Resource Use

Rise in waste sector ‘serious pollution incidents’

The number of ‘serious pollution incidents’ caused by the waste sector increased by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2012, the Environment Agency (EA) has found.

According to the EA’s ‘Sustainable Business Report’ – its annual stocktake of environmental performance in England – released today (11 November), businesses involved with waste storage, treatment, transfer and use, landfill, biowaste, and energy from waste, not only saw a rise in ‘serious pollution incidents’ (incidents that have a ‘serious’ or ‘significant’ impact on the environment and people’) but also contributed to 50 per cent of all pollution incidents (together with the water and agricultural sectors).

Rise in incidents at regulated sites

The EA found that regulated waste businesses caused 59 per cent more serious pollution incidents per 100 permits in 2012 than in 2010; increasing from 0.7 incidents per 100 permits to 1.2  and matching the ‘peak’ in 2008.

These businesses reportedly caused 120 serious pollution incidents in 2012, and 62 per cent of these incidents came from sites regulated by the EA (194). This is up from 99 incidents in 2011. Indeed, the proportional number of these incidents occurring in regulated sites has increased relative to the number of incidents in the minority of unregulated sites. 

Odour pollution most common incident

Furthermore, 92 per cent  (100 out of 109) of the 121 serious pollution incidents reported to the EA in 2012 involved odour, smoke, dust, or noise from sites involved in waste activities. The report identified that 70 per cent of amenity incidents at waste management sites were caused by odour. Most of these incidents were in the biowaste and landfill sectors.

The waste sector also fared poorly in the EA’s compliance ratings, with 79 business (95 per cent of which were in waste management) having the lowest compliance ratings for three successive years (2010, 2011, and 2012).

Further, businesses involved in waste activities accounted for 94 per cent of ‘persistent poor compliance permits’ in 2011 and 2012 (134 permits). The EA claims that these increases were due to the growth in the number of permitted biowaste sites between 2010 and 2012 (469 to 888) and the ‘high frequency’ of serious pollution incidents recorded from these sites.

Despite the rise in pollution incidents, the EA points to the fact that in 2012-13, the EA closed down a record number of illegal waste sites. According to the ‘2013 Waste Crime Report’, the EAstopped 1,279 illegal waste sites from operating in 2012-2013, 79 per cent more than in 2011-2012 (716). Of these, 179 sites were brought into regulation, through permitting or registered exemptions.

Overall business performance improving

The performance of the waste sector however, goes against the general performance of English business, which on the whole,‘continues to improve’.

There was a record low in the number of pollution incidents in England classified as ‘serious’ or ‘significant’, with 504 incidents recorded in 2012, eight per cent less than in 2011. This means that overall, serious pollution incidents have reduced by 55 per cent since 2000.

Further, the percentage of regulated businesses receiving the highest ‘A’ rating for environmental compliance also reached a record level, with 78 per cent coming up top.

Speaking of the figures, Environment Agency Chief Executive Dr Paul Leinster, said:“Overall, the environmental performance of industry in England is good and continues to improve. Serious pollution incidents have more than halved since 2000. It is good to see that 78 per cent of sites scored an ‘A’ rating for environmental performance this year – the highest ever – even in difficult economic times.

“We have cut the administrative cost to businesses of our regulation. However, around 80 businesses – less than one per cent – are bad neighbours with persistent poor performance over a three-year period. We continue to work with these sites and operators to improve their compliance.”

Pointing to the EA’s crack down on illegal waste sites, Leinster added that in 2013, 817 new illegal sites started up, and as such, illegal waste sites ‘continue to be a focus for [the EA’s] enforcement activity.”

Read the EA’s 'Sustainable Business Report 2012'.