Our plastic waste fuels criminal networks: Interview with Bénédicte Niel
Bénédicte Niel is one of the first people I met when I moved to Paris to go to college! We studied in the same double Bachelor degree program, combining political sciences and natural sciences. Our common desire to understand the world from different angles (sociology, history, biology, chemistry, etc.) planted the seed of our friendship. Bénédicte went into environmental sciences and international relations for her Master’s degrees, while I studied chemistry and law. We both care for the environment and for the arts. While we started our first jobs (she was a junior researcher on deforestation, I was a green innovation consultant), she recorded an album - she has incredible talent as a singer - and I participated in my first pole performances in Paris. We challenge and inspire each other!
Bénédicte then moved to Singapore and worked for five years at INTERPOL: the International Criminal Police Organization (2017-2021) where she conducted important analytical work on plastic-related crime.
When we throw plastic away in our daily life, we only have a narrow vision of what may happen to the discarded items. This is why I wanted to share her experience to have a better understanding of the big picture on the tons and tons of plastic that ends up being thrown away and traveling across the world.
Hi Bénédicte! You have a unique background and expertise on environmental crime. First, can you tell us more about your journey?
My journey is a mix between: the desire to learn many aspects of the world (its sciences, its history, its inhabitants), a determination to make it better through my work and my art, and sometimes the incapacitating fear to not choose the right path to do it! I find drive in the diversity of projects I undertake.
My academic studies gave me a wide knowledge of environmental matters, as I completed 2 Master's degrees in environmental policies and environmental sciences. Professionally, I have applied this knowledge to the area of policies implementation and enforcement. I first worked in research, studying the effectiveness of policies against deforestation at the think tank IDDRI in Paris. In 2017, I joined INTERPOL and focused my work on environmental crime and illicit trades. I recently transferred to Europol in September 2021. Both organizations aim to facilitate international cooperation among countries' law enforcement agencies - INTERPOL globally, Europol mostly within the European Union. At INTERPOL, I was part of the first team who launched global operations targeting waste crime and illegal marine pollution, bringing countries together to fight criminal networks.
Having chosen this path, I have an international life: I grew up in the Paris region, I studied for a year in Florida, I spent almost five years in Singapore, and I am now settled in the Netherlands.
In parallel, I have been involved in the NGO Youth against Climate Change (CliMates) and in artistic projects: a bit of dance, photography, painting, and a lot of music.
Music has been a constant in my life! I grew up in a family making music, my mother is always singing, my father plays the piano, and all together - with my brother - we listen to classical music stories in the car when we hit the road for the holidays... And my partner is a musician! In 2020, in the heart of quarantine, we created our duo, composing our original music: BE612.
We will come back to your musical projects. What drew you to work on environmental issues and law enforcement in the first place?
The living world and its interactions with the surroundings have always fascinated me: how cactus flowers bloom at night, how clouds form thanks to dust, how trees communicate, how humans need sunlight to feel good…
Since I was a kid I have felt that all of this is precious and seeing its degradation by human activities saddens me. Growing up, I became interested in international relations, and how distribution of natural resources was often at the heart of conflicts: fuel, water, gas, minerals… No need to extrapolate, it is in the spotlights of current conflicts! Overexploitation of natural resources and human exploitation seem to me to go hand in hand. I believe caring about our ecosystems is caring for humanity.
That’s why I dedicated my career to contributing to the protection of the fabric of the living world. I have always enjoyed exploring underrated approaches and raising awareness where it is lacking most, I chose to do it through law enforcement, working against environmental crime.
You conducted work on plastic-related crime at INTERPOL, can you tell us about those issues and illegal plastic trading?
Like most crimes, it is all about money! And there is quite a lot of money in the plastic industry: the global plastic market (its production, distribution and trade) is valued at around $600 billion USD and the recycled plastic waste sector alone at $50 billion.
Generally, this industry fuels a large (legal) international trade where industries in western countries with stricter recycling obligations export part of their recyclable plastic waste towards lower income countries. In those countries, the labor and processing costs are cheaper and the more extensive manufacturing industry has a demand for the raw material plastic recycling can provide.
