Government does not have the data it needs to assess the scale of waste crime in England, and the incentives for criminals to enter the waste market have increased, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
Today’s NAO report finds that the number of active illegal waste sites in England known to the Agency has reduced from 685 in 2018-19 to 470 in 2020-21. However, travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fewer cases being identified.
The number of fly-tipping incidents reported by local authorities has risen most years since 2012-13 and reached 1.13 million in 2020-21 – at a cost of £11.6 million to clear large-scale incidents. Most incidents involved household waste, and the most common place for fly-tipping to occur was on highways.
Based on a 2015 estimate, the Environment Agency (EA) believes that there is widespread abuse of exemptions from environmental permits for certain waste operations.
Government needs to target resources effectively and understand what progress it is making towards its aim of eliminating waste crime by 2043. To do so, it will need a robust set of performance measures to identify when actions are off-track
It does not know the scale of the illegal export of waste that may cause serious harm in the countries that receive it, the NAO report states.
Since 2013-14, the number of containers intercepted and found to contain waste being exported illegally has varied between 200 and 500 containers per year.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Defra and the Environment Agency agree that their data significantly understates the scale of some types of waste crime. The evidence available shows that waste crime is increasing, and organised criminals are becoming more involved.
“Government needs to target resources effectively and understand what progress it is making towards its aim of eliminating waste crime by 2043. To do so, it will need a robust set of performance measures to identify when actions are off-track.”
The large rise in the standard rate of landfill tax has increased the returns criminals can potentially make from certain types of waste crime. The rise in landfill tax saw the amount of waste sent to landfill reduce by 75% between 2010-11 and 2020-21.
At the same time, there has been an increase in the money criminals can make by avoiding landfill tax through the misdescription of waste, illegal waste sites, and some types of fly-tipping. HM Revenue & Customs estimates that in 2019-20, £200 million of landfill tax was not paid through non-compliance.
Organised crime groups have become more involved in waste crime. The 60 organised crime groups monitored by the Joint Unit for Waste Crime (Joint Unit) have extensive involvement in other types of crime – 70% are involved in specialist money laundering.
Defra and the Environment Agency agree that their data significantly understates the scale of some types of waste crime. The evidence available shows that waste crime is increasing, and organised criminals are becoming more involved.
Over the first half of 2021-22, the Joint Unit led or took part in 24 coordinated days of action with partners to prevent and disrupt the involvement of organised crime groups in the waste sector, resulting in 35 arrests.
The most common actions that the EA takes in relation to illegal waste sites are issuing advice and guidance (52%) and sending warning letters (37%).
The Agency’s response to investigations into breaches of environmental permit conditions and major fly-tipping incidents follows the same pattern. The number of times the Agency has prosecuted organisations for waste incidents has dropped from a 2007-08 peak of almost 800, to around 50 per year in the period running up to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Progress against the actions in the Strategy has been slower than Defra anticipated, the report states. Defra told the NAO that the COVID-19 pandemic meant that resources had to be diverted, and though some actions in the Strategy have been completed, many are at the consultation stage.
An evaluation of the Strategy’s progress has been commissioned and will be published in 2027.
The EA has received ringfenced government funding to combat waste crime as incentives for criminals have increased, but many other organisations involved in tackling waste crime have not.
The Agency’s spending on enforcement and waste crime rose from around £12 million in 2010-11, to £17 million in 2021-22 in cash terms.
During the same period local authorities and the police have been making resource decisions in the context of shrinking budgets. The Joint Unit and its partner organisations do not receive any dedicated funding from government.
Executive Director of the ESA, Jacob Hayler, said the findings of the NAO report “illustrate perfectly” why the waste sector is viewed as a “soft target” by criminals.
He said: “Strong and timely enforcement by regulators is vital to tackling this issue and, while we understand resource pressures and the impact of covid 19, it is disappointing to see that the number of prosecutions has dropped considerably while the incidences of waste crime have continued to rise. It is also frustrating that investigations, on average, are becoming drawn out across many years – taking an average of 1500 days.
“Illegal sites cause significant misery for local communities, harm the environment and discourage investment in the sector by legitimate operators, so it therefore does not seem proportionate that only 5% (28) of the 632 illegal waste sites discovered in 2020/21 led to a prosecution.
Illegal sites cause significant misery for local communities, harm the environment and discourage investment in the sector by legitimate operator
“We are pleased that the NAO report draws extensively on data produced by ESA in our Counting the Cost of Waste Crime Report and also mirrors several recommendations that we have made previously.
“In particular we fully support the NAO’s recommendation for better data to measure the prevalence of waste crime, as well as KPIs to measure progress in tackling waste crime.
“Whilst we support the various government initiatives both planned and already implemented to tackle this issue, waste crime continues to get worse rather than better, and government and regulators need to get an urgent handle on this so that we start seeing a significant measurable reduction in the prevalence of waste crime once and for all.”
CIWM “Not surprised”
CIWM said that it welcomes the findings of the NAO investigation into waste crime but is “not surprised” by its main conclusion that the government “does not have the data it needs to assess the scale of waste crime in England, and the incentives for criminals to enter the waste market have increased”.
Earlier this month, CIWM supported government proposals to toughen up on waste crime in our responses to the Defra consultations on mandatory digital waste tracking and English reforms to the carrier, broker, and dealer regime, stating that: “We hope that these proposals, if enacted, will be accompanied by enough funding that will allow the regulators to make the most of these new tools, so that they can further clamp down on waste crime. However, the CIWM was disappointed to note that the proposals for Carriers, Brokers and Dealers did not cover the whole of the UK.”
In its response to the Treasury’s call for evidence on the landfill tax earlier this year, CIWM also said that the differential between the lower and standard rate of tax was a “massive incentive” to misclassify waste and that such misclassification is “an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen”.
Whilst Sir James Bevan’s aspirations to ban all exports of waste were “laudable”, exports will still be needed to support UK recycling, at least in the short to medium-term, and that much more needs to be done to stop illegal exports in the interim
CIWM said: “Given the importance of this policy area, CIWM’s London and Southern Counties Centre held an open meeting this week, at which the issues surrounding the illegal export of waste were discussed by speakers from academia, NGOs, industry, and the regulator. The overarching message coming out of the event was that the current waste export system was not strong enough to prevent potential criminality.
“At the meeting, CIWM and others expressed the belief that, in the fullness of time, waste (especially plastic waste) should not be exported, if suitable facilities exist here in the UK to deal with it.
“CIWM believes that, whilst Sir James Bevan’s aspirations to ban all exports of waste were “laudable”, exports will still be needed to support UK recycling, at least in the short to medium-term, and that much more needs to be done to stop illegal exports in the interim.
“We also hope that the recently consulted-on reforms will be speedily implemented and that the necessary resources will be made available to the regulators to make the best use of these new tools, so that the process of eliminating waste crime and illegal waste sites by 2043, as set out in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the Waste and Resources Strategy, can herald the end of the beginning, if not the beginning of the end, to waste crime – to paraphrase the words of Sir Winston Churchill.”
The 25-Year Environment Plan, published in 2018, states government’s ambition to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites in England within 25 years (by 2043).
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set out its approach to tackling waste crime in the Resources and Waste Strategy (the Strategy), and the Environment Agency (the Agency) is responsible for investigating waste crime.
The Joint Unit for Waste Crime (the Joint Unit) was established in January 2020 to tackle serious and organised crime in the waste sector and consists of nine strategic partner organisations.
Defra and the Agency understand the nature of waste crime but recognise that the data they collect does not reflect its full extent, the NAO investigation found. They have committed to improving how they measure waste crime, including through electronic tracking.