Biffa convicted of breaching waste export law

Waste management company Biffa has been convicted of breaching waste export regulations for attempting to send heavily contaminated waste to China.

A unanimous guilty verdict of being in contravention of regulation 23 of the 2007 Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations in May and June 2015 was delivered on Friday (21 June) following a three-week trial at Wood Green Crown Court in north London.

Wood Green Crown Court, north London
The prosecution was brought by the Environment Agency (EA), which accused Biffa of having attempted to export seven 25-tonne shipping containers marked as ‘mixed paper’ to China when they in fact contained high levels of contaminated material, including nappies and food waste packaging.

Biffa pleaded not guilty to the charge of being in breach of waste export regulations, claiming that consignments of waste leaving its Edmonton depot were within the law because they comprised of waste paper.

The jury at Wood Green Crown Court did not accept this version of events after hearing that EA investigators that searched the cargo at Felixstowe port found a diverse spread of unsorted household waste materials, including shoes, plastic bags, an umbrella, socks, hand towels, unused condoms, video tape, toiletries, electric cable, nappies and sanitary towels.

The jury heard that Biffa used two waste brokers to act as intermediaries to manage the deal to send the waste to two delivery sites on the South China Sea coast.

The first broker took up a request from a Chinese client in April 2015 to arrange shipment of 5,863 tonnes of mixed waste paper by contacting Biffa. A price of around £350,000 was agreed for the export, due to take place the following month.

At the same time, Biffa agreed with a second broker to ship 4,992 tonnes of mixed paper in a contract worth almost £290,000.

Though Biffa has been found guilty, sentencing has been deferred by Judge Simon Auerbach until 27 September. The EA and Biffa have agreed a figure of £9,912 to be paid for the proceeds of crime.

‘Unacceptable’ level of contamination

Commenting on the conviction, Sarah Mills, an enforcement manager whose team investigated the breaches for the EA, said: “Our officers found anything and everything in Biffa’s containers at Felixstowe. They were marked as waste paper, but contained a totally unacceptable level of contamination with other waste.

“The regulations around shipment of waste were brought in to stop the West merely passing the problem to other countries. It was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s for developed nations to send vast amounts of waste abroad.

“The waste contained offensive material likely to have been discarded by the receiving country, at great risk and cost to the environment and people. The guilty verdicts justify our decision to prosecute Biffa.”

Biffa ‘disappointed’ with outcome

In response to the ruling, a Biffa spokesperson said: “We strongly contested this case and are very disappointed with this outcome. We are considering our position and grounds for appeal.  At the time of the case we supplied a vital raw material to China to be recycled in an environmentally sound manner as an alternative to forestry. The materials we supplied commanded market-leading prices and met both international industry and customer standards. Throughout this case the EA has accused Biffa of failing to meet standards that it has repeatedly failed to specify through guidance. The EA has been continually asked to specify a required level of purity by both the industry, and in one instance the Court of Appeal, and the failure to do so is a breach of its responsibilities to the market.
“Due to the lack of reprocessing capacity, the UK and Europe is reliant on the export market for recycled paper and cardboard. The charges in the case relate to contamination levels in seven containers of mixed paper that were due for export to China over four years ago. At that time China was a core market for UK exported materials for recycled paper and cardboard, and Biffa was a key supplier to some of the largest, best-invested cardboard mills in China. These mills were all accredited by the EA as being of an equal or higher environmental standard as mills within the UK and Europe.

“These materials were regularly inspected by customs in China and by a Chinese Inspectorate regime based in the UK prior to shipping. In addition, all buyers conducted pre-checks before shipping to confirm that the materials were 98.5 per cent pure paper, which was the accepted industry standard. With the UK recycling more, there is a level of contamination in recyclable material, which we make strenuous efforts to minimise at our industry leading sorting facilities and reprocessing capabilities. The court heard no evidence to suggest we were outside of the industry tolerance for contamination and no customer ever rejected any material on quality grounds.

“This case highlights the need for the EA to issue clear guidance to the industry as to what are the acceptable levels of purity for UK exported mixed paper. In this instance the jury was asked to make a judgement as to whether they considered the level of contamination was minimal, without any quantitative guidance. In the absence of any EA guidelines our products always met the standards set by our customers and provided a route to recycling in an environmentally sound manner.”

Quality rules

The sentence handed to Biffa is the highest-profile prosecution for breach of export regulations since China’s decision to implement an import ban on 24 grades of waste materials and impose restrictive contamination limits on all other imports back at the start of 2018 – though the case predates the ban.

Though the the export of unsorted household recycling waste to China has been banned since 2006, the conviction serves as a reminder of the need to focus on quality if export routes are to stay open, with leading figures in the UK recycling industry previously stressing the pressing need to ensure the quality of exported recyclate remains high.

CEO of the Waste and Resources Action Programme, Marcus Gover, stated in 2017 that any response to China’s ban must be couched in quality to ensure that export markets stay open, while the Recycling Association has championed improvements in the quality of recycling exports, launching its Quality Control scheme in November 2018 to ensure that UK shipments of waste paper meet exacting Chinese export requirements.

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