As head of waste and illegals at the Environment Agency, Mat Crocker has hundreds of unlawful operators in his sights. James Illman finds out how the battle is progressing
The residents of Colnbrook, a large village three and a half miles south-east of Slough, had their lives made “hell” by their local scrap metal dealer.
Just metres from their homes, lit up by dazzling floodlights until late at night, workers would go about the noisy business of crushing cars, while aggressive guard dogs barked insistently.
But in August 2011 the yard’s proprietor, Amrik Johal, 53, from Langley in Slough, was hauled up in front of a Bracknell judge and ordered to pay back more than £800,000 in ill-gotten gains or face five years in jail.
Good news for Colnbrook but also a good day’s work for the Environment Agency (EA), who had been pursuing Johal for two years. The fine handed down was the largest ever handed to a waste criminal under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA).
Sadly, there are many more rogue operators like Johal all over England and Wales, and the number of illegal waste sites, 594 at last count, appears to be rising.
EA head of waste and illegals Mat Crocker finds himself in the thick of the war against waste criminals. Working with the police and a raft of other enforcement agencies his brief is to take on what he terms “the big, the bad and the ugly”.
Waste crime causes misery for UK residents; potentially leads to fatalities here and abroad; robs legitimate waste companies of income; and does untold damage to the industry’s reputation.
MRW catches up with Crocker at the EA’s London offices, situated on the 25th floor of Milbank Tower, just down the river from the Houses of Parliament.
Clad in a pinstriped suit and sober tie, he looks every bit the part of the office-bound public sector manager, but he says it was getting out of the office that attracted him to waste management in the first place.
“I used to work in the pharmaceutical industry but then decided I wanted a job that was a little bit more outdoors and applied for a job advertised to go out and deal with the waste industry. I have spent a reasonable amount of my career out and about,” he says (see CV for more on his career).
Nowadays he finds himself wearing shiny shoes far more often than the steel toe-capped variety. Asked by MRW if he ever gets involved at the sharp end of any the police-led raids on illegal sites, he laughs.
“I like to leave that to the professionals,” he says, as he explains he spends most of time in the London and Bristol offices and visiting the various teams around England and Wales.
But a lack of time at the coalface has not dimmed his desire for results.
As exclusively reported in MRW last month (MRW, 27 Jan), Crocker has outlined ambitions to shut down about half of the illegal waste sites in England and Wales.
“I would like to think we could cut the number in half, but that’s an aspiration. The situation might be that the more we look for sites, the more we find,” he says.
Having been in post for the best part of a year - he arrived on 1 April 2011 - Crocker is under no illusions about the task ahead.
“Could we improve? Absolutely. If we did not need to improve we would not need to put money into it.”
However, with the £5m the agency is investing over two years in a new specialist environmental crime taskforce, Crocker is adamant it can make inroads into the shadow waste crime economy.
But for this he urges patience.
“We will be seeing the boots arriving on the ground over the next month or two.
“We are currently recruiting the intelligence officers and then we are phasing the other officers. We won’t be saying any additional results I would say until those guys have arrived,” he says.
The EA’s performance to date on clamping down on waste crime gets mixed reviews from industry leaders. They say the EA is doing well, considering its resources, but that much more needs to be done.
Another common gripe from legitimate business chiefs is that inspectors spend too much time searching their premises rather than visiting illegal sites.
One senior figure recalls a friend of his quipping that the inspectors always came to his business because they got a cup of coffee, rather than going to the illegal site down the road to face the aggressive alsatians.
“We have prosecuted an awful lot of people,” says Crocker. “It’s in the hundreds.
“We have listened to what our customers have said. We are certainly operating better than in the past. Our level of dialogue with the police is better than we have ever had - the metal theft work is a good example of this.”
Illegal sites in the UK is just one of the problem areas. Crocker says “getting a tighter grip” on illegal waste exports is also a big priority for his team.
The EA has a robust success rate when it comes to finding illegal waste in containers leaving these shores. Inspectors find illicit goods in about 97% of containers they open.
However, the agency has no idea how much goes through undetected.
“We can’t say how much waste is being illegally exported, because if we knew that, we would go and stop them,” says Crocker.
This makes benchmarking the agency’s performance tough but senior market figures insist it’s an area where the agency must improve.
Waste industry consultant Paul Levett, previously Veolia deputy chief executive, says: “Overall the agency has done a good job on limited resources. But the amount of waste being exported has risen and the agency’s budget has not.
“If government wants the agency to adequately enforce the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations [which govern what can and cannot be exported] it needs to invest.”
Crocker, however, insists money is not the issue. He says three key areas are being targeted for illegal exports: WEEE going for disposal; tyres; and poor quality recyclables.
However, this is not to say that a little help would not go a miss – not least from people in the industry itself.
“If the price you are being offered is too good to be true, it very well might be. [If people pass on information to us] we can use that intelligence to focus in on the things that would be of concern,” he says.
Having faced questions from MRW, Crocker throws one back at its readers.
“Do you really know where your waste goes? Are you confident that it’s not your waste ending up in that shipping container going to Africa?” he asks.
Crocker says there is a lot legitimate businesses can do to help, and a lot for them to gain by doing so.
A tough challenge lies ahead if the agency is going to get a firmer grip on illegal domestic waste sites and exports. Crocker and his team are very much up for the challenge.