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date: 27 February 2024

Environmental Crimefree

Environmental Crimefree

  • Carole GibbsCarole GibbsDepartment of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University
  •  and Rachel BorattoRachel BorattoDepartment of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University


Environmental crime is a complex and ambiguous term for several reasons. It is sometimes used as an umbrella term for crimes related to biodiversity, wildlife, animals, natural resources, hazardous waste, banned substances, and environmental quality, but scholars have also developed typologies to capture the unique dimensions of each form of environmental crime. Disagreements regarding whether to distinguish violations of environmental laws (addressed via civil prosecution or administrative actions) from environmental crimes (criminally prosecuted), and whether to also consider environmental harms (legal activities that harm the environment) or environmental risks produce further confusion. The range of offenders also complicates this concept, as individuals, groups/networks, and powerful organizations commit environmental crimes. The degree of harm created by each actor may, or may not, be equivalent.

Given the complexities of this area of study, scholars have developed and/or tested a wide range of theoretical perspectives on and interventions to address environmental crime. Consistent with conceptual disagreements, these theoretical frameworks and corresponding interventions vary (arguably the most) based on whether the dependent variable is environmental crime (as defined by law), or environmental harm or risk defined using other criteria. However, multiple theoretical perspectives/interventions are also examined within research on these broad categories of environmental crime, harm, and risk. In order to capture the breadth of research on environmental crime, we narrow the focus of this article to pollution related crimes (e.g., hazardous waste, banned substances, environmental quality). In the following article, we offer further detail regarding conceptual discussions, legal complexities, types of offenders, types of crime, and research on this subset of environmental crimes.


  • International Crime
  • White Collar Crime


Understanding and addressing environmental crime is extremely important. The impacts to the natural environment, including ecosystems, flora, and fauna, are often extensive and long lasting (Moore & Luoma, 1990; Peterson et al., 2003). These crimes also impact human health, causing birth defects and cancer among other health problems (Cohen, 2012). In addition, people living near polluted air, water, and land often report high levels of stress, citing concerns about family health and economic ties to the affected resources (Gill, Picou, & Ritchie, 2011).

Yet, understanding these issues can be challenging. Environmental crime is an ambiguous and complex term, in part due to the range of behaviors that fall within the concept. It is sometimes used as an umbrella term for crimes related to biodiversity, wildlife, animals, natural resources, hazardous waste, banned substances, and environmental quality (e.g., Clifford & Edwards, 1998; Shover & Routhe, 2005). However, scholars have also developed typologies to capture the unique dimensions of each form of crime. For example, White and Heckenberg (2014) distinguish between the harms associated with “brown,” “green,” and “white” environmental issues. “Brown issues tend to be defined in terms of urban life and pollution (e.g., air quality); green issues mainly relate to wilderness areas and conservation matters (e.g., logging practices); and white issues refer to science laboratories and the impact of new technologies (e.g., genetically modified organisms)” (White & Heckenberg, 2014, p. 69, emphasis in original). Environmental enforcement organizations make another set of distinctions. For example, the INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme has three key areas: biodiversity, natural resources, and environmental quality (White, 2016).1 Crimes that impact biodiversity include illegal activities that remove flora and fauna from the natural environment; cruelty to animals; and illegal possession of wildlife, illegal trade, and exploitation (Nurse, 2015; Wellsmith, 2011).2 Natural resource exploitation refers to illegal logging, mining, and fishing. Crimes related to environmental quality, such as air pollution, soil contamination, and the illegal disposal of hazardous waste or banned substances are considered pollution crimes.3 In the following article, we focus on environmental quality or pollution crimes.

Even after narrowing the focus to environmental quality/pollution issues, conceptual questions remain. Pollution crimes vary in the degree of harm produced (Clifford & Edwards, 1998). Should littering be referred to as an environmental crime of similar magnitude to the illegal disposal of hazardous waste? The range of potential offenders further complicates this concept, as individuals, networks, and powerful organizations commit environmental crimes (Situ & Emmons, 2000; Shover & Routhe, 2005). Are the actions of individuals equivalent to those of large organizations? What if the public engages in these behaviors en masse (see, e.g., Vandenbergh, 2004)?

In addition to these philosophical questions, the environmental legal terrain creates confusion. Environmental laws are typically implemented by regulatory agencies and these agencies have the power to use different bodies of law to sanction offenders. Under administrative law, cases can be addressed internally by regulatory agencies (e.g., administrative actions), but cases can also be referred for civil prosecution. These issues are typically considered environmental “violations” or “noncompliance.” However, many pieces of environmental legislation also contain provisions for the criminal prosecution of environmental “crimes” (Shover & Routhe, 2005; Uhlmann, 2014). Environmental legislation contains general criteria for criminal prosecution, but what criteria distinguish administrative, civil, and criminal cases is unclear in practice (Uhlmann, 2014). Further, academics disagree regarding whether administrative and civil violations should be studied alongside (or as) environmental crimes (Tappan, 1947 vs. Sutherland, 1949). Setting that issue aside, legal codes vary by jurisdiction, which especially complicates matters when examining environmental crimes that cross borders (i.e., transnational environmental crime). Finally, environmental law is unique in that a specified amount of harmful activity is permitted. For example, cutting down trees and polluting the air or water is allowed within a certain limit. To some, this suggests that environmental damage is something to be managed rather than an inherent wrong (i.e., mala prohibitum rather than malum in se) (White & Heckenberg, 2014).

Moving beyond the law, scholars have also argued that we should study environmental harms rather than environmental crimes defined by the legal code (White, 2008), or that we should study environmental risks in addition to environmental crimes (Gibbs, Gore, McGarrell, & Rivers, 2010), as many activities that damage the environment are legal. The variety of perspectives on what we should study (violations, crimes, harms, risks) results in many theoretical frameworks, approaches to research, and proposed and evaluated interventions. Therefore, sorting through the relevant research can be a challenge.

In the following article, we offer a road map through this confusing terrain. We begin with an overview of the types of legislation designed to protect the environment and the forms of regulation implemented to prevent/reduce pollution crimes. We next describe the types of environmental crimes that occur, the types of entities that violate these laws, potential explanations for these crimes, and offer a brief review of ongoing research. We conclude with a list of key sources for further study on this topic.

The Legal Context

U.S. Legal Context4

As summarized in Table 1, Congress passed the majority of environmental protection laws in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by executive order to be the lead agency to implement and manage these policies (Clifford, 1998). The Clean Air Act (CAA, 1963), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, 1976), the Clean Water Act (CWA, 1972), the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, 1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, 1980) are some of the most significant pieces of legislation to limit pollution. Generally speaking, the CAA places limits on air pollution; the CWA regulates the discharge of pollutants into waterways; and RCRA establishes a regulatory system for hazardous waste (Uhlmann, 2014). The EPA is responsible for translating these general environmental laws into specific requirements, enforcing those requirements, and sanctioning companies or individuals that fail to comply.

