EA to investigate UK export of contaminated waste to Sri Lanka

A view of shipping containers at Colombo Port
Shipping containers at Colombo Port
The Environment Agency has said it intends to launch a ‘formal investigation’ over a cargo of contaminated waste that was exported from the UK to the Sri Lankan port of Colombo.

It has been widely reported that hazardous waste was hidden in 111 containers from the UK purported to hold recyclable metal. 130 other containers containing illegally-imported used mattresses and plastics were also apparently being stored in a free trade zone (an area where goods may be handled without the intervention of customs authorities).

Sri Lankan officials said they were alerted to the waste at the port by locals who had reported a foul smell emanating from the containers. On further inspection, clinical waste including syringes and suspected human remains were discovered inside the containers, leading the government of Sri Lanka to issue a call for the waste to be sent back to the UK.

The 111 containers are said to have been ‘abandoned’ at Colombo port; some may have been there since 2017. According to the Sunday Times in Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena has instructed the country’s Environment Agency to re-ship the waste. However, the EA has not yet received a formal call to repatriate the waste, and it is as yet unknown who in the UK is responsible for exporting the waste.

A spokesperson from the EA confirmed: “We are in contact with the Sri Lankan authorities and have requested more information which would allow us to launch a formal investigation… We are committed to tackling illegal waste exports, which is why individuals found to be exporting incorrectly described waste can face a two year jail term and an unlimited fine.”

Hayleys Free Zone (HFZ), the organisation that operates the free trade zone where the 130 containers were being stored, has denied having any connection to the other 111 containers described as ‘abandoned’ at Colombo port. HFZ has apparently been requested by the Board of Investment and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to re-export the 130 containers; 29 have so far been re-exported.

Export woes

This news is but the latest in a string of stories about recycling exports to hit the mainstream media headlines, and is likely to add fuel to the fire in the debate around whether the UK and other high-income countries should be exporting any of their waste to developing countries.

Up until January 2018, China was the main destination for much of Europe and the USA’s waste exports, plastic in particular. However, after the Chinese Government announced a crackdown on the waste imports allowed into the country, developed nations have had to find other destinations for their waste – with more often low-quality material flooding into countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

However, pressure from the public and policy-makers has been increasing in light of growing knowledge about the impact of exported waste on the countries and communities that receive it. A Greenpeace report in April shone a light on how Southeast Asian countries were struggling to deal with the influx of waste, with people living near waste dumps suffering with health problems and contaminated water supplies.

Many Southeast Asian countries have begun implementing import restrictions and in some cases closing their doors completely to waste and recycling from abroad. Back in May, the Malaysian Government announced it would be returning around 3,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste to developing countries, with Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin stating: “Malaysia will not be a dumping ground”.

This sentiment was echoed in the words of one Sri Lankan protester, who held a sign reading ‘Sri Lanka is not your dump yard’ outside the British High Commission in Colombo this week.


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