New research finds waste crime now costs UK £1 billion a year

New reports funded by Material Focus and the Environmental Services Association (ESA) have revealed ‘gaps’ in the waste registration system that are responsible for incidents of fly-tipping across the UK, costing the economy approximately £1 billion per year.

This is an increase of 53 per cent over the past three years, with costs rising from £604 million in 2015 to more than £924 million in 2018/19, according to ESA data.

Illegal dumpingRecycling not-for-profit Material Focus issued the report titled ‘An Independent Study into Fly-tipping and Unregistered Waste Carriers in England’, conducted by consultancies Air and Space Evidence and Ecological Planning and Research (EPR). 

The research examined the advertising of waste collection services online in 10 UK areas, comparing over 4,700 business names to entries in the carrier, broker and dealer (CBD) registration system.

The CBD determines which companies and individual parties can legally move waste, charging members £154 for a three-year enrolment.  

The research also sought the opinion of a panel of stakeholders, composed of individuals from the academic world, the waste industry, and former government and regulatory positions.

According to Material Focus, the evidence gathered suggests that the existing CBD regime ‘does not function effectively’ and is being ‘misused’. 

The research estimated that nearly 63 per cent of surveyed waste handling businesses appear to be unregistered when advertising their services.

In comparison, evasion rates for other sectors – including some that require similar forms of formal registration, such as TV licences, car tax evasion, and gas safety – usually fall between the 1 and 8 per cent range, according to the report.

Advertising platforms which ensured rigorous checks on those advertising only accounted for one per cent of all the waste collection adverts and 16 per cent of website addresses given in waste carrier adverts were either not operational or were false.

Conversely, between 1 April 2018 and 1 April 2021, the Environmental Association (EA  rejected 0.01 per cent of applications.

The research also revealed that some networks of unregistered waste carriers appeared to be spending as much as £150,000 per annum on advertising for each trader in multiple locations across England.

The research estimated that a single typical network of operators could generate a profit from landfill tax evasion ranging between £5.4 million and £13.2 million each year.

The findings from Material Focus are corroborated by ESA’s recent report ‘Counting the cost of waste crime’ which also probed the financial impact of illegal waste handling.

The ESA’s report, undertaken by Eunomia Research and Consulting, finds that the cost of fly-tipping now exceeds £392 million and the operation of illegal waste sites accounts for an estimated £236 million.

Within the recorded instances of fly-tipping, there were 58,000 incidents of illegally disposed waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and a further 2,817 tonnes of ‘black bin bag’ incidents, according to the Material Focus report.

A YouGov poll conducted for the ESA report found that 46 per cent of those surveyed knew what their legal responsibilities were for the proper disposal of their waste.

Seventy per cent were not aware they could be personally prosecuted if they failed to make the required checks and their waste ended up being fly tipped by a third party.

Sixty-five per cent admitted to not knowing how to check that the people collecting their waste were legally authorised to do so.

Scott Butler, Executive Director, Material Focus: “This research has revealed for the first time the scale and type of the unlicensed waste carrier activity and the ways this might be contributing to the  extreme number of fly-tipping incidents in the UK. 

“The fact that there are high numbers of unregistered carriers in practice is clearly a significant issue which means that waste electricals and other forms of waste aren’t being properly recycled. 

Ray Purdy, Director of Air and Space Evidence, said: "In light of the colossal levels of fly-tipping and illegal waste dumping that are being experienced in the UK, a detailed investigation as to where all of this waste might be coming from and who was moving it was long overdue.

“This research shines a light on how waste criminality is happening, providing evidence that there are extremely high numbers of people and businesses moving waste which appear to be operating illegally under the radar.

“We also show which social media and advertising platforms they are using, and that much of this activity might involve organised nationwide networks.

“It is hoped this new evidence will enable Government and regulatory bodies to respond and make current systems better.”

Gavin Graveson, Chair of the ESA, said: “Waste criminals are exploiting a lack of public awareness and lack of regulatory oversight in this area, which has led to an increase in fly-tipping and illegal waste sites that contribute significantly to the overall £924 million cost of waste crime in England identified in our report today.

“Successive ESA reports over the past eight years have highlighted the shocking extent of waste crime in the UK and its cost to both the environment and economy.

“This latest report exposes the unfortunate truth that, despite additional regulatory focus in recent years, the scale of waste crime has significantly worsened.

“Although understandably delayed by the pandemic, it is now vital that the Government proceeds at pace with long promised reforms of the regulatory regime and we must make it much harder for criminals to operate in the recycling and waste sector.”

Sam Taylor, Principal Consultant at Eunomia, said: “Waste crime is a blight on our neighbourhoods and environment.

“Our research has shown a worrying trend in increasing costs of waste crime when the Government is working hard to  promote resource efficiency and move towards a more circular economy in England.

“It’s absolutely vital that waste crime is monitored accurately and the waste sector is supported by a robust regulatory regime.”