Last reviewed 4 November 2019
On 27 September 2019, Wood Green Crown Court fined Biffa Waste Services Ltd £350,000 and ordered it to pay costs of £240,000 and £9912 under the Proceeds of Crime Act, for sending contaminated household waste to China in 2015.
The Court heard that Biffa Waste Services Ltd, one of the UK’s largest waste management companies, had sent 10,000 tonnes of waste to China in May and June 2015. The waste had been collected from households in North London and a deal was brokered to arrange its export to two paper mills in Shenzhen and Guang Dong, a coastal province of southeast China.
The first broker arranged a shipment of 5,863 tonnes of mixed wastepaper to a Chinese client from Biffa in April 2015. A price of around £350,000 was agreed for this order. At the same time, a second broker arranged to ship a further 4,992 tonnes of mixed paper in a contract worth almost £290,000. Biffa labelled the seven 25-tonne containers which were part of these two orders as “mixed paper”.
During a routine dockside inspection at Felixstowe Port, Environment Agency officers checked the seven containers destined for China. Instead of paper, the officers found soiled nappies, food packaging, items of clothing, bags of faeces, wood, tin cans, plastic containers, plastic bags, scrap metal and electrical debris. The contents of the container also included women’s underwear, laminate flooring, coat hangers, pet food containers, latex gloves, pieces of china and a 12-inch record by the 90s band Deee-Lite.
While it is legal to export certain types of recyclable waste, loads may only be slightly contaminated with other materials.
Biffa was found guilty of illegally exporting waste under the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 2007, following a three-week trial in June. At the sentencing hearing, the court fined Biffa £350,000, the largest ever recorded fine for this offence. It also ordered the company to pay costs of £240,000 and a further £9912 under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA).
In mitigation, Biffa argued that the Environment Agency should have provided more detailed guidance on the acceptable limits of contamination. However, during sentencing, Judge Simon Auerbach ruled that the company had been negligent and to some extent reckless. He noted Biffa’s “tolerant attitude” and only gave “limited credit” to the fact that the company had cooperated with inspectors because the way they had sought to blame the Environment Agency “rather takes the shine” off its mitigation plea. He further noted that while Biffa plays an important role in meeting the UK’s recycling targets; “this is also a business that, while serving the major public good, is run for financial gain.”
After the trial, Malcolm Lythgo, Head of Waste at the Environment Agency, said:
“We are pleased with the court’s decision. We want all producers and exporters of waste to be responsible and make sure they only export material that can be legally and safely exported for recycling overseas.
“Illegal waste export blights the lives and environment of those overseas. We continue to treat illegal waste exports as a priority and will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those found to break the rules.
“Between 2018 and 2019, we prevented the illegal export of 12,690 tonnes of unsuitable waste and are working with the Government on a number of measures to tighten controls including increasing monitoring of international waste shipments and charging higher fees to improve compliance.”
In a statement Biffa said it had lodged a formal appeal against the verdict:
“We hope to see the EA work together with the industry to develop clearer guidance as to what are the acceptable levels of purity for UK exported mixed paper. We are encouraged by the support we have received from across the industry for our position on this matter.”
The court was also told of four further charges against Biffa, for illegally exporting 42 containers of household waste to India and Indonesia between November 2018 and February 2019. Biffa pleaded not guilty on all four counts. A trial has provisionally been scheduled for May or June next year, although it may be affected by the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case.
Shipping heavily contaminated waste to China has been illegal since 2006 because it is not part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Further, all UK waste exports must be in accordance with Waste Shipments Regulation and the Environment Agency undertake inspections to verify compliance. As this case shows, any company exporting waste abroad under an export licence would be well advised to consider their legal obligations in ensuring that contamination was kept to a bare minimum to be within these guidelines.
As the issue gains wider social and political traction, new measures are also likely to be implemented. As part of the Government’s Resources and Waste strategy, new measures which were put forward included: extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging waste; a consistent set of materials to be collected for recycling by local authorities; a deposit return scheme (DRS) for beverage containers; and a ‘plastics tax’ on packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic. In addition, the Environment Agency has introduced several measures to tackle illegal exports, such as closer working with HMRC to review inconsistencies between customs information and packaging data and creating an investigations team to target serious offenders. These measures suggest that the export of waste may be the next area for investigatory attention.