Last reviewed 23 June 2014

The profits to be made circumventing waste law has made illegal waste disposal increasingly attractive to criminals. Legitimate organisations face financial, reputational and environmental risks by attempting to cut corners (and costs) by doing business with the bad guys. Rob Bell reports.

Waste is big business and big business means big money. Unfortunately, the opportunities to profit from the UK’s increasingly stringent rules relating to waste management and disposal have attracted an ever-more organised criminal element to the sector.

The Environment Agency has been battling illegal landfills for some years, with a great deal of success, offset by the fact that as quickly as its specially set-up Illegal Waste Sites Taskforce can shut them down, new illegal landfills spring up around the country. The sheer scale of waste-related crime in Northern Ireland, both internal and cross-border offences, led to the commissioning of an independent report. A Review of Waste Disposal at the Mobuoy Site and the Lessons Learnt for the Future Regulation of the Waste Industry in Northern Ireland was authored by Christopher Mills (the former Director of the Welsh Environment Agency) and published in December 2013.

The investigation was initially launched after an estimated total of 516,000 tonnes of waste was discovered by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in an area adjacent to the River Faughan in the town of Mobuoy near Derry. Mills’ report says: “Criminality is widespread in the waste industry in Northern Ireland, with at least some involvement by organised crime. This is not unique to Northern Ireland. Waste crime, including the use of legal sites to cover illegal activity, is happening across the UK and Ireland.”

Northern Ireland Environment Minister Mark Durkan describes the report as “sober reading” and says: “Mr Mills is clear in pointing out that we have serious problems right across our waste systems.” He was swift to act on Mills’ recommendations, pledging “fundamental change in how we manage waste in Northern Ireland”.

Also, at the end of 2013, England’s Environment Agency published a report of its own, which says “the number of illegal waste sites being shut down has dramatically increased in the last year”. The Agency reports that it stopped 1279 illegal waste sites in 2012 — the equivalent of 25 sites every week: “The number of sites stopped increased by 70% on 2011/12 figures, attributed to our crackdown on illegal sites.”

Director of Environment and Business, Ed Mitchell, says: “Waste crime puts people and the environment at risk, and undermines the legitimate waste industry.”

Britain’s dirty secret

The Mills report, in particular, led legitimate waste operators to speak up in their industry’s defence and, in response to the overall furore; yet another report has been published, this time by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) Education Trust. Waste Crime: Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret describes itself as “the voice of the UK’s waste and resource management industry”.

ESA Head of Regulation Sam Corp says: “The report demonstrates clear economic and environmental reasons for cracking down on waste crime, and we would urge the Government and regulators to act upon these.

“The current situation, where the environment and human health are threatened, and legitimate waste businesses are undermined by unscrupulous illegal operators, must be brought to an end.

“Managing waste properly comes at a cost and there is always a temptation for the criminal element to seek financial benefit from circumventing the law — either by operating illegal sites, through fly-tipping, or by deliberately misclassifying waste for tax purposes. The impact of these crimes has serious environmental, economic and social consequences.

“While there is perhaps already an awareness of the environmental harm caused by waste criminals, what this report clearly demonstrates are the compelling economic reasons for dedicating more resources to the crack down on waste crime — a 460% return on investment to UK plc for every £1 spent on waste crime enforcement is surely a message that cannot be ignored.”

Risks to legitimate businesses

The scale of the illegal waste sector in the UK creates a number of risks for legitimate businesses. Unless care is taken to ensure all waste disposal is dealt with through properly licensed operators, organisations risk falling foul of the law, causing potential damage to hard-won reputations for good environmental management, damage to the environment itself, financial penalties (often as a result of attempting to cut costs), and higher waste management costs brought about as a result of lost tax take and the expense of fighting waste crime by both regulators and the police.

ESA Director-General Barry Dennis says: “We recognise the real pressure on Government funds. Further cuts of 9% to the Environment Agency’s budget have now been announced, resulting in staffing cuts of nearly 15%. We cannot yet know what impact this may have, but it seems inconceivable such serious financial pressure will not mean a squeeze on enforcement.

“However, the Government has recognised that a strong business case can justify expenditure. Perhaps the single most important message of this report is that the business case for enforcement activity to stop waste crime is even stronger. It will quickly pay for itself many times over, through increased tax income, reduced clean-up costs and a thriving legitimate waste sector.”

The ESA report makes a number of recommendations to both regulators and legitimate waste operators, but waste producers also have an important role to play, and one that is in their own interests.

Dire consequences

Seeking to cut costs in disposing of waste is a mistake, and a mistake with potentially dire consequences. Despite the action of the Government, its regulatory bodies, and the waste industry, as long as there is money to be made, some operators will choose to do so on the wrong side of the law. However, by taking simple steps such as checking the licences and permits of the waste management companies they do business with — and knowing when a deal is too good to be true — industry, too, can play an important part in the battle against waste crime.

Further information

Waste Crime: Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret is available from the Environmental Services Association Education Trust.