A criminal waste – what is going on with waste crime?

Waste crime

Waste crime is more than a blot on the landscape – it’s a blight on society. Organised crime gangs cost our industry close to £1bn every year and, Ian Farrell says, the problem is getting worse.

When Environment Agency (EA) head Sir James Bevan described waste crime as “the new narcotics” a few years ago, it sounded like an exaggeration. As far as we know, fly-tipping was not listed among the crimes of Pablo Escobar and Netflix has yet to make a gritty drama about the goings on inside an unregistered waste organisation.

Nevertheless, Bevan’s description is very apt: waste crime is currently estimated to cost the UK economy about £1bn a year in lost tax revenue, clean-up costs and the loss of trade for legitimate organisations.

The problem is as huge as the range of offences it spans. At the minor end of the scale, local authorities hand out penalty notices for littering and tackle small-scale fly-tipping.

Then there are the misdemeanours and negligence of legitimate registered companies that are inspected regularly by EA officers for compliance. But there is also a much more sinister element at work – organised gangs of criminals who are not licensed to handle waste but do so unsafely and with scant regard for where it ends up.

Many of these gangs are also involved in other nefarious activities, from human trafficking and modern slavery to drug smuggling, money laundering and illegal firearms. Suddenly, that Netflix series doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

Combatting waste crime

To tackle waste crime at this level, a multi-agency unit was set up in 2020. The Joint Unit for Waste Crime (JUWC) comprises staff from eight organisations – including the EA, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the National Crime Agency, and various police units, such as the Serious Fraud Office – and certainly, has its work cut out.

The unit’s formation coincided with a commitment by Defra to “eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites” by 2043, as set out in the 2018 report A green future: our 25-year plan to improve the environment.

Four years into the plan, however, a recent report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee notes that little or no progress has been made. It states: “Waste crime is not getting the local or national attention needed to effectively tackle it, despite it being on the rise and increasingly dominated by organised criminal gangs.

Defra’s initiatives to combat waste crime are piecemeal and its progress is slow.

“Defra’s initiatives to combat waste crime are piecemeal and its progress is slow – for example, digital tracking of waste, on which much hope is being placed to deter waste crime, is still not even at the pilot stage after four years of effort.”

The report also highlights that HMRC has failed to successfully prosecute a single case of landfill-tax evasion, bringing to court only one case – for £3.5m – which ultimately failed because evidence requirements were not met.

This all comes after years of grant-in-aid cuts for the EA, so it might be tempting to point the finger at Defra for under-resourcing its investigation and enforcement operations. However, Anna Willetts, CIWM President and waste industry lawyer, has a different view.

“The EA is not under-resourced,” she says. “It seems they use some of their resources in the wrong way, in my view. It’s spent on inspecting legitimate, permitted sites and not on visiting the unpermitted ones – the more onerous ones with Rottweilers and thugs patrolling the gates.

“I know treasure rules have a part to play in this, so this might need to be addressed as well. I did think that was the whole point of the JUWC; getting the police and other agencies to take serious enforcement action and help the EA.”

As a lawyer, Willetts spends her time defending clients from the enforcement actions of the EA and has seen first-hand how it operates. “I act for companies that are being investigated for non-compliance. Companies that make minor slip-ups; permits are breached by a tonne; forms are filled in wrongly; covers are left off skips – negligence, rather than a blatant disregard for the law. Then there is the next level of people who are pushing boundaries. They are getting away with things they shouldn’t be doing.

“Finally, there is the full-on blatant stuff. I don’t act for them and they don’t want people to advise them, because they are flagrantly and deliberately trying to break the law. That, to me, is the most serious type of waste crime and that should be a priority for the EA – not permitted, legitimate operators who have a few issues here and there.”

Willetts recalls times when she has attended routine EA inspections and questions the allocation of resources. “I’ve seen four or five EA inspectors arrive at a small permitted waste site, wearing stab jackets, finding issues such as ‘those pallets are in the wrong place’. Is that good use of resources?

The EA is not under-resourced. It seems they use some of their resources in the wrong way, in my view.