The laws referenced above have many provisions, but one important component is the establishment of a permitting system. Manufacturing facilities that pollute the air and/or water must apply for permits that place limits on pollution and establish a schedule to monitor pollutant levels and report the results to the relevant regulatory agency to assess compliance. Similarly, the RCRA establishes a permitting and monitoring system to track hazardous waste from “cradle to grave.” In addition, the CERCLA, a supplement to RCRA, created a special tax on the petroleum and chemical industries, as well as a general environmental tax to create a “Superfund” to remediate or remove abandoned and inactive hazardous waste disposal sites. Money from the Superfund can be used to pay for EPA cleanup and for the claims of private parties.

In addition to these pieces of legislation the EPA also regulates other areas of industry and development. For example, the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) regulates the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of toxic chemicals. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (1947) governs the manufacturing and sale of pesticides. Development projects are monitored through the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), which requires environmental assessments for new projects. The Coastal Zone Management Act (1972) protects coastal regions from excessive and harmful development, and The Marine Protection Research & Sanctuaries Act controls the dumping of waste into the ocean. The EPA enforces some of these pieces of legislation in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Table 1. U.S. Federal Legislation.






Safe Drinking Water Act (1974, 1986, 1996)

Sets drinking water standards and protection for groundwater


Clean Water Act (1972)/Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948)

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)


Marine Protection Research & Sanctuaries Act (1972)

Control the dumping of waste in the ocean, authorizes related research



Coastal Zone Management Act (1972)

Protect coastal areas from harmful development


Oil Pollution Act (OPA) (1990)

Related to the response to oil spills and polluter responsibility

EPA/Coast Guard


Clean Air Act (1970)

Set standards for air quality and pollution


Toxic Substances & Waste

Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (1976)

Set standards for the management of hazardous waste disposal


Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)

Regulates the manufacturing and sale of toxic substances


Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA) (1980)

The cleanup of toxic waste sites. Referred to as the “Superfund”


Pollution Prevention Act (1990)

Reduce pollution emissions at the source


Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (1947)

Regulates the production and sale of pesticides


National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA 1969)

Requires major activities to conduct environmental assessments


As previously stated, environmental legislation typically includes provisions for civil or criminal prosecution and also allows the agency to respond to violations internally via administrative law. When seeking civil or criminal prosecution, cases are referred to the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resource Division (or regional U.S. states attorneys). Generally speaking (summarizing across pieces of legislation), environmental violations may be prosecuted criminally when they are (1) knowing, (2) negligent, or (3) endanger human life (Situ & Emmons, 2000). The courts have interpreted the “knowing” requirement as a showing of general intent. To obtain a criminal conviction, prosecutors must demonstrate that the defendant had a general awareness that he/she was dealing with a substance likely to be regulated and knowledge that a discharge was occurring. In contrast to traditional criminal law, the prosecutor does not have to establish specific intent. In other words, the prosecutor does not have to establish that the defendant premeditated to illegally dispose of regulated materials (Cooney et al., 1996). Cases may also be criminally prosecuted when a person fails to do what a “reasonable person” would do in the same circumstances. In other words, criminal prosecution can be based on negligence, or a lack of “due care.” Finally, cases may be subjected to criminal prosecution if human life is knowingly or negligently placed in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, regardless of whether injury actually occurred (Situ & Emmons, 2000). In essence, the standards of proof in environmental law more closely resemble strict liability than traditional intent (Mandiberg, 2011). EPA guidance encourages prosecutors to consider the level of environmental harm and culpable conduct to make decisions regarding civil vs. criminal prosecution (Devaney, 1994). In practice, cases with deceptive or misleading conduct, plants operating outside of the regulatory system, and those that present a threat of significant harm to the environment or public health are more likely to be criminally than civilly prosecuted (Uhlmann, 2014).

The Department of Justice has used these provisions to prosecute companies and individuals for violations of environmental law. A corporation may be held criminally liable for the actions of its employees if prosecutors can establish that (1) the acts were done on behalf of the company, and (2) the acts were within the scope of the employee’s authority (Cooney et al., 1996). Under the “responsible corporate officer” provision, responsible individuals in the company can also be prosecuted. The individual must be a (1) corporate officer who is (2) directly responsible within management for the conduct in question, and (3) knew that the type of improper activity was occurring. In addition to the responsible corporate officer doctrine, individuals in the company may be held criminally liable if there is direct evidence of intent or willful blindness (or conscious avoidance) of knowledge of the issue (Cooney et al., 1996). Although CEOs may be held criminally liable, small companies and low- and mid-level managers are more often convicted for environmental violations at the federal level (Cohen, 2012; Uhlmann, 2014). It is unknown to what extent people who engage in environmental crime outside of their employment context are prosecuted.5

Despite this discussion of prosecution, criminal prosecution is the least common response and administrative actions are the most common response to environmental violations (Gray & Shimshack, 2011). In addition, sanctioning offenders (i.e., a punishment-oriented approach) represents only one strategy to reduce and prevent environmental crimes. Punishing offenders through command-and-control regulations, which specify exactly what regulated entities must do (command) and issue sanctions (control) when regulated entities fail to meet the legal requirements, was initially the primary regulatory tool of EPA (Gunningham, 2009; Gunningham & Grabosky, 2004). However, the EPA has also historically worked cooperatively with industry to achieve compliance. For example, the agency provides a significant amount of compliance assistance (e.g., trainings, troubleshooting systems) to regulated entities to prevent violations before they occur and works with companies in violation to establish a schedule to return to compliance rather than immediately resorting to prosecution (Hunter & Waterman, 1996). EPA also relies extensively on alternative forms of regulation that offer more flexibility to the regulated community to achieve compliance, such as self-regulation and economic instruments.

Self-regulatory approaches include voluntary commitments, such as the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) 33/50 Program in which companies could volunteer to reduce legal toxic emissions for 33% by 1992 and 50% by 1995. Economic instruments are also used to provide flexibility and incentives to regulated entities to comply and improve environmental performance beyond the minimum legal requirements. For example, the Acid Rain Program, which was designed to reduce the sulfur and nitrous oxide discharges responsible for acid rain, was the first large-scale environmental market in the world (Gunningham, 2009). In environmental markets, or “cap and trade” systems, regulated entities are issued a cap on emissions that specifies the amount of pollution they are allowed to emit. They are also either allocated or must buy credits, or rights to pollute a specified amount. On a regular basis (typically each year), companies must “surrender” (to the government agency) credits equivalent to the amount of their emissions. These credits can be traded like a currency, so those who have extra credits can sell them to entities that need more credits to cover their cap. Therefore, companies have a financial incentive to reduce emissions below their cap, as they can profit from the sale of credits.

As such, in many ways the term “environmental crime” is misleading. Although criminal prosecution is a component of environmental regulation and enforcement, the use of cooperative strategies and significant reliance on administrative actions results in many more environmental violations than environmental crimes, an important distinction in terms of the stigma attached to the act. Some argue that this approach and other forms of “environmental deviance” on the part of the government (described below) reflect regulatory capture, or the domination of regulatory agencies by industry (Simon, 2000). Others suggest that the concept of regulatory capture is inadequate because it fails to explain how industry wields power to corrupt regulation and enforcement (Snider, 2010). Snider (2010) argues that corporate economic, political, and ideological power allows industry to shape regulation by defining itself as a legitimate stakeholder.