But recycling involves some costs… that criminals are willing to cut at the expense of safety principles and the health of the environment! Licensing fees, and costs related to the control of atmospheric emissions, effluent discharges and waste stockpiling are illegally avoided and profit can be gained by reselling raw material with less costs. One more aspect: what about the horrific amount of non-recyclable plastic? What if instead of paying treatment costs, you could just send it to a poorer country pretending it is for recycling? That happens, too.
This is what the illegal trade in plastic waste is about, and it is a - literally - dirty exploitation of the world's inequalities. To me, it can be compared to a modern form of colonialism, often by legal businesses partly operating illegally!
Plastic waste crime encapsulates the illegal trade and the illegal disposal: if it saves costs, criminals are also willing to throw it in nature, to pay a landowner to bury it, or to incinerate it without caring about filtering pollutants and controlling carbon emissions.
In addition, we know from marine soil samples and studies that plastic pollution in the marine environment has a strictly linear relation with the amount of plastic produced: the more our society produces and uses plastic, the more it is profitable to illegally trade it or dispose of it. Today, those mechanisms are explained by market laws (more demand makes prices rise) and by the lack of alternatives to plastic materials.
If you ever needed an additional argument on why we should reduce our plastic consumption: know that it fuels all sorts of crimes and related pollution!
Thank you so much Bénédicte for shedding light on these little-known aspects of the life of our plastic waste. It's shocking to learn about this and to understand how much our consumption choices impact inequalities and the exploitation of other souls in that way as well. Please share with us how INTERPOL operates to fight such crimes and to prevent trafficking, and a little bit on the crucial role you had.
Environmental crime often implies transborder trafficking (for example of waste, timber, protected species etc.), and so the organization provides a platform of international cooperation for law enforcement agencies across the world. It facilitates information exchange, coordinates enforcement operations, analyses operational information to identify and disrupt criminal networks and to understand criminal trends with the aim to better tackle them.
I worked in the team targeting "pollution crime", which refers to criminal activities that result in environmental contamination such as waste trafficking, illegal discharges at sea, trafficking in chemicals, etc. Working on such an emerging area of enforcement was an exciting challenge! I contributed to: raise awareness among the agencies and the community, increase the understanding of the criminality at stake, which involved data collection and analysis, as well as creating new networks of cooperation.
I mean, you are a rockstar! Literally. You are also a singer. Before we wrap up, I would love to hear more about your art!
Singing is an important part of my expression and of my creativity around the topics of love, dreams, exploration, creation, family… and nature! While I come from a classical music background, I explored many styles: jazz, rock, pop, and electro. I started to compose my own music, often in collaboration with other artists which is really thrilling!
In 2020, my partner and I created our duo: BE612. He is Cuban, I am French and we met in Singapore: our music is rich in this diversity! We build our music in layers, with a loop pedal, so each song is like a journey in several steps. The name is a reference to the story The Little Prince (who comes from the asteroid B612): a beautiful and dreamy story of self-discovery, love, sadness, wonder and lucidity.
Environmental concerns are at the heart of several texts of my original music, like “Danse des pleurs” or “Blooming”, that I invite you to discover!
Thank you so much for sharing with us your knowledge and experience on the plastic industry and your art! Knowledge is power! Power is action!
Bénédicte Niel has dedicated her academic and professional career to work on environmental issues, with two Master’s degrees in Environmental Policies and Environmental Sciences (Sciences Po Paris, Sorbonne Université), with an expertise on forestry policies and pollution crimes. She has been an integral member of INTERPOL’s Global Pollution Enforcement Team from 2017 to 2021, contributing to the coordination of the largest global enforcement operations ever led against waste-related crimes and marine pollution. She conducted the organization’s work on plastic-related crime, identified as a priority target. She now works at EUROPOL at the Financial and Economic Crime Center. Benedicte is a singer with a powerful and touching voice, and the co-founder of duo BE612.
Find out more about plastic waste criminality, through INTERPOL’s analytical report she contributed to: Strategic Analysis Report: Emerging criminal trends in the global plastic waste market since January 2018
Bénédicte's Instagram: @benedicteniel
Her personal album, recorded in Paris: listen
BE612's Instagram: @be612music
BE612's Youtube channel: listen