“Yes, these are minor breaches, but are these worth five officers’ time? The gangs with their dogs and their rifles – this is a real and harmful waste crime.”

Willetts says waste crime is a good way for crime gangs to make a lot of money very quickly. It’s a revenue stream that neatly slots into their business model, funding other activities such as drugs, firearms and people trafficking. “I knew of an illegal site in London that was dealing in aggregates without any kind of permit,” she recalls. “They got busted eventually, but not before they’d made a ton of cash and disappeared.

“Scrap metal is a waste stream that’s in demand, thanks to high prices on the spot markets. Scrap cars are often shipped overseas to countries in Africa – sometimes traded for firearms.

“Waste might even end up in a permitted site, but the gangs will have made their money by mislabelling it – describing hazardous waste as non-hazardous, for example – and slipping the gate staff a back-hander to look the other way. They may have charged the waste producer the full amount, then pocketed the difference.”

Another issue is fraud, with waste criminals swapping waste transfer notes (WTNs) midway through a waste shipment. Often, such a forged WTN will show the name of an operator who has negotiated a reduction in landfill tax instead of the original waste producer, who has unwittingly paid the full rate to the criminals. The gang pockets the difference, which can be a lot of money on millions of tonnes of waste.

“We saw more and more criminal gangs move into waste crime during Covid,” says Phil Davies, head of the JUWC. “Where traditional crime streams for making and laundering money slowed or stopped in lockdown, waste was one industry that turned up its activities. We all generated more waste over that time period.”

Davies is seeing increased criminal activity in parts of the waste industry that require permits to operate. “We see gangs looking at opportunities that are very complex,” he says. “They employ people who are clever and well educated to deal with the movement of money, and the ringleaders will often work at arm’s length from the criminal activity, which makes them very hard to apprehend.

Some of the groups we are aware of have lots of people working in multiple locations around the globe.

“Their networks are significant, but they cover them up very well. They’re not just one or two people working together; some of the groups we are aware of have lots of people working in multiple locations around the globe. They regularly replace people in different positions to remove connectivity and make it harder to see patterns.”

Does Davies agree that some of these gangs are too big to take down? “I think my colleagues in other agencies that are responsible for looking at organised crime groups would articulate to you the complexities of dealing with those [large organisations],” he says. “My take on this would be no criminal gang is too big to take down; it just takes time, resources and effort.

“Society would obviously like things to happen faster, but we’ll go after anybody – regardless of size and complexity. We just need to work out the best way of doing that, which can take time. And we need the public to give us time to do that.”

Davies is very supportive of the EA’s record on waste crime to date, outside of the activities of the JUWC. “The scope and breadth of the EA right now are ginormous. Dealing with waste criminality and regulating waste services is just one very small – but very important – aspect of their work.

“Look at some of the figures that are available on service delivery from the EA: in three years, between 2017 and 2020, more than 2,500 illegal waste sites closed and there were nearly 200 prosecutions. Now, that takes resource; that takes commitment; that takes investigation; that takes guts.”

Davies points out that the EA’s activity is not just finding and prosecuting waste criminals, but also preventing it. “There are disruptions taking place all the time,” he says. “It’s about us being there in that space, targeting it all the time and having a presence all the time.”

Registered or unregistered?

Discarded furniture

This difference with which the EA inspects registered and unregistered sites are down to Treasury rules, which say the money raised through organisations registering with the EA must only be used to inspect these same organisations – not unregistered outfits. There is no corresponding fund for the inspection of illegal waste handlers.

According to whistleblowers interviewed by Rachel Salvage for The Guardian in January 2022, EA staff have been told to “shut down” and de-prioritise lower-impact category 3 and 4 waste incidents, so they can focus instead on the more serious category 1 and 2 breaches. Exceptions to the rule include regulated sites that have already registered with the EA.

There are some clear problems with this approach. Category 3 and 4 reports have a nasty habit of evolving into the more harmful category 1 and 2 incidents if left unchecked, suggesting a “stitch in time saves nine” approach may be more cost-effective in the long run. Additionally, when the public sees that their reports of minor infractions are being ignored, they may be less likely to report any type of waste crime in the future.