Despite this discussion of the “EPA approach” and its limitations, many other agencies also have responsibilities related to environmental noncompliance. For example, the Department of Energy is tasked with addressing environmental violations at nuclear energy facilities (Clifford & Edwards, 2012). In addition to the federal distribution of responsibilities, the EPA has also delegated the authority to enforce federal laws to many state environmental regulatory agencies.6 In fact, the states actually conduct the bulk of environmental monitoring and enforcement (Burns et al., 2008; Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), 2001), sometimes investigating cases in collaboration with regional EPA investigators and prosecuting offenders through the State Attorney General’s office (Rivers, Dempsey, Mitchell, & Gibbs, 2015). Traditional police officers also play a role in environmental enforcement (Carter, 1998; Situ & Emmons, 2000). For example, state troopers are often the first to discover violations of RCRA regulations in the form of unpermitted transfer of hazardous waste on state highways (Edwards, 1996). Thus, although EPA is the lead agency, environmental enforcement in the United States is actually achieved through a complex array of different types of agencies at different levels of government.

The International Legal Context

Outside of the United States, other countries have similar environmental agencies and domestic legislation. For example, the legal framework of Environment and Climate Change Canada (Canada’s environmental protection agency) includes the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999) and the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (1985), both dedicated to protecting ecosystems and people from pollution and potential harm. In the United Kingdom the Environment Agency is responsible for regulating and monitoring water quality, industry and waste, conservation and ecology. On a regional scale, countries within the European Union are required to comply with over 200 pieces of legislation dedicated to the protection of the environment, with member state compliance enforced by the European Court of Justice (EU, 2014).

In addition to the complex patchwork of environmental enforcement in the United States and other countries, international laws, treaties, and organizations are also relevant to environmental regulation. The United Nations (UN) is the primary international organization to facilitate these treaties. When international treaties are signed by a minimum number of countries, they are supposed to be implemented in those countries via domestic law (UN, 2012). In the United States, for example, if a president signs these treaties, new legislation has to be introduced as a bill, passed in the House and Senate, and signed by the president (U.S. Senate, 2016).

There are numerous international environmental treaties. In general these treaties regulate the emission and/or international trade of a specific category of pollutants. Some of the major treaties designed to control or reduce pollution include the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Basel Convention on Transboundary Shipments of Hazardous Waste, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Marrakech Accords.

The Montreal Protocol is designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of ozone depleting substances (UNEP, 2012). It includes provisions to adjust the controls on chemical substances as scientific knowledge accumulates. The Basel Convention (1992) seeks to decrease the movement of hazardous waste between nations. Reducing the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to developing nations is of particular concern (UNEP, 1992). The Rotterdam Convention focuses on another dimension of the hazardous waste trade; it requires exporters to use proper labeling and directions, and to inform purchasers of restrictions or bans on the substance (UNEP, 2004a). In addition, signatory nations may ban the importation of listed chemicals. Exporting nations must also ensure that producers within their jurisdiction comply with the provisions of the Rotterdam Convention. At the manufacturing level, the Stockholm Convention (UNEP, 2004b) aims to restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants, which are chemicals that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate through the food web. Under this convention, developed countries must provide financial resources and take measures to eliminate the production of intentionally and unintentionally (when feasible) produced persistent organic pollutants, as well as manage and dispose of these wastes in an appropriate manner (UNEP, 2004b).

In addition to these treaties, a series of agreements have led to restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming and climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol (2005), and the Marrakech Accords have resulted in national caps on greenhouse gas emissions and a trading system (or market) in which credits for greenhouse gas emissions can be bought and sold. In other words, if countries emit more than their cap allows, they can purchase credits from other countries that emitted less than allowed. Member nations have implemented this cap and trade system by translating their caps to regulated companies through domestic legislation (Gibbs, Cassidy, & Rivers, 2013). These regulated entities may also engage in trading to achieve compliance.

Typology of Environmental Crimes

Environmental laws result in a variety of unique offenses that can be categorized in a number of different ways. The type of affected environment, such as air or water, can be used to categorize crimes. Many of the laws (such as the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act) follow this format, as they pertain to a particular type of environmental media. However, some crimes involve the simultaneous violation of multiple laws. Thus, there are circumstances when it is impossible to disentangle water pollution from soil pollution from air pollution (e.g., the dumping of toxic chemicals can contaminate soil, off-gas into the air, and eventually leach into the watershed). Alternatively, crimes can be categorized according to the type of pollutant involved, such as electronic or e-waste (i.e., broken or obsolete electronics), oil, or asbestos. Or, we can categorize a crime based on the disposal methods used, for instance dumping (toxic waste), mining, or spills. More broadly, environmental crimes can be organized by geography, such as domestic versus transnational environmental crime; or crimes committed across international borders (White, 2011). We will review some of the more prominent offense types, first looking specifically at water, soil, and air pollution, and then broadening to three common mechanisms of pollution, dumping, mining, and oil spills. We will finish our discussion with a brief overview of transnational crime.

Water pollution offenses can occur as a result of chemicals that passively leech into the water shed, factory effluents directly pumped into bodies of water, poorly treated sewage released into the environment, or garbage dumped into the water (e.g., FBI and Coast Guard’s 1994 “Operation Overboard” caught a cruise ship dumping waste at sea (Rebovich, 1998)). Sometimes water contamination cases can have such a great impact that polluted areas become entirely uninhabitable. For example, a flooding incident in Times Beach, Missouri, caused such high levels of contamination due to dioxin (which was part of a spray treatment used to reduce dust on roads in the 1970s), that the EPA purchased the town and relocated the residents in 1983 (Gray & Shadbegian, 2015). Water pollution offenses can also have devastating and lasting impacts on local communities. For instance, in 1995, Central Industries’ poultry rendering plant contaminated the Jackson, Mississippi, water supply with untreated wastewater (Cohen, 2012). Water pollution can also be tightly linked to soil pollution that occurs when toxins are released or transfer into the soil during contact with contaminated water or air.

Similarly, air pollution offenses can have detrimental effects through the release of toxins into the air, resulting in poor air quality and/or acid rain. One of the most tragic cases of air pollution involved the manufacturing of the pesticide Sevin, by Union Carbide in Bhopal, India. In 1984 a quarter of the city’s population was exposed to a toxic gas that escaped from a storage tank; approximately 5,000 people died in the first two days alone, with a final death count around 20,000 people (Varma & Varma, 2005). While this is an extreme case, in many urban centers people live day to day with poor air quality. Breathing polluted air, especially during exercise, can have severe adverse health impacts and reduce quality of life (Li et al., 2015). Incidents of extreme smog advisories highlight the potential damage of air pollution, not just to the environment, but also on daily life.

