Waste crime is considered to be a hugely unsociable, unethical and dangerous activity - not just by the waste industry but the public too. Even minor offences such as fly tipping cause outrage among local communities. So when it comes to heavier crimes, such as dumping hazardous waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) abroad, the impact is all the more devastating because of the effect the hazardous components have on the health of people trying to recover the metals from the waste electricals.
In November last year, the situation got to a point where the Nigerian Environmental Agency, NESREA, increased restrictive measures on imports of WEEE, which led to UK shipping companies halting exports to the country. MRW understands that restrictions have loosened up since that time.
The Environment Agency’s (EA) National Crime Team (NCT), set up in 2008, has started to make huge strides in tackling not only e-waste crime but specifically the export of WEEE to developing countries.
NCT manager Andy Higham explains: “Before our intelligence-led strategy, the EA would simply carry out speculative spot checks of containers at the docks to find any illegal waste exporters. That was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But there are intelligence-led patterns [that we can now track], depending on the company’s movements and any changes in how it handles the waste. So we have a 98% success rate when we do checks at the docks.”
The UK’s largest investigation into WEEE crime is currently going through the legal system. It was heard at Havering Magistrates Court in November 2010 following two years of intelligence-gathering. Fifteen defendants at Basildon Crown Court face charges under the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 2007 and the European Waste Shipment Regulations 2006. Four defendants are WEEE companies from across the UK, including Thorn International UK from Birmingham, London-based BJ Electronics and Reliance Export and Orient Export, both from Essex.
Named Operation Boron, the NCT used special sources to gather information about the web of exports.
“The rule is, if the price seems too cheap for the company to dispose of the WEEE properly, then it probably is”
Higham explains: “We have various sources of intelligence, which clearly for security reasons I cannot name. We keep a close watch on company behaviour - for example, whether a company is processing more containers than usual which are going to developing countries. But it is not always an obvious change because the electrical goods trade is perfectly legal as long as you are not trading waste. So we also pull together company profiles.
“Typically, when we stop containers holding WEEE illegally bound for export, they are ‘dressed’ [to make it look as if legal cargo is being shipped]. So perfectly re-usable electronic equipment is packed at the front of the container but, when you go in deeper, it is stuffed with broken e-waste. It is a common trend.”
According to Higham, there is not any one type of WEEE being illegally exported - it tends to be across the range, including TVs and computer monitors.
The EA is currently going through a particularly successful period, and it has seen three successful prosecutions against companies that were exporting WEEE to developing countries. Another case is currently going through Pontypridd Magistrates Court, involving two defendants who are accused of WEEE export to the Ivory Coast in west Africa, alongside other waste charges. They are pleading not guilty. These all followed detailed intelligence-gathering investigations.
“There are currently 22 cases of illegal waste exports going through the courts, although not all of them are WEEE-related. We have to manage our expectations on the timing of these cases because although two years seems like a long time to develop a case, it’s not. Operation Boron has a lot of defendants, which meant an immense amount of work,” Higham explains. The documentation for the case could almost fill a Transit van.
Three years in, the NCT is still attempting to get to grips with the scale of WEEE crime and waste crime in general because the extent of the network in the UK to developing countries is unclear.
“It is big business because there is money to be made from this crime,” says Higham. “It is difficult to predict whether it will decrease in future. An intelligence picture of the situation is being pieced together at the moment. If you took a snapshot of this criminal activity two or three years ago, it is very different to where we are now and it will change again in another two or three years. We are relatively young in the process.”
Indeed, after just three years of being online, the NCT has been praised by international bodies for its work. Further information-gathering is also being done to strengthen ties with European countries following EA chairman Lord Smith’s call last year for better communication and co-operation with Europe. He revealed in a speech to Interpol that the UK provided criminal intelligence on illegal waste exports to 46 countries but received intelligence from just 10 of them in return.
Again, he praised the intelligence-based approach, saying: “Now, we gather intelligence from law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organisations, public and private industry, shipping lines and the community. We no longer waste valuable time on largely unsuccessful ‘fishing’ expeditions.”
But it is clear the UK still has some way to go until it has a full understanding of the illegal networks operating e-crime chains. Higham says: “Everyone has a duty of care to ensure their electricals are disposed of in an appropriate manner. It is better if we can stop the supply of WEEE that’s not fit for purpose going into the wrong hands. The rule is, if the price seems too cheap for the company to dispose of the WEEE properly, then it probably is.”
- The UK generates more than one million tonnes of electrical waste each year, enough to fill Wembley Stadium six times
- Around the country there are more than 1,500 WEEE collection points, in addition to a number of retailers collecting WEEE in-store
- During their lifetime, one UK citizen produces around 3.5 tonnes of WEEE
- Around 500,000 tonnes of electricals were re-used or recycled in 2010
SUCCESSFUL EA PROSECUTIONS IN 2011
- In Newcastle Crown Court on 1 March, Leonard Csibueze Mba, 44, of Newcastle, pleaded guilty to three charges of attempting to export three containers of WEEE to Nigeria.
- Mba’s conviction followed the guilty plea of fellow offender Rakesh Kumar, 53, a director of RKIT Removals. He was fined £3,000 plus costs of £4,500 on four charges of exporting WEEE and one charge of running a waste site without an environmental permit in Gateshead Magistrates Court on 1 February.
- In Bradford Crown Court on 24 February, Naveed Sohail, 44, of Bradford, West Yorkshire, was found guilty of four offences, including attempting to export hazardous WEEE to a developing country and storing hazardous WEEE without an environmental permit. Sohail, who had represented himself in court, was fined £4,000 and was ordered to pay full prosecution costs of £8,200.
- In Rochdale Magistrates Court on 16 February, Phillip Jesson, who operated a waste site in Rochdale, was ordered to serve 280 hours of unpaid work and given a six-month curfew order for exporting WEEE (mainly fridges and freezers) to Ghana and not having an environmental permit for the site, where he was storing waste fridges, freezers, TVs and computers, of which some parts are classed as hazardous.