The UK has a huge industry attached to exporting waste in shipping containers around the world and on ferries to mainland Europe.
Waste with no, or very low, hazardous impacts sent for recycling overseas can be exported as ‘green list’ waste, and exporters of this waste do not require any prior approvals or consent from the Environment Agency (EA). More hazardous wastes must be notified and the exporter has to seek prior consent.
Regardless of this, and the paper trail created when waste is moved, criminals see an opportunity to move and dispose of waste abroad illegally. The EA works with partners including the Border Force and the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service to check shipping containers and paperwork at ports to inspect suspect loads – all based on intelligence received.
In 2017 the EA inspected 189 operators that notify waste for export. It also inspected 1,012 containers, resulting in 367 being returned to their site of loading. This prevented the illegal export of 8,974 tonnes of unsuitable waste, preventing an estimated £1.3m in repatriation costs to the UK.
Even with these checks in place, occasional shipments slip through the net, as seen recently with the illegal disposal of mixed waste and plastic in Poland. When an illegal shipment is identified abroad, the EA works with the recipient country to identify those involved in the dumping.
You will be aware of the recent ban on certain waste exports to China. Total exports of plastic to China for the first quarter of 2017 was 88,000 tonnes, which went down to 2,500 tonnes in Q1 this year.
In January only 9.3 tonnes worldwide of plastic scrap was approved for import by the Chinese – compared with approval for more than 3.8 million tonnes for the same month in 2017. This is a reduction of over 99%.
As a result, exports of UK plastic waste has increased to Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand (at a whopping 5,400%) and Poland. Some of these countries are expected to tighten their rules much like China has.
The EA is currently working on an electronic waste tracking service, which will make it easier to track the movement of waste from the producer to the carrier, broker and shipping company to its final destination.
This will make life even more difficult for criminals.
Malcolm Lythgo is Deputy Director for waste regulation at the Environment Agency