Moving beyond the type of media affected, we can categorize crime by the method. Dumping, for instance, can cause long-term harm to soil, watersheds, and air quality. For example, Hooker Electrochemical Company bought “the Love Canal,” which was dug in the early 20th century for power generation, and used it as a waste disposal site in the 1940s (Clifford & Edwards, 1998). The site was covered over in the 1950s and homes and a school were built on top. By the 1970s people began to have serious health problems (Clifford & Edwards, 1998). The presence of hazardous chemicals ultimately resulted in birth defects, sterility, and cancer among local residents (Seis, 2012). In 1978 the state deemed the site too hazardous and permanently relocated the residents (Clifford & Edwards, 1998).

Similar to dumping, mining can also have broad and long-term impacts. Picher Oklahoma/Tar Creek was once home to the biggest lead producing mines in the world, but due to high levels of pollution, the town was declared uninhabitable (Andrews & Masoner, 2011; Neuberger, Hu, Drake, & Jim, 2009). Similarly, Clark Fork, Montana, became a Superfund site after more than 125 years of mining and smelting had contaminated the watershed with copper, zinc, cadmium, lead, arsenic (affecting the fisheries in 21,000 km of rivers) (Moore & Luoma, 1990). Thus, the long-term impacts of multimedia pollution caused by irresponsible mining can not only destroy local economies, but can also create conditions unsupportive of human life.

Oil spills can also have broad and lasting impacts, particularly on marine life and the fishing industry. Some of the most notable oil spills include the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969) and the 1995 Russian oil spill (Everson, 2012). In addition, in 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, resulting in a criminal and civil settlement of $1.125 billion (U.S. dollars) (Cohen, 2012). The spill continued to have documented impacts on wildlife in the Prince William Sound for over 10 years (Peterson et al., 2003). Recently, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and spilled an estimated 53,000–62,000 barrels of oil (Seis, 2012).

In addition to these domestic cases, environmental crimes can also be transnational. Transnational environmental crime has been broadly defined as an act that is against the law, crosses international borders, and results in an environmental crime (White, 2013a). Further defining transnational crime is challenging, as academics disagree as to what bodies of law are relevant. Elliott (2012) argues that any movement of wastes across borders in contravention of international agreements or domestic laws represents transnational environmental crime, whereas enforcement organizations rely on criminal laws to define transnational environmental crimes. However, because not all acts that cause harm to the environment are illegal, some green criminologists argue that harms should also be included in transnational crime (White, 2011). Regardless, these crimes often involve sophisticated networks and opportunistic traders who take advantage of ports where surveillance and enforcement are lax, and frequently take complex routes through multiple countries to avoid detection (Elliott, 2012).

It is important to understand these crimes for several reasons. Some trade statistics and seizure data suggest that transnational environmental crime is increasing (United Nations Environment Program and INTERPOL, 2016). In addition to this potential growth, transnational crimes can be considered especially egregious because they reflect the global imbalance of power, with unscrupulous offenders taking advantage of less developed countries with weak environmental laws or corrupt enforcement systems (White, 2011). This can lead to the improper disposal of hazardous chemicals in vulnerable developing countries (White, 2011). For example, in 1986 a ship, Khian Sea, containing toxic ash with heavy metals, left Philadelphia. After sailing for 2 years, 11 countries had refused to take the contents of the ship, so they eventually dumped their cargo in Haiti and between Singapore and the Suez Canal (Klenovšek & Meško, 2010). In a similar 2006 incident, the Trafigura dumped 600 tons of caustic soda and petroleum residue around the capital city of the Ivory Coast (White, 2008a, 2011). The ship, originating in the Netherlands, had been rejected by multiple countries before being covertly unloaded in the middle of the night by a disposal company named “Tommy,” which was formed for the sole purpose of disposing of the ship’s waste (White, 2008a, 2011). This crime involved a number of actors from different countries; the ship was built in Korea, owned by Greeks, registered in Panama, and manned by a crew of Russians (Klenovšek & Meško, 2010).

The growth of the technology industry and the need to dispose of ever-growing amounts of discarded, broken, or obsolete electronics (e-waste) also produces various forms of transnational environmental crime (Gibbs, McGarrell, Axelrod, & Rivers, 2011). Issues have been raised about the movement of waste products, and their improper disposal. For example, in Jinghai County, Northern China (a hub for e-waste disposal) links have been made between e-waste disposal and poor human health, such as genetic mutations (Liu et al., 2009). The study of e-waste is further complicated by the fact that multiple types of offenders (described below) are involved in the interface between legal and illegal e-waste disposal (Bisschop, 2012).

Typology of Environmental Criminals/Offenders7

Environmental offenses may be committed by a variety of different types of offenders. Though the law recognizes offender types to differing degrees that vary by jurisdiction, the environmental offender profile is markedly diverse. Differences in the characteristics of various types of offenders can be quite unique. Therefore, understanding the differences is key to not only describing the crime, but also developing crime prevention strategies. Building on the work of Situ & Emmons (2000), offenders can be grouped into a five-category typology: individuals, groups, governments, businesses, and state-corporate crime.

Individual/Personal Offenders

Individual, or “personal” offenders, refers to those who commit environmental crimes outside of their workplace (Situ & Emmons, 2000). These individuals rarely have criminal backgrounds, and in many cases do not believe that they are committing a crime, especially when there is little social stigma attached to their actions (Situ & Emmons, 2000). In regard to pollution, “household crimes” and “recreation crimes” are linked to individual environmental offenders (Situ & Emmons, 2000). The specific actions that constitute household crimes vary by jurisdiction, but may include: dumping paint and other chemicals down the drain; improper disposal of batteries, electronic devices, or appliances; illegally piping home sewage into waterways; or ignoring drought limits on water use (Situ & Emmons, 2000). This category may also include illegally dumping tires (Clifford, 1998) or crimes committed through recreational activities, such as failing to remove waste while camping (Situ & Emmons, 2000).

Group Offenders

When two or more individuals jointly commit an environmental crime, they are considered group offenders, a category that can be further subdivided based on the characteristics of the group and how the offense is carried out (Situ & Emmons, 2000). Informal groups or networks generally associate over a short period of time, during which the group utilizes their collective skills to take advantage of criminal opportunities (Situ & Emmons, 2000). When there is no longer an advantage to their association, the group will disband (Situ & Emmons, 2000). For example, two men in West Virginia were attempting to steal anhydrous ammonia from a mining waste-water treatment center to make methamphetamine, when they split a theft-prevention valve cover and caused 2,500 pounds of toxic anhydrous ammonia to leak into the air. Upon being caught they were charged with a violation of the U.S. CAA (District of West Virginia vs. Workman, Brown, Hudnall, & Tucker, 2013).

Additional research suggests that more elaborate networks are also involved in environmental crime. In reference to wildlife crime, White (2016, p. 92) states that moving specific commodities around the globe requires “an integrated network that links the point of origin to the point of sale, even though the gatherers/producers and consumers/clients may be disparate and unconnected” (see also Ayling, 2013). More generally, transnational environmental crimes include smaller crimes (e.g., smuggling, corruption, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering) that occur through complex transactions between informal networks across multiple geographic boundaries (Elliott, 2012; White, 2016). In addition, academics, government officials, and non-governmental organizations report “multi-commodity smuggling” in which traffickers use the same trade routes to illegally move drugs and wildlife (South & Wyatt, 2011). Although the specific nature of networks involved in the illicit trade in pollutants or wastes are not well understood (see, e.g., Gibbs et al., 2011), given what is required for these crimes to occur, more complex networks or interconnected nodes are likely involved.

