Government review calls for new fines for mislabelling of waste
The Environment Agency (EA) should be given the power to impose new fines on waste operators that deliberately mislabel their waste to avoid tax rules, according to an independent review ordered by Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
The review, released on Tuesday (14 November), also recommended that compulsory electronic tracking of waste could help clamp down on illegal movements of waste and disrupt organised crime, both domestically and abroad, while producers should face financial penalties if their waste is deposited illegally.
Gove launched the review in June to look at the government’s approach to tackling waste crime and to source solutions that could be included in the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy. Waste crime costs the taxpayer and the wider economy up to £600 million a year in England, with £50 million spent on cleaning up fly-tipping sites.
Welcoming the findings, Gove – who remains Environment Secretary despite rumours he had been offered the role of Brexit Secretary following recent ministerial resignations over the government’s proposed Brexit deal – said: “The threat to society from waste crime is real. Criminals are running illegal waste sites as a cover for theft, human trafficking, drug running and money laundering. It is costing our economy millions of pounds each year, and blighting our communities.
“We are committed to clamping down on these unscrupulous groups and we will set out our next steps in our forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy.”
New fines, such as a Fixed Penalty Notice, for the deliberate mis-description of waste would put the practice on the same level as fly-tipping, for which Fixed Penalty Notices can be imposed by local authorities.
Other recommendations in the review include the creation of a Joint Unit for Waste Crime (JUWC) led by the EA with the Police, Crime Commissioners HMRC and waste industry representatives working together to tackle the most serious cases, and the creation of a national database of registered waste brokers to make it harder for unscrupulous operators to do business.
Lizzie Noel, who chaired the review, explained: “In this report, we set out how we can modernise the structures, capabilities and powers to manage and reduce the problem of organised waste crime now and in the future.
“Our intention must be to give the criminals responsible real cause to fear the consequences of their actions. Today that is not the case.”
New powers for the EA
The review seeks to build on new powers handed to EA officials in April, which saw officers provided with body cameras to record incidents of abuse, as well as having the capability to lock up illegal sites and block access to ‘problem’ sites to prevent the further dumping of waste.
The average fine imposed by the EA increased from £23,731 in 2013/14 to £147,575 in 2017/18 and a record £25.5 million in fines were handed out across 2017/18. The Agency also closed 812 illegal waste sites in 2017/18, while both the number of persistently poorly-managed sites and number of serious pollution incidents fell by 18 per cent compared to 2016 figures.
Despite this, a National Audit Office (NAO) report into the UK packaging recycling system found the EA’s monitoring and oversight of the waste export system to be severely lacking, with only 124 compliance visits made in 2016/17 and only three unannounced site visits undertaken in 2017/18. The EA has since launched an investigation into allegations that exporters are claiming higher tonnages of plastic waste sent abroad than were actually recorded by HMRC, in order to fraudulently claim more money through the Packaging Recovery Note system.
Commenting on the review, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the EA, said: “Serious waste crime is the new narcotics – it damages the environment and harms local communities. The review rightly recognises the dedication of Environment Agency officers who work tirelessly to bring the criminals to justice. In the last year, the Environment Agency has closed down over 800 illegal waste sites and brought almost 100 successful waste crime prosecutions. But there is still more to be done. This report represents an opportunity to ensure we have the right powers, resources and coordination to win this fight.”
Waste industry response
Following the publication of the review, the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the trade association for UK waste management companies, which has long championed the need for beefed up powers to tackle waste crime, issued a positive response to its findings. ESA’s Head of Regulation, Sam Corp, said: “ESA is delighted that many of the report's recommendations mirror those put forward in ESA's Rethinking waste crime report published last year. Particularly helpful are the recommendations to tighten up duty of care regulation and the carriers, brokers, dealers’ regime, and which appear to reflect policy proposals which ESA and others recently submitted to government.
“We look forward to continuing to work with government through the resources and waste strategy to make these recommendations a reality.”
The recommendations put forward by the review were also endorsed by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), with Head of Policy and Communications Pat Jennings saying: “These recommendations respond to repeated calls from CIWM in recent years for adequate resourcing of the regulators, a more multi-disciplinary approach to maximise intelligence sharing, and a stronger regulatory regime for waste carriers, brokers, and dealers (CBD) and Duty of Care.
“Earlier this year, a cross-sector expert group – including CIWM, ESA and UROC [United Resource Operators Consortium] – submitted proposals to the government on reform of the CBD regime and we are pleased to see the commitment to reform in the report.
“CIWM has also advocated the wider roll out of some form of electronic duty of care, both as a potential tool in fighting waste crime and to provide the data on material flows needed to underpin progress towards more circular economic models.
“The proposal for a fundamental review on the funding model for the regulation and enforcement is also critical to ensure that, going forward, regulators have the resources to deal with this growing threat. We look forward to further detail on this in the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy for England.”
The full list of 10 recommendations made by the review are as follows:
- The Joint Unit for Waste Crime should be established;
- Strategic relationships between the EA and Police and Crime Commissioners should be established;
- The EA should be equipped with the necessary tools and powers to pursue and disrupt organised crime;
- Waste sector legislation should be amended to allow for more effective prevention and disruption of organised crime;
- Mandatory electronic tracking of waste, and a national database of registered brokers, should be introduced at the earliest opportunity;
- The EA should be granted full access to relevant police databases;
- Registration and duty of care requirements for carriers, brokers and dealers should be reformed (including in relation to hazardous waste);
- Waste producers should be held accountable for the end destination of their waste products;
- Plans for additional 2018-22 EA funding should be reviewed to ensure consistency with plans for a Joint Unit for Waste Crime; and
- Government should reform funding for the regulation and policing of the waste sector at the earliest opportunity.
You can view the independent review into waste crime on the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) website.