Evidence that there was a problem with the quality of waste shipments from UK recycling operations emerged last summer, when IMPEL, the network of EU environmental regulators, issued a report from its Seaport Project on transfrontier shipment (TFS) of waste. The study revealed widespread irregularities and gaps in enforcement activities around the EU.
IMPEL’s report, published last June, included the results of three inspections at UK ports.1 Out of 33 containers carrying waste for export, five were found to be illegal. One claimed to contain "paper" but was full of co-mingled wastes "including a significant proportion of plastics".
It now appears that the IMPEL findings were the tip of an iceberg. In April, the Dutch Ministry for Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment (VROM) announced that it had intercepted an "illegal" shipment of waste from England in recent months sent via four different ports - Rijssen, Hazeldonk, Rotterdam and Utrecht. The waste was en route to China.
"The export of household refuse from England has increased due to the higher landfill charges resulting from the country’s new recycling policy," VROM said in a statement. "Waste intermediaries are now responsible for household refuse….The companies export the waste to Asian countries disguised as waste paper."
"The chance of waste entering the environment in Asia without being controlled is high which gives rise to high humanitarian and environmental risks," VROM said.
The latest data on packaging recovery confirm the trend towards growth in exports of recyclables. Over 1.1 million tonnes of packaging waste was exported in 2004, a 50% increase on 2003 (see pp 19-20 ). Around 2.6 million tonnes of mixed paper was also exported last year.
The waste seized in the Netherlands - 54 sea containers containing more than 1,600 tonnes of "illegal household refuse" - was returned to England in late March and early April.
"Some" of it was returned to Kent-based Grosvenor Waste Management, the company has admitted. In a statement to ENDS, however, the company said it would be "inappropriate at this time….to respond in detail to any of the allegations made."
The company collects co-mingled recyclables from London’s Western Riverside Waste Authority amongst others.
A further shipment of 19 containers was intercepted in Indonesia, with cooperation from the German authorities. These containers were also returned to the UK in March.
The waste that was intercepted in the Netherlands "consisted of large bales of compressed household refuse", including tins, food waste, clothes and wood, VROM said. It had been exported without proper notification or consent from the receiving countries.
Two of the containers contained "no paper aside a few envelopes", according to a VROM spokeswoman.
Official concern in the UK prompted the Environment Department (DEFRA) to write to all English local authorities on 2 March, calling on them to check if any of their waste is being exported for recycling and recovery and, if so, to seek confirmation that it is in compliance with TFS legislation.
"The need for this action has arisen as a result of investigations that the Agency has been conducting in partnership with other European waste regulators," DEFRA said. "Through this work the Environment Agency has discovered potentially substantial amounts of waste being sent overseas, ostensibly for recovery, that do not conform with the EU Waste Shipment Regulation."
"Our evidence suggests that much of this waste is municipal in origin and exported as ‘mixed waste’. The Agency believe that this has been collected, possibly for sorting in the UK, before being sent for recovery, but this initial sorting has not taken place."
The story hit the front page of The Guardian newspaper in April, when it reported that the 54 containers intercepted in the Netherlands were being returned to Britain. The newspaper reported that Grosvenor Waste Management had consigned the waste to China.
Grosvenor Waste had allegedly labelled the containers as containing waste paper. The Environment Agency is now investigating the incident.
Grosvenor received a £750,000 grant from London Remade for a materials recycling facility (MRF) to process co-mingled recyclables at its site in Kent. The company says its plant, with capacity to recover 150,000 tonnes of recyclables per year, is the first automated paper sorting plant of its kind in the UK. "The MRF generates output material of a standard high enough to meet manufacturing quality specifications," according to its website.
The Agency is investigating the source of the waste that was returned to the UK by the Dutch authorities: "We believe it is largely household in origin. From its appearance and our investigations some of the waste appears to have been processed through a MRF."
"A number of companies are currently under investigation in relation to illegal exports from England and Wales, some of which are part of the waste detained by the Dutch."
Grosvenor is also being investigated for a shipment of 4,000 tonnes of "mixed card and paper", which was stopped at Thamesport by the Agency.
An internal Agency briefing note relating to this investigation was leaked to The Guardian. It reveals that some 8,000 tonnes of waste was being stockpiled at the plant because the MRF is only partly open and because of a lack of technically qualified staff as required by licence conditions.
The Greater London Authority was concerned that some of the stockpiled material might end up in landfill, and Western Riverside might also have to start sending collections to landfill, leading to negative publicity.
The paper also reveals differing views in the Agency over whether shipments from the MRF are compliant with TFS rules.
Agency officers who inspected the site said the output was "predominantly paper and card with a small amount of plastic contamination", and that it is "acceptable" as green list waste under TFS rules.
However, the Agency’s TFS staff "disagree with our assessment that the output from the site is acceptable. They continue to stop this kind of material at the port. The Agency looks inconsistent and unprofessional," the briefing note said.
The note goes on to say that if the material has been rejected for containing both paper and card, as the company says it was told by the Agency, "it is inconsistent" with the Agency’s "interim position" on such shipments - which is that there is no need to separate paper and card into separate fractions.
In a statement to The Guardian, Grosvenor highlighted the inconsistencies in the Agency’s stance. "This has left the recycling industry second-guessing what individual EA field officers are expecting, adding to the confusion and inconsistency."
Under the TFS Regulation, "paper, paperboard and paper product waste" count as green list waste, and can be exported without restrictions. However, if other materials contaminate the waste to the extent that it could be classed as household waste or it prevents the recovery of the waste in an "environmentally sound" manner, it becomes "amber list" waste - which is subject to stricter controls.
Before exporting amber list waste, a company must pay a fee to the Agency, obtain consent from all authorities the waste will pass through and comply with other conditions. The procedures, which can delay shipment of waste by up to 50 days, would probably make exports of waste paper unattractive.
Several industry groups have called on the Agency to make its position clearer.
The Independent Waste Paper Processors Association, although condemning anyone who exports co-mingled waste as if it were waste paper, says that "there is a need to properly classify co-mingled waste".
Dirk Hazell of the Environmental Services Association said: "We hope our regulators will give clear regulatory guidance [on exporting such waste]".
The Agency denies there is any division or confusion in its ranks over how to apply the legislation. "That’s been alleged, but it’s a red herring," said Roy Watkinson, an Agency representative on the Seaports Project. The guidance to Agency staff is "clear", he says.
Due to the difficulties of specifying percentage levels of "acceptable contamination", officers and waste companies are provided with "photographic evidence" of acceptable and unacceptable loads of material on which to base decisions.
Mr Watkinson denies there is room for misunderstanding of these photographs and says the Agency has no plans to change procedures. The Agency is, though, increasing its enforcement of the regulations by carrying out more inspections at more ports and increasingly cooperation with other EU regulators. He would not quantify the levels of increased activity.