In addition to these informal groups, more traditional organized crime groups have also been implicated for environmental offending. These organized groups are formed for the purpose of financial profit and have a hierarchy structured around restricted membership (Situ & Emmons, 2000); they use force (or the threat of force), coercive measures, and corruption in the pursuit of their goals (Finckenauer, 2005). This is exemplified by the Naples, Italy, Garbage Crisis, where the city contracted criminal entities (through “favors”) to properly dispose of the city’s garbage, but the waste was instead illegally buried or exported (Ruggiero & South, 2010). Recent reports suggest that organized crime participation in transnational environmental crimes is growing, but acknowledge that the data on this point are problematic (United Nations Environment Program and INTERPOL, 2016).

Business Related

Business-related crimes can also be divided into multiple categories, including corporate (organizational crimes), occupational crimes, and small business crimes. Organizational or corporate crimes are committed in the pursuit of organizational goals by employees on behalf of the corporation (Braithwaite, 1985). Occupational crimes are unique, as they are committed in the employees own self-interest rather than on behalf of the corporation or the business (Clinard & Quinney, 1973). These individuals exploit their position, and commit crimes in order to gain personally through financial rewards or career advancement (Clinard & Quinney, 1973). For example, an employee could offer to falsify auto emissions certifications for customers in exchange for personal bribes. Although often overlooked in discussions of environmental offenders, small businesses can also be a source of environmental crime (Clifford, 1998). Anecdotal examples of small business environmental crimes from regulatory personnel include the illegal disposal of waste from vehicle oil change facilities and the dumping of chemicals from dry cleaners. This category of business-related offenders might also engage in illegal tire disposal (Clifford, 1998).


Governmental environmental crime can at first glance seem counterintuitive, as the government is supposed to enforce the laws. However, there are circumstances where governmental organizations do not comply with, or fail to enforce the law, thereby causing environmental harm. For example, there have been numerous incidents of municipal waste treatment plants illegally dumping untreated sewage into lakes and rivers (Clifford & Edwards, 2012). Similarly, governmental bodies are often responsible for the improper disposal of trash resulting in contaminated soil and toxic gas emissions (Clifford & Edwards, 2012).

Yet, the government is fairly protected from prosecution through domestic legislation and the lack of an international governing body with unrestricted legal authority. Theoretically, governments may be held accountable by international law, but on the global scale these laws can be difficult to enforce, particularly if countries are not signatories to a convention, or have not ratified these conventions into law (UN, 2012). Realistically, the UN authority to address government environmental crimes is limited unless the government agrees to participate in the process (Seis, 2012). In addition, Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that one federal agency cannot sue another (Seis, 2012).

However, the EPA can prosecute individuals within federal agencies who fail to act despite knowledge of violations (Clifford & Edwards, 2012). In addition, several environmental laws (e.g., CAA, CWA) include provisions for citizen suits against the government ( States may also sue federal EPA. For example, in Massachusetts v. EPA, several states and cities filed suit against EPA for failure to regulate greenhouse gases under the CAA (Greenhouse, 2007). Conversely, 26 states have since sued EPA to block new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector known as the Clean Power Plan (Meyer, 2016). Finally, federal EPA may hold states and municipalities accountable for failure to comply with federal legislation (Clifford & Edwards, 2012).

Despite these provisions, discussions of government environmental crime suggest that actual prosecution is rare (Clifford & Edwards, 2012; Situ & Emmons, 2000). As such, academics disagree regarding how to approach this category of offenders. Some argue from the strict-legalist perspective that an act should only be studied as government crime if a law is broken (Situ & Emmons, 2000). Others take a broader perspective, arguing that the government is responsible for protecting people from harm, therefore any act which puts people at risk is considered criminal regardless of prosecution (Situ & Emmons, 2000).

Within this broader perspective, governmental environmental crimes can be divided into two categories: acts of commission and acts of omission (Situ & Emmons, 2000). Acts of commission involve participation in an activity that results in harm. For example, Rocky Flats military defense facility, which manufactured nuclear warheads, dumped toxic waste and released radioactive material into the air (the government defense contractor involved pleaded guilty to five felony charges and was charged $18.5 million) (Lipsett, 1998). Acts of omission include knowingly failing to prevent the occurrence of an environmental harm (Situ & Emmons, 2000). For example, a contractor in the town of Walkerton, Canada, failed to properly test and treat the drinking water, resulting in 2,000 people becoming ill and seven deaths (Holme, 2003).

The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, spans these two forms of government crime, as it included both acts of omission and commission. Residents of Flint were exposed to lead through their drinking water after a state-appointed emergency manager changed the city’s primary water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River without adequate preparation to address the corrosivity of the water. The water corroded public and private lead service lines and plumbing, resulting in lead contaminated drinking water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (and later the U.S. EPA) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services failed to adequately enforce drinking water regulations and protect human health, but also actively sought to discredit community member and academic claims regarding the water problem (Flint Water Advisory Task Force, 2016). This example reflects the human health implications of failure to comply with environmental regulations. Given the racial and economic composition of Flint, it also represents a clear instance of environmental injustice (Flint Water Advisory Task Force, 2016).

State-Corporate Crime

The concept of state-corporate crime is consistent with the notion of government crimes, but uniquely highlights the connection between governments and the corporate sector in the production of harm (Michalowski & Kramer, 2006). State-corporate crime is defined as “illegal or socially injurious actions that result from a mutually reinforcing interaction between (1) policies and/or practices in pursuit of the goals of one or more institutions of political governance, and (2) policies and/or practices in pursuit of the goals of one or more institutions of economic production and distribution” (Michalowski & Kramer, 2006, p. 15). Kramer and Michalowski (2012) have argued, for example, that the confluence of political and economic power has limited greenhouse gas regulations in the United States. Tombs and Whyte (2015) also describe this symbiotic and interdependent relationship between corporations and the state. Coupled with the inherently destructive nature of the corporation, “a-social, irresponsible outcomes” are inevitable (26). The authors envision a new economy that excludes the corporate form, to be achieved by attacking the legal basis for corporate power (e.g., the legal personhood of corporations) (Tombs & Whyte, 2015).

Theoretical Perspectives

The vast and complex nature of environmental crime obliges scholars to take a number of theoretical approaches. These theories are tied to differing ideas regarding how to conceptualize environmental problems. For example, some have used legal codes to define environmental crimes as a violation of statutes designed to protect the ecological and physical environment (Clifford & Edwards, 1998; Shover & Routhe, 2005). Domestic legislation and/or international treaties are then used to further identify specific types of environmental crime. Most scholars include administrative or civil “violations” or “noncompliance” as forms of environmental crime in addition to cases prosecuted under criminal law.

