Last reviewed 9 July 2020

UK waste company, Biffa, has lost its appeal against a conviction for illegally exporting contaminated waste to China.

The Court of Appeal ruling upholds an earlier judgement at Wood Green Crown Court in June 2019, that found the company guilty of trying to send contaminated household waste materials, including soiled nappies, sanitary towels, plastic containers and toiletries, labelled as waste paper.

The waste was initially dispatched from Biffa’s materials recycling facility in Edmonton. During a routine dockside inspection at Felixstowe Port in 2015, Environment Agency investigation officers discovered seven 25-tonne containers destined for China. In the initial trial, Judge Simon Auerbach ruled that the company had been negligent and to some extent reckless in its handling of the shipment. 

Biffa used brokers to act as intermediaries to manage the shipment of waste to two delivery sites in Shenzhen and Guang Dong on the South China Sea coast and strongly contested the case brought against the firm by the Environment Agency.

In its defence, the company argued that the judge had “erred in law” by excluding, expert evidence over whether the disputed waste complied with Chinese standards for recycled paper and was recoverable, and also for allowing the jury to hear of Biffa’s previous environmental convictions.

In its ruling, the Appeal Court agreed with the earlier Crown Court judge that evidence given by Biffa regarding compliance with Chinese standards or the mill’s ability to recycle the waste was itself inadmissible. On the second count relating to the company’s previous convictions, the Appeal Court ruled that this was allowed because Biffa had reasoned that it was not the sort of company which would commit an offence.

Sarah Mills, Environment Agency enforcement manager, told the Guardian newspaper the Agency “treats illegal waste exports as a priority.”

“The court of appeal’s judgement in upholding Biffa’s conviction for exporting waste collected from households, labelled as paper, justifies our decision to prosecute the company. Illegal waste exports blight the lives and environment of people overseas,” Mills added.

In 2018, China introduced a global ban on a wide range of waste imports including some plastics, textiles, mixed paper waste and other materials. According to Resource media, the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) has also learned that the Chinese Government is planning to ban all imports of solid waste from 2021.