Italian police this week broke up a major refuse trafficking operation between Italy and China, highlighting one of the most lucrative fields of activity for powerful new 'eco-mafias'.
Seven people were arrested on Wednesday and a further 49 are under investigation in connection with the trash export racket which was said to be worth about a million euros a year for its organisers.
Police said the group collected plastic waste, some of it toxic, in five northern Italian regions and shipped it to China, where it was treated and sold to businesses who used it to make children's toys.
The arrests came in the same week that Italy's High Commissioner against Corruption raised the alarm over 'eco-mafias' which are growing rich through illegal waste disposal and unregulated construction.
The recurrent trash crisis in Campania and the frequent abandonment of old ships on southern coasts are just the most visible signs of a massive web of illicit activity connected to refuse, High Commissioner Gianfranco Tatozzi said in a new report.
Driven by the interests of industry and organised crime, sophisticated businesses have grown up which traffic waste with complex procedures and forged documents.
"It is a lucrative and well-developed economic activity," Tatozzi said.
The report outlined how eco-mafias have moved on from what used to be simply a question of throwing trash into massive illegal dumps.
Now the system is based on burying waste so it is invisible and indiscriminately dumping of all kinds of refuse in chosen areas made available thanks to bureaucratic chicanery.
"The impact of all this on the environment is devastating," the report said.
According to Italian environmental organisation Legambiente, waste trafficking makes about 22 billion euros for the Mafia a year.
Profits are said to be rising fast as the business spreads to northern regions such as Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy from traditional strongholds in Campania and Calabria.
China has reportedly become "the new Mecca" for dumping toxic waste and obsolete high-tech components.
Meanwhile, the other prong of the eco-mafias attack on the environment comes through unregulated construction work.
"Involvement in construction is a strategic interest for organised crime because it enables it to impose bribery and extortion which, combined with the illicit control of public contracts, produce an insidious and subversive power system," the High Commissioner's study said.
This power system enables Mobsters to control jobs and important sectors of the economy and public administration. It also wins "very high profits in return for modest costs and low risk".