explores the nexus between organized crime and pollution crime

Throughout a series of global law enforcement operations that INTERPOL has coordinated against pollution crime in recent years, a key observation has emerged – that transnational organized crime was likely involved in a number of cases.

The exact nature and implications of organized crime groups’ role in pollution crime on a global level, however, has not been clear enough.

A new INTERPOL report targets this information gap with an in-depth examination of 27 pollution crime case studies shared by law enforcement in INTERPOL member countries. While most of the cases come from European countries, investigations demonstrate that the organized crime-pollution crime nexus is a global phenomenon, involving a wide variety of perpetrators and organizational structures.

Half a billion dollars

Illegal pollution is a highly profitable and serious crime, with devastating consequences for communities, the environment, legitimate businesses and the rule of law. In the cases examined by the INTERPOL report, the proceeds of the pollution offences ranged from USD 175,000 to USD 58 million, corresponding to an average of USD 19.6 million for each case.

The proceeds of the 27 pollution crime cases combined are estimated to amount to half a billion US dollars. Equally alarming are the costs to clean up and decontaminate illegal pollution sites, which ranged from USD 6 million to 37 million (USD 15.6 million on average) according to the cases examined.  

To facilitate pollution offences, perpetrators systematically commit a series of document frauds and financial crimes, including tax evasion and money laundering. In some cases requiring the complicity of public officials, perpetrators also resort to bribery, extortion and fraud.

Transnational networks are often key to pollution offences. In one case, organized crime groups illegally exported municipal waste from the United Kingdom and dumped it in Poland, fraudulently claiming to dispose of the waste in legitimate UK-based sites, as they were paid to do. The illegal dumping resulted in an estimated 30-40 waste fires in Poland.

In Spain, a company imported waste tires from other European countries then re-sold them as second hand tires to countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. This despite the fact that the tires were improperly stored in dangerous conditions and not up to code. The company did not declare importing the tires to avoid taxes and laundered their profits through real estate, vehicles, jewelry and virtual currencies.

The real face of pollution crime

Pollution crime, the report concludes, is often an organized crime, conducted with innovative, adaptive and sophisticated methods, but does not always take the form one might expect. While some cases did involve centralized mafia or gang-style criminal groups, the large majority of suspects were businessmen and women operating under the cover of a legitimate firm, or as a network of individual brokers.

This de-centralized structure reflects the way that much cross-border business is done, involving global value chains in which services are regularly subcontracted across a largely ‘horizontal’ network of economic actors.

Some of the legitimate companies in these networks shift towards illegal business practices and commit pollution offences to increase their profit margins, with or without the knowledge of other companies linked to them.

The picture that emerges is one where different forms of pollution crime often coexist and blend with legitimate operators. This does not, however, make the crime any less organized, or any less damaging.

Making polluting a high-risk crime

A majority of the cases examined by the INTERPOL report were cross-border, underscoring the importance of international police cooperation to combating pollution crime.

Pollution offences have sometimes been characterized as high-profit and low-risk, in part because of the many challenges to policing such crimes and the limited prosecutions registered to date. Common challenges for law enforcement include cooperation gaps between police and environmental regulatory authorities, a lack of specialized training, the low prioritization of pollution enforcement in many countries and legal obstacles when pollution crime is not one of the predicate, or ‘serious’, offences that can be prosecuted under organized crime laws.

To overcome such hurdles, the INTERPOL report recommends attributing greater attention to pollution crime investigations, integrating the tools and techniques used against organized and financial crime. This could be done through multi-disciplinary training of investigators or establishing permanent multi-agency task forces.

Moreover, national enforcement agencies should undertake systematic data collection and analysis on the companies and criminal networks charged with pollution crime in order to conduct intelligence-led operations, focusing on high-value targets.

The strategic report was made possible through financial support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) to INTERPOL’s Environmental Security programme, which supports law enforcement agencies in INTERPOL’s 195 member countries to prevent, detect and disrupt environmental crimes and dismantle the criminal groups behind them.

Learn more about our response to pollution crime on our website.