'One in four waste containers reported to the EA are non-compliant,' says industry figure

One in four waste containers reported to the Environment Agency’s (EA) hotline and subsequently inspected are found to be non-compliant. It is unclear whether this leads to prosecutions and fines.

The figures were cited during an evidence session run by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee yesterday as part of its inquiry on plastic waste. They will raise further concerns not only about the levels of illegally exported waste but the ability of the agency to police the problem and ongoing confusion about the current rules on acceptable levels of contamination in loads due for shipment overseas.

The reliance of self-reporting for plastic waste exports and poor resourcing of the EA were debated at length during the session with Paula Chin, sustainable materials specialist at WWF-UK, Susan Evans, senior policy advisor at Green Alliance, and Plastic Europe resource efficiency senior manager Adrian Whyle.

It was Whyle who highlighted the EA call data. He said: "There is a hotline that the Environment Agency has and one in four of the containers they inspected [as a result of calls] were found to have been non-compliant. When I asked them [the EA] about the number of non-compliant containers going out they said they were in the minority." He said these figures were anecdotal.

The EA does not recognise the figures relating to information received via its hotline. It says the majority of container stops are thought to result from officers carrying out proactive and intelligence-led inspections to stop shipments in breach of the regulations leaving ports.

In 2020/21, approximately 20% of all containers of waste the EA inspected were thought to be prevented from onward export; in 2019/20 it was 25%, it said.

Committee member and Labour MP Barry Gardiner pressed the panel hard on plastic waste exports – a high profile topic thanks to exposés of UK plastic ending up dumped or burned in other countries. He asked whether the issue was with the powers the agency has or the funding available to apply them. 

Chin and Evans both suggested it was the latter. “The EA should absolutely be resourced so it can conduct the amount of audits it is supposed to,” said Evans. She cited the National Audit Office report in 2018 that found the EA carried out only 40% of the planned compliance visits to reprocessors and exporters to check they accurately report the amount of packaging recycled. 

Chin wants to see a recommendation made to government by the committee for more resourcing of the EA. “There should also be more evidence provided through self-reporting of the quality of the [waste] bales that are sent abroad,” she added. Full chain of custody arrangements with any businesses receiving the waste are also needed, she said.

Gardiner quizzed the experts about the “cost effectiveness” of contaminated exports and pointed to the 18% of UK plastic waste that is exported to non-OECD countries. In July, Biffa was controversially fined a record £1.5m for illegally exporting to India and Indonesia material that was contaminated with household waste. Some countries have also turned back heavily contaminated shipments.

Conservative MP Neil Hudson said the committee would continue to “bang the drum” to government on resourcing of the EA. 

There was also discussion of the influence the plastics tax, set to come into force in April next year, will have on investment in new infrastructure to process recycled plastics here in the UK. 

This week, Wrap research based on national packaging waste database figures showed “encouraging growth” in UK processing of plastic packaging. In 2020, 41% of the 1,174,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was recycled in the UK. In 2016, it was 33% (of 1,014,000 tonnes).

The new extended producer responsibility regime should deliver further investment; it is also expected to introduce the strengthened compliance, monitoring and enforcement procedures required to better manage plastic packaging – at least in principle. As Chin explained: “In practice it will require a lot more resourcing of the agencies [like the EA] that will need to audit and monitor and enforce these infractions.”

Chin said she was not “overly concerned” by the export of waste “as long as the waste is being used in the correct way”.

The Environment Act contains powers that will allow the government to “regulate, ban or restrict the import and export of waste, enabling us to deliver on our commitment to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries”. 

Green groups have been frustrated by a perceived lack of urgency however. In January, when the EU banned the export of plastic waste to developing countries under amendments to the Basel Convention, the government decided more consultation was needed, despite a pledge in the Conservative manifesto to ban the practice.

The waste industry has also complained of the “high stakes guessing game” that is the current enforcement regime for waste exports. In particular, there is confusion over permitted levels of contamination.

Experts told ENDS that the chances of being caught are limited – checks are targeted at specific high-risk companies rather than random inspections. However, the NAO found exporters rated as high-risk were less likely to receive a compliance visit than those rated low-risk.

EA figures show that in 2020 it intercepted 200,000 tonnes of illegitimate waste through a number activities and surveillance. It said that between 2014/15 and 2018/19, it successfully prosecuted seven companues and 15 individuals for waste export offences. 

An Environment Agency spokesperson officers carry out "pro-active and intelligence led inspections to stop waste shipments that breach the regulations before they leave our ports.
 
“There are a small number of businesses that intentionally break the rules. The Environment Agency targets them through compliance and enforcement activity, such as suspending export licences or prosecutions.”

This article has been updated to include data and comment from the EA.