“It’s also very hard to know how the EA can accurately diagnose a reported incident as category 3/4 or 1/2 without actually coming out and looking at it,” Willetts adds.

When organisations and individuals who have taken part in waste crime are brought to justice, there is widespread concern that perpetrators are not receiving punishments that deter them from doing the same thing again.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, says that the criminal gangs at the heart of the waste-crime epidemic “regard the fines if they are caught as merely a business expense”.

Currently, the (Environment Agency’s) approach to large parts of waste crime is closer to decriminalisation.

She adds: “Currently, the [Environment Agency’s] approach to large parts of waste crime is closer to decriminalisation.”

Interventions designed to help the environment, such as the landfill tax and local authority charges at municipal recycling centres, have had the unintended consequence of being an incentive to commit waste crime – a motivation that can only increase as we get deeper into a cost-of-living crisis and lengthy recession.

Will extended producer responsibility (EPR) and deposit return schemes (DRS) provide yet another avenue for waste crime?

“We are horizon scanning all the time for potentially new and emerging trends around criminality that could be stepped into,” says the JUWC’s Davies. “If there’s one thing that criminals are good at, it’s being ahead of those who are trying to stop them. They start and then we catch up with them, so we are trying to think differently – almost trying to think with a criminal mind about what could be the next thing.

“[EPR and DRS] are things that the industry definitely needs, but there will be people who look to get around them. Our work is to see where those opportunities are and where they are going to be exploited, then try to impact them in the best way we can with the resources and legislation we have. In truth, everything creates an opportunity for a criminal, whatever it is.”

There are some truly creative ways in which waste criminals are getting around the law and making a lot of money. The authorities need to be equally creative if they are to keep in step with them and bring the perpetrators to justice – no easy task.

The intelligence the waste industry can provide is vital, and Circular encourages its readers to report information on waste crime through Crimestoppers. We’ll come back to this topic in subsequent issues, and we hope that one day, we’ll see the statistics heading in a more positive direction – for the sake of our industry, society and environment.

On the fly…


The most publicly visible form of waste crime is fly-tipping. Millions of tonnes of waste fail to make it to legitimate waste-handling facilities each year, with nearly one million instances of fly-tipping on public land recorded in 2019/20.

The scale of the problem is mind-boggling. “Of the £1bn that waste crimes cost the UK every year, we estimate that fly-tipping contributes £392m,” says Sam Corp, of the Environmental Services Association, which has carried out frequent surveys of the problem.

Corp adds: “It’s a huge price tag for the local authorities that have to pick up the remediation costs. Another £150-200m is associated with the clean-up of fly-tipping on private land, which landowners are obligated to pay.”

Although the Environment Agency prosecutes fly-tippers, it’s often hard to identify and find them, because of the quiet rural locations they choose. However, if the original waste producer can be identified from a receipt, invoice or delivery note among the waste, they are often prosecuted instead. It’s a law that many small business owners and members of the public do not know about.

“We’ve highlighted the lack of awareness among the general public about their responsibility to check that the waste-handler they are using is properly registered,” says Corp. “We ran a campaign called ‘Right waste, right place’ drawing attention to this, and ran a YouGov poll that found 60% of people weren’t aware they could be prosecuted if their waste fell into the wrong hands.”

£150-200m is associated with the clean-up of fly-tipping on private land, which landowners are obligated to pay.

However, Corp points out that boosting public awareness of the Waste Carriers, Brokers and Dealers (CBD) register is only of value if the register is robust. “A few years ago, a consultant who was producing a report on waste crime for us managed to register his dead West Highland terrier as a registered waste carrier. It took about 10 minutes and cost £140,” he says.

Guardian journalist George Monbiot pulled the same stunt with his late goldfish, Algernon.

The less-than-robust nature of the CBD register has been noticed by the government and reforms are in the pipeline, with consultations now taking place, although the pandemic and recent changes in government have caused delays.

Corp believes that the punishments dished out for fly-tipping are currently an insufficient deterrent to those carrying it out. “Let’s have fines to fit the crime,” he says. “£500 for a fly-tipping offence isn’t much when you consider it probably costs more than that to clean it up.”

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