Waste Crime is large and growing and it’s time for the overwhelming number of “good-boys” to stand proud and differentiate their businesses. But, it’s not easy with forthcoming waste exemptions likely to reduce flexibility in their operations.
The days are long gone when a “cowboy” would rent out a field for a few weeks for tipping and usher in a few dozen waste trucks. Charge a few quid a load for each to dump the rubbish at the gate and run-off after a few days with a wad of notes.
The damage was not long-lasting, but those days are long-since gone. Until the 1970s there was very little plastics and the high organic content rotted down to compost within a couple of years.
Today, with landfill gate charges for non-hazardous domestic waste nudging up over £100/ tonne waste crime pays big. And, it’s the territory of organized crime gangs. Hazardous waste disposal costs vary enormously but pay even better as they can be double to quadruple that price.
Fly tipping grows every year. But what’s probably worse for all those affected is the number of warehouses, and disused business yards used as dumps. Gangs open and rapidly fill these with all manner of wastes from waste electrical goods to clinical waste, every year. Then ride off into the sunset...
The danger is growing that the public will lose patience and come to believe all waste companies behave that way. It’s already probable that many reputable waste companies are losing-out on good business to waste criminals.
As this worsens the regulating authority (Environment Agency England and Wales) and police will surely be under increasing pressure to bring in even tougher laws, bigger fines, and longer jail sentences despite recent changes. And also, waste exemption reductions.
When that happens, innocent operators will also inevitably get caught up in this.
But, surely, it’s not that bad?
How Big is Waste Crime?
Two statistics stand out to help us appreciate how big waste crime has become:
1. Waste crime, cost the English economy more than £600 million in 2015, according to the UK government.
That’s equivalent to the UK turnover of the UK’s 5th ranked international waste company FCC Environment.
FCC is a highly respected, fully regulated and compliant, waste company which operated more than 120 landfill sites across the UK (in 2015).
2. Between 2011 and 2017, the Environment Agency stopped the operation of 5,411 illegal waste sites.
Not all those were criminal operations, but all will have been closed due to persistent failure to comply with the UK’s environmental protection regulations. With Health and Safety consequences within and around the sites.
How Do they Get Away with All This Illegal Dumping?
On the face of it, there should not be an opportunity for any waste to be illegally dumped.
There has been a law which, if applied by all, would make such crime so easy for law enforcers to detect, that criminals would not be able to make it pay.
Ever since the Environmental Protection (Duty of Care) Regulations 1991 were introduced, it has been the legal duty of every UK citizen that engages another person to remove waste on their behalf to take all reasonable steps to ensure that waste is managed properly.
If everyone complied with this law;
• the public would make sure that they only paid for skip hire from registered companies, would not leave scrap out for the “rag and bones man”, and inspected the certificate of registration carried by their skip-lorry driver
• businesses would, without fail, ensure that they complied with the regulations and ensured that they obtained correctly completed waste transfer notes, and know where the waste is going to (i.e. a permitted landfill site).
Sadly, it seems that not enough people even know the “duty of care” exists. If the “waste transfer note” system which is required by this duty, was used comprehensively, and the businesses issuing the notes took care to check-up on their subcontracted waste carriers, it could work.
If so, the regulators would be able to follow a paper trail to the door of illegal tippers. Sadly, it seems that too many simply don’t remember to insist on the notes or check the licences of their carriers, by verifying that the waste is indeed being sent to the destination landfill as recorded.
Do I hear you saying: “Yes. But it’s still illegal to dump and run, and it’s appalling that neighbours suffer such noise, dust, and smells, when illegal tipping takes place.”
And, “Isn’t it us, the public, who end-up paying for the Environment Agency to clean it up as well?”
Why aren’t the police and regulators more effective in catching these people sooner?
What Happens When Duty of Care Regulations Fail
In general, the police and the public notice quite soon when queues of trucks loaded with waste start appearing in large numbers at the gate of an empty warehouse, or open waste land.
When the enforcement agency knows of an illegal tipping operation, they do take action. However, before they can force an illegal tipping operation to cease, they are required to serve notices, and give the criminals the opportunity to comply with the regulations and build-up a case for prosecution before they can take action.
Only too often, these illegal operators can fill a warehouse, or a factory yard much more quickly than the EA can serve a closure order on them.
Even if fined, the fines seldom match the huge profits these gangs can gain.
The UK government says; “Criminals are running illegal waste sites as a cover for theft, human trafficking, drug running and money laundering.”
In March 2018, Environment Agency (EA) chair Emma Howard Boyd told the Manchester Green Summit she had inspected illegal sites and “packaging from even the most responsible businesses ends up there”. (Source: MRW)
Sentences Against Waste Crime
The UK government has recently raised fines and extend prison sentences for the waste dumpers. Currently, criminals involved in illegal waste management can be fined up to £400,000 and be sentenced to up to 3 years imprisonment. But this isn’t close to the money they can pocket.
Based the waste tonnage involved in a recent case the potential profit would have exceeded £2 million, and much more if it included hazardous waste.
But we consider that to rely on sentencing alone makes no sense. It’s too late for the locals and the environment when an arrest is made.