Studies using legal definitions of environmental crime often draw upon preexisting theoretical frameworks in criminology to understand this form of crime. As summarized in Table 2, scholars have used deterrence theory to examine whether the severity and certainty of government sanctions reduce environmental offending (Gray & Shimshack, 2011). Through the subjective expected utility theory, others have elaborated on rational choice theory to understand environmental offending (Paternoster & Simpson, 1996). Rational choice theory presumes that although not perfect decision makers, people generally weigh the costs and benefits of various behavioral options and choose the course of action that has the most personal benefit (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). Extensions of rational choice to corporate environmental crime have examined how managers consider the costs and benefits to themselves and the company to make decisions (Simpson, 2002).

Others integrate concepts and theories from the business literature to further expand understanding of corporate environmental behavior. For example, Rorie (2015) integrates the social license theory with the subjective expected utility theory. The social license theory states that corporate managers are influenced by licenses to operate, including the legal, economic, and social license (Thornton et al., 2003). These licenses emerge from regulators, economic constraints, and the community/activists. The level of facility responsiveness to the licenses depends on the dominant environmental management style (Thornton et al., 2003). Other business scholars argue that corporate offending is related to motivation, opportunity, and choice. Factors external and internal to the organization (e.g., pressure for profit) can create motivation as well as opportunity. Ultimately, how managers choose to respond to those factors is shaped by whether effective controls exist (McKendall & Wagner, 1997).

In addition to theories of environmental crime, scholars have also developed perspectives on compliance and overcompliance (e.g., polluting less than legally allowed) with environmental regulations. Scholars have suggested that the worldviews of environmental managers (e.g., the social license theory), individual norms, or corporate culture might produce these outcomes. For example, Vandenbergh (2003) developed a typology of individual norms of compliance to understand why individual managers make decisions to comply. Others have theorized that corporate citizenship, or the degree to which firm culture promotes a broader commitment to society, may explain overcompliance (Gibbs, 2012).

Table 2. Theories of Corporate Environmental Crime/Compliance/Overcompliance.


Deterrence Theory

People will be deterred from committing a crime if they believe sanctions will be certain, severe, and swiftly applied (Beccaria, 1764).

Subjective Expected Utility Theory

Managers weigh the perceived costs and benefits of committing a corporate crime in tandem with their own moral beliefs (Paternoster & Simpson, 1996).

Social License Theory

Decisions made by corporate managers are influenced by different licenses to operate that represent the needs of stakeholders from the legal, social (activists, communities, public), and economic (company profits, investment) domains (Thornton et al., 2003).

Motive-Opportunity-Choice Model

Corporate crime is a function of the combined internal and external effects of motive, opportunity, and choice (McKendall & Wagner, 1997).

Norms of Compliance

The violation of internal norms of environmental compliance act as a potential cost in managerial decision making, thereby increasing compliance (Vandenbergh, 2004).

Corporate Citizenship

The degree to which firm culture promotes (or inhibits) a broad commitment to society may influence corporate environmental performance (Gibbs, 2012).

Scholars have also developed theoretical perspectives on how to improve environmental regulation, as summarized in Table 3. For example, Smart Regulation highlights the importance of combining multiple regulatory instruments (e.g., command-and-control regulation, economic incentives, certifications) and multiple “regulators” (e.g., third parties, self-regulation) with government intervention. Single interventions are unlikely to succeed, as each type of policy has weaknesses. Instead, complementary methods of addressing problems must be used concurrently such that one instrument compensates for the weaknesses of another (and vice versa). Smart Regulation requires flexibility, as solutions must be tailored to address the specific problem at hand (Gunningham & Grabosky, 2004).

The New Environmental Governance (NEG) offers strategies for producing this type of governance system (Holley, Gunningham, & Shearing, 2011). Like Smart Regulation, the NEG also advocates the use of broader policy response, focusing primarily on methods to draw upon third parties to facilitate collective responses to environmental problems. This framework advocates a set of principles designed to bring regulated entities (or stakeholders involved in a non-regulated issue) together with the general public to develop and implement creative policy interventions. These private, public and non-government stakeholders are involved in a participatory process in which dialogue and deliberation are used to construct flexible, inclusive and transparent solutions through consensus building (Holley, Gunningham, & Shearing, 2011). “This enterprise involves collaboration between a diversity of private, public and non-government stakeholders who, acting together towards commonly agreed (or mutually negotiated) goals, hope to achieve far more collectively, than individually” (Gunningham, 2009, p. 203). Further, although NEG typically seeks to incorporate local expertise and context into local solutions, discussions of integrating governance between different scales to address larger-scale problems are underway. For example, many local decision-making groups may operate as an interdependent system (Holley, Gunningham, & Shearing, 2011).

Table 3. Theories of Regulatory Governance.


Smart Regulation

Using complementary regulatory instruments and regulators will improve regulatory impact (Gunningham & Grabosky, 2004).

New Environmental Governance

Broader policy responses can be best implemented through a participatory process (Holley et al., 2011).

However, the use of strict and socio-legalist definitions of environmental crime and related interventions have been criticized for failing to recognize the impact of power on environmental law (see, e.g., Halsey, 2004). To address this problem (i.e., that many activities that threaten the environment are legal), some argue that scholars should study environmental harms (e.g., Lynch, 1990; White, 2008a). For example, Herbig and Joubert (2006) defined conservation crime as “any intentional or negligent human activity or manipulation that impacts negatively on the earth’s biotic and/or abiotic natural resources, resulting in immediately noticeable or indiscernible (only noticeable over time) natural resource trauma of any magnitude” (p. 96). Despite the use of this broader definition of environmental harm, many scholars still use the term “crime” to describe these behaviors to convey the seriousness of legal activities that harm the environment. The theoretical frameworks associated with this approach are summarized in Table 4.

The initial research on environmental harms drew upon critical perspectives that identify power differentials and inequalities as the primary driver of environmental harm (Lynch, 1990; White, 2008). These scholars have used ecocentric approaches to define activities that have “identifiable environmental damage” (Lynch & Stretesky, 2003, p. 227). Consistent with this critical and political approach, this area of study was coined as “green criminology.” Early green criminologists argued for the study of harms to and regulation of the environment of wildlife to understand the influence of power dynamics on environmental destruction (Lynch, 1990). Green criminologists have since introduced more specific theoretical perspectives, such as political economy theories (e.g., ecological Marxism, treadmill of production) (Lynch et al., 2013). For example, the “treadmill of production” theory argues that environmental problems in modern societies are inevitable due to the reliance on continued economic growth through production and consumption (Schnaiberg, 1980). Continued growth drives resource extraction and pollution and the model predicts that environmental problems cannot be solved without radical alteration of the system of growth, production, and consumption (Schnaiberg, 1980).

Other critical perspectives have also been used to define and study environmental harm. For example, ecofeminism explores the similarities between harm to the environment and the patriarchal injustices experienced by women (e.g., Lane, 1998). Environmental racism/justice examines the imbalance of environmental harm across socioeconomic and racial divides (e.g., Bullard, 1999). Shifting away from the anthropomorphic perspective that prioritizes impacts on people, the Deep Ecology approach instead argues that nature and its complex systems should be the focus of inquiry (Naess, 1973). Scholars in this tradition have suggested a variety of solutions to environmental destruction, including a return to a hunter-gatherer society (Shepard, 1998) and allowing famine, disease, and conflict to reduce the human population (Ehrlich, 1968). State-corporate crime, or the notion that the symbiotic and interdependent relationship between the state and corporations is responsible for environmental harm, is also a critical perspective (Kramer & Michalowski, 2012; Tombs & Whyte, 2015).

