Waste crime: Government approach “closer to decriminalisation”

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee says there is still no strategy or plan for achieving government’s “hugely ambitious” target of eliminating waste crime by 2043.

In a report published today (19 October) the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says that despite the antisocial, polluting and costly impacts of waste crime, Defra and the Environment Agency are making only “slow and piecemeal” progress in implementing the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy.

It says there is still no strategy or plan for achieving its “hugely ambitious” target of eliminating waste crime by 2043.

Four years into that 25-year target, measures central to achieving the aim such as digital tracking of waste, are “not even at the pilot stage”, the report finds.

Waste crime includes well known issues such as fly-tipping as well as illegally mis-categorising waste for disposal and is a huge issue in England. It costs the economy around £1 billion a year.

Currently the Department’s approach to large parts of waste crime is closer to decriminalisation

The Committee says “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” and with the cost of living crisis potentially further increasing the “incentives for people to get rid of waste inappropriately”.

Interventions such as landfill tax and local charges for disposing of waste create “perverse financial incentives” to commit waste crime, it says, with penalties not proving effective. PAC says HMRC has pursued one prosecution for landfill tax evasion and it failed, at a cost to the public of £3.5 million.

The Committee is also concerned about the levels of illegal waste exports, which the “Environment Agency is not doing enough to prevent”, it says.

It says, by the Agency’s own admission, most of these illegal exports end up in non-OECD countries where controls on the harms it may cause and capacity to ameliorate them are less.


Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Another day, another policy headline with no plan or demonstrable progress towards achieving it, despite years of resources put in.

“The result is property and countryside blighted by fly-tipping, toxic leaks into our soil, and tonnes of waste illegally exported by the UK to developing countries even less able to cope with its indefinite negative effects.

“With growing involvement of criminal gangs, adept at evading detection and who regard the fines if they are caught as merely a business expense, a much more serious approach to enforcement is required. Currently the Department’s approach to large parts of waste crime is closer to decriminalisation.

We are reforming the licensing system, introducing mandatory digital waste tracking, investing to tackle fly tipping, and supporting people to do the right thing by disposing of their waste correctly.

“Targets become meaningless – rubbish, you might say – when there isn’t even a strategy for achieving them, much less any indication or measurement of progress. Sadly, all the signs four years into a 25 year target period are that the problem is getting worse.”

Environment minister Trudy Harrison said: “We are cracking down on waste crime, which costs the economy in England around £924m per year. That is why we are reforming the licensing system, introducing mandatory digital waste tracking, investing to tackle fly tipping, and supporting people to do the right thing by disposing of their waste correctly.”

Among its recommendations, the Committee says Defra should increase the impetus with which the Resources and Waste Strategy is taken forward. By October 2022, it should provide the Committee with its outline plan for achieving the elimination of waste crime by 2043, and provide annual updates on progress against this plan.

It says Defra and the EA need to explore the full range of potential solutions to data weaknesses, including for example satellite technology, and ensure successful delivery of existing initiatives to improve data; where these initiatives rely on public reporting there should be appropriate capacity to follow up reported incidents.

It says Defra should work with HMT and HMRC to ensure the current review of landfill tax takes account of the incentives that the tax as currently designed creates to commit waste crime; and should work with local authorities to set a clear national framework for tackling fly-tipping, setting overall expectations and promoting good practice, while allowing local authorities the flexibility to respond to local circumstances.

“Depressingly familiar”

Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), Jacob Hayler, said the “damning” PAC inquiry report sets out a “depressingly familiar” analysis of the impact of waste crime and the lack of progress made to tackle it, while also highlighting that current approaches appear to be failing.

He said: “Waste crime is increasing, enforcement is decreasing and, in this ‘evolutionary arms race’, the criminals appear to be winning – viewing paltry sanctions as little more than a business expense and brazenly operating undeterred by under-resourced enforcement agencies.

“ESA agrees with the PAC report’s helpful recommendations, which largely mirror those we made in our 2021 Counting Cost of Waste Crime Report. These recommendations advocate fast-tracking of regulatory reforms to tackle waste crime; drastically improving data and metrics to properly capture the impact and better benchmark enforcement progress; as well as stronger enforcement and tougher sanctions, so that the fine fits the crime.

“In particular, we would like to see stronger application of Duty of Care requirements on waste producers and better use being made of the landfill tax illegal disposals regulations, alongside much more urgent reform of the carriers, brokers and dealers regime and the rapid introduction of digital waste tracking.”

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