The EA does now have powers to lock gates and block access to problem waste sites. However, such drastic action can only be used in the most blatant cases and does not prevent the offender simply moving to another empty warehouse site.
So, what is being done to speed up enforcement?
The Delay to Stopping Criminal Dumping Caused by “Exemptions”
There are growing concerns that the so-called waste “exemptions” are being used to disguise illegal waste activities and delaying legal action.
The Environment Agency is consulting the waste industry on reducing the amount of waste (exemptions) which can be stored or processed without a waste permit to considerably less.
All the exemptions are under review, but those listed below have been earmarked for special attention:
• Ul – Use waste in construction
• U16 - using de-polluted vehicles for spares
• T4 - Preparatory treatments such as baling, sorting and shredding
• T6 - Treating wood waste and plant matter
• TH – Mechanically treating end of life tyres
• T9 - Recovering scrap metal
• TI2 - Manually treating waste
• D7 - Burning waste in the open
• S1 - Storing waste in secure containers
• S2 - Storing waste in secure location
The Environment Agency is concerned that the tonnages that can be processed under an exemption are too high.
In an effort to reduce the abuse of exemptions the tonnages allowed are being reduced substantially. In many cases they are also restricting permitted storage times and reducing the types of waste that can be accepted.
Waste Industry Response to Reduced Exemptions Shows Concerns
Defra had not at the time of writing taken action, however, it has published a summary of responses, in which the waste companies which replied to the consultation answered the question:
“Do you think the proposal to restrict registration of exemptions at permitted waste operations would help tackle illegal activity and stop waste operators expanding their activity without appropriate controls?”
There were 97 Responses, 71% said yes, 29% said no.
Possible Risk of Penalising Legitimate Waste Operators
A majority of local authority respondents supported this proposal. However, some expressed concern that this may penalise legitimate operators who might use exemptions temporarily or to trial a new way of working.
One respondent considered that it should be much easier for compliant operators to amend their permit and much more difficult for repeatedly non-compliant operators to amend theirs.
Need for Special Consideration of Household Waste Recycling Centres
One respondent wanted to see an exception for U1 for landfill remediation and another thought that Household Waste Recycling Centres may require special consideration.
46 private businesses responded to this question of which 32 said yes.
There were however a number of concerns.
Risk of Preventing Minor Activities and Trials
Some felt that the proposals would place significant additional restrictions and prevent minor activities and trials.
Permitted Operators Placed at Disadvantage to Operators Applying an Exemption
There were also respondents that felt the proposals would result in permitted operators undertaking low risk activities under stricter controls than those operators undertaking exactly the same activity under just an exemption.
Permitted Operators Disadvantaged Due to Cost of Permit Variations
A number of respondents wanted permit variations to be considerably cheaper and quicker to take account of this loss of operational flexibility. There was also a concern that the costs had not been considered in the Regulatory Impact Assessment…
Better Enforcement of Exemptions Rules Needed to Help the Good Guys
A number of respondents felt that sites with no permits and only exemptions would need to be subject to increased enforcement if the proposals are to be beneficial.
Defra Conclusion; Trade Association Responses to Proposals to Restrict Registration of Exemptions
There was support among the majority of trade associations that responded to this question. However, many of the concerns expressed by private businesses were echoed, particularly that if exemptions are not enforced properly the proposals could disadvantage higher performing operators and provide further competitive advantage to non-compliant businesses. Source: DEFRA
UK Waste crime now extends a long way beyond the people which in the UK we refer to as “cowboys”. Cowboys simply meaning folk out to make a few quid on the side, without any intent of causing real harm.
It is clear that unless current trends reverse very soon after recent tougher EA enforcement of the laws against illegal tipping, yet more will have to be tightened and done so effectively.
That’s if the scale of the annual loss is not to rise above the figure only exceeded by 5 of the biggest UK’s waste operators.
As part of this the Environment Agency intends to implement Waste Exemption Certificate restrictions and impose restrictions which are of serious concern to reputable waste operators. The new limits are likely to reduce their flexibility and ability to run legal operations. Environmental compliance is becoming more complex, not less and the need for staff expertise in ensuring compliance will be greater.
There is also a danger that compliance will incur them in additional EA costs when more often needing to revise their permits.
All those who dispose of waste to waste carriers could do a lot more themselves to prevent waste crime by using the trial access to the EA’s register (a database of licensed waste sites). The database is easy to access to check that the destination given by the waste carried holds a matching permit.It may be too late now to halt impending exemption restrictions, but we believe that the overwhelming number of “good-boys” in the waste industry should stand proud and do more to differentiate their businesses, by more publicly displaying their permits, professional alliances and trade associations.
The EA now offers a public register of waste carriers which should be publicised at every opportunity.
All compliant operators should make a point of actively informing their waste customers of their compliance at every opportunity,and kick out the cowboys by encouraging all their clients to use the EA’s public register.
It may be that as compliance becomes more complex, and the consequences of failing to comply more severe, more operators will need the advice of a compliance consultant. If so WPS offers a full range of compliance services to the waste industry, and can be contacted here.