Overall, scholars have used various philosophical perspectives to define and explain environmental harm. However, this approach was later criticized for artificially narrowing the focus to certain causes of harm (e.g., capitalism or population growth) and ignoring others (White, 2008a). Each perspective also limits the potential solutions (e.g., overthrow capitalism; limit human population growth) without acknowledging that the solution may vary by problem and context (for further detail, see Gibbs, Gore, McGarrell, & Rivers, 2010; White, 2008a).

Recent work indicates that scholars still disagree regarding the domain of this area of inquiry and the term that best captures it. For example, broader definitions of green criminology have recently been introduced. For some, the term now encompasses any analysis of environmental harm, environmental law, or environmental regulation (White & Heckenberg, 2014). However, this definition has not been universally adopted. Some scholars reject the expansion of the contours of green criminology, arguing that political economy theories must be used to study environmental harms under the umbrella of green criminology (Lynch et al., 2013). It may also be inconsistent with the dominant approaches in the literature. In descriptions of green criminology research, scholars state that “much of this work has been directed at exposing different instances of substantive social and ecological injustice. It has also involved critique of the actions of nation-states and transnational companies for fostering particular types of harm, and for failing to adequately address or regulate harmful activity” (White & Heckenberg, 2014, p. 8). Rather than studying legally defined environmental crimes, a large portion of green criminology continues to draw upon philosophical perspectives on justice (e.g., environmental justice, ecological justice, species justice) to define activities as environmental harms (White, 2013b). Therefore, the bulk of green criminology research uses critical perspectives and a definition of environmental harm based on a philosophical stance. Finally, other scholars disagree regarding the use of the term “green criminology” to describe all research on environmental crimes and harms. Herbig and Joubert (2006) argue that the term is problematic because it is vague and associated with specific political perspectives, which will narrow the range of relevant issues. Some have instead used the conservation criminology to describe this area of research (Gibbs et al., 2010; Herbig & Joubert, 2006). Others have suggested that the term “environmental criminology” should be reclaimed from its association with the spatial study of criminal events (White, 2008a).

Table 4. Perspectives on Environmental Harm.

Major Premise

Green Criminology

An umbrella term under which illegal and legal environmental harms are studied using perspectives varying from anthropocentric (human centered) to an eco-centric (nature-centered) (Lynch & Stretesky, 2003; White, 2008a).

State-Corporate Crime

The connection between governments and the corporate sector is responsible for the production of harm (Michalowski & Kramer, 2006).


Patterns of domination and harm against the environment are considered similar to the injustices against women (Lane, 1998).

Environmental-Racism/ Justice

Racial minorities and low-income communities experience a higher proportion of environmental harm (Bullard, 1999).

Deep Ecology

Rejects the anthropocentric perspective in favor of one in which nature has rights (Naess, 1973).

Literature Review

Empirical research on environmental crime comes from a variety of different perspectives, leading to a myriad of approaches to the topic. For the purposes of this article, we focus on the criminological and regulatory literature, as this is consistent with our emphasis on environmental crime. A portion of scholarship uses a corporate crime perspective to examine corporate violations of environmental law. Others conduct case studies of specific environmental crimes, regardless of the offender type. Additional work examines the criminal justice response to environmental crimes. Finally, other scholars have sought to develop overarching perspectives on how to approach the study of and efforts to address environmental crimes.

Understanding Environmental Crime/Harm

Taking a corporate crime approach, which assumes that the organizational context is a primary determinant of patterns of criminal activity (Braithwaite, 1985), some researchers have examined whether environmental violations are associated with corporate goals or structure. This work typically uses legal codes to define activities as environmental crimes. In the Sutherland (1949) tradition, scholars generally include civil and administrative violations along with cases adjudicated under criminal law as environmental crimes. This research has been conducted at the corporate level using EPA court case or violation data (McKendall & Wagner, 1997; Simpson, Garner, & Gibbs, 2007) or has incorporated the corporate context with individual-level factors by examining managerial decision making through the collection of factorial surveys (Rorie, 2015; Simpson et al., 2013). These studies sometimes combine multiple types of EPA violations (McKendall & Wagner, 1997) and/or multiple types of corporate crime (Simpson, 2002), although some focus on a single type of violation such as water violations (Gibbs, 2012; Simpson et al., 2013). Some work uses self-reports of compliance with multiple environmental laws (Wu, 2009). This research typically tests theoretical perspectives on corporate (environmental) crime, previously described in Table 2.

Other researchers have illustrated theoretical perspectives using specific cases of environmental crime or harm with domestic or transnational impacts. Some of these take a legalistic approach examining environmental crimes that are in contravention of the law. For example, Uhlmann (2011) explored the legal implications and the role of the criminal justice system in the BP oil spill and the criminalization of negligence under existing legal system. Others draw on green criminology perspectives to explain instances of environmental harm, focusing less on the contravention of environmental laws, and more on ecological damage and threats to human health (White, 2008a). For example Eman and Meško (2013) explored the environmental and human impacts of pollution in Eastern Europe, such as the Ajka aluminium factory disaster in Hungary, which released toxic waste into the surrounding environment, endangering lives and polluting rivers.

Theoretical perspectives of green criminology are also used to empirically examine the role of capitalism and the influences of political and economic factors on environmental harm, as well as the enforcement of environmental law (Lynch et al., 2013), using the theoretical frameworks described in Table 4. For example, Stretesky and Lynch (2009) find that exports to the United States are positively related to national per capita CO2 emissions from 1989 to 2003, perhaps due to consumption practices in the United States and the movement of dirty industries from the United States to other countries. In other work, Stretesky, Long, and Lynch (2013) suggest that the state may not be able to effectively address environmental harms through sanctions, as sanctions had little impact on emissions recorded in the toxic release inventory (TRI), a voluntarily reported record of legal industrial emissions. The notion of state-corporate crime has also been used to explain the environmental harms emerging from the U.S. failure to adequately address climate change (Lynch, Burns, & Stretesky, 2010).

Regulation and Enforcement

Legalistic perspectives have been used more broadly to examine environmental regulation and enforcement. For example, the previously described corporate-level research examines whether environmental sanctions impact compliance (e.g., Simpson et al., 2007). Additional work examines the deterrent impact of sanctions on manufacturing plants (e.g., Gray & Shimshack, 2011).8 Textbooks on environmental crime describe investigative approaches and techniques (Burns et al., 2008; Carter, 1998; Situ & Emmons, 2000). Others outline jurisdiction, perceived roles, and personnel involved in environmental enforcement at the state and federal levels (Situ & Emmons, 2000). Surveys of state trooper and attorney general offices have also been used to document the types of environmental crimes addressed by these agencies (Edwards, 1996). Scholars have also examined the impact of innovations in enforcement (i.e., intelligence-led policing on transnational environmental crimes, like e-waste (Gibbs, McGarrell, & Sullivan, 2015). Finally, scholars have made arguments for international environmental enforcement efforts in collaboration with multiple institutions and researchers (Pink & White, 2016).

In addition, a diverse group of scholars have examined the impact of alternative forms of regulation, such as self-regulation (King & Lenox, 2000; Stretesky, 2006), on compliance. Others have explored the relative impact of command-and-control versus cooperative approaches on intentions to comply with environmental laws (Simpson et al., 2013). In other work, researchers have examined whether and how alternative regulators can influence business compliance (Delacote, 2009; Grabosky, 1994; Nielsen & Parker, 2008). More broadly, the NEG creators have evaluated whether this approach to regulation is feasible and successful (Holley et al., 2011; Holley & Lawson, 2015).

Critical scholars have also examined environmental enforcement. For example, some have challenged the notion of broad environmental regulatory governance due to a lack of political will to innovate to reduce problems like e-waste (Snider, 2010). Other critical scholars have considered the benefits and challenges associated with a theoretical integration of “ecocide” as crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Hellman, 2014). Hellman (2014) defines ecocide as “the mass damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished” (p. 278). Including ecocide under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court would serve to establish environmental crimes as a crime against peace, in a similar vein to crimes against humanity or genocide (Hellman, 2014; Higgins, Short, & South, 2013).

Overarching Perspectives

In addition to the theoretical umbrella of green criminology, scholars have also developed other overarching theoretical perspectives related to environmental crime. One critical perspective, “eco-global” criminology, acknowledges the transnational nature of environmental harm, and explores issues of global injustice under the lens of ecology and justice (eco-justice) (White, 2009, 2011, 2013a). White highlights the challenges posed by international research, calling for the use of culturally and politically sensitive methodological approaches to transcend geographic and social boundaries, and ensure the execution of ethical fieldwork (White, 2009).

Conservation Criminology represents another overarching perspective on how to study and address environmental problems. Conservation Criminology is an interdisciplinary framework to study environmental risks that occur from illegal and legal activity. The technical definition of risk is the probability of exposure multiplied by the expected consequences of the hazard if exposure occurs (Howes, 2005), but public perceptions of risk are also relevant (for further detail, see Gibbs et al., 2010). Instead of relying on subjective definitions of environmental harm, the concept of risk provides a mechanism to systematically investigate activities that impact or could impact the environment. Conservation Criminology does not advocate for a particular theoretical perspective. Instead, the framework privileges interdisciplinary approaches to understanding environmental crime and risk. Therefore, theories from multiple disciplines should be used to understand environmental risks on a case-by-case basis. In addition, strategies to reduce these legal and illegal risks can be drawn from and evaluated using a range of disciplines. This approach is meant to recognize the complexity of environmental problems and the need to bring together multiple perspectives to solve them (Gibbs et al., 2010).


The environmental crime literature currently covers a spectrum of environmental laws and offense and offender types using a variety of theoretical perspectives and methodologies. Some perspectives are rooted in traditional theories of crime and enforcement (e.g., deterrence theory), while others draw on critical perspectives to explain broader notions of harm (e.g., the treadmill of production). Scholars have also sought to develop new approaches to categorizing, understanding, and addressing the range of environmental crimes, harms or risks (e.g., Gibbs et al., 2010; White, 2013c; White & Heckenberg, 2014). The literature further explores the impact of environmental crimes/harms on the global community and raises questions regarding a healthy environment as a human right (Hellman, 2014; Higgins, Short, & South, 2013).

As the world faces increased threats to the global environment, it is our hope that scholars will continue to advance knowledge regarding environmental crime using a number of different lenses and create a feedback loop between research and practice. In our view, the causes of and solutions to environmental crime will likely vary by crime type, offender, and context (see, e.g., Gibbs et al., 2010). As such, the diversity of perspectives and connections to policy are crucial to inform and refine potential solutions to address the complex forms of environmental crime.

Further Reading

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  • Gibbs, C., Gore, M. L., McGarrell, E. F., & Rivers, L., III. (2010). Introducing conservation criminology: Towards interdisciplinary scholarship on environmental crimes and risks. British Journal of Criminology, 50, 124–144.
  • Holley, C., Gunningham, N., & Shearing, C. (2011). The new environmental governance. New York: Earthscan Publications.
  • Leonard, L., & White, R. (Eds). (2013/2014). Green criminology. Special Issue of The Journal of Social Criminology, 1.
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  • Shover, N., & Routhe, A. S. (2005). Environmental crime. Crime and Justice, 32, 321–371.
  • Situ, Y., & Emmons, D. (2000). Environmental crime: The criminal justice system’s role in protecting the environment. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  • South, N., & Brisman, A. (Eds). (2013). Routledge international handbook of green criminology. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.
  • Stretesky, P. B., Long, M., & Lynch, M. J. (2014). The treadmill of crime: Political economy and green criminology. New York: Routledge.
  • White, R. (2008). Crimes against nature: Environmental criminology and ecological justice. Portland, OR: Willan Publishing.
  • White, R. (2009). Environmental crime: A Reader. Portland, OR: Willan Publishing.
  • White, R. (2011). Transnational environmental crime: Toward an eco-global criminology. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.
  • White, R., & Heckenberg, D. (2014). Green criminology: An introduction to the study of environmental harm. New York: Routledge.


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  • 1. The division of labor between the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the organization of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resource Division ( are largely consistent with these distinctions.

  • 2. Poaching falls under the wildlife crime umbrella and includes the illegal removal of wildlife from its natural habitat through activities related to sport, recreation, retaliation, profit or food consumption (Muth & Bowe, 1998; Eliason & Dodder, 1999, Crow et al., 2013; Moreto & Lemieux, 2015).

  • 3. Many academics have begun to use terms generally consistent with the organization of regulation and enforcement, distinguishing “wildlife crime” and “fisheries crime” (i.e., “natural resource crimes”) from “environmental” or “pollution crime” (see e.g., Burns, Lynch, & Stretesky, 2008; Wellsmith, 2011).

  • 4. We begin with the United States legal system to provide a detailed example and a point of comparison for other legal systems. To offer a comprehensive description of this topic, we later describe the international legal context and provide examples of environmental crimes and environmental offenders from around the globe.

  • 5. Summary accomplishments published by the DOJ Environmental and Natural Resource Division do not distinguish between crimes committed within or outside of a business context. To the best of our knowledge, scholars have not conducted research on this topic. Therefore, we are unaware as to whether raw prosecution data could be sorted by employment status.

  • 6. These state agencies are also responsible for implementing state environmental laws, which are required to be equally or more stringent than federal standards (Clifford & Edwards, 2012).

  • 7. We note that our typology is specific to the pollution crimes discussed in this chapter. We encourage readers interested in wildlife crime to examine the offender types described by Nurse (2011), Ayling (2013) and Wyatt (2013).

  • 8. Research from outside of criminology has focused on violations by manufacturing facilities without consideration of the larger corporate context (e.g., Gray and Shimshack, 2011).