Following a recent interview in which he said “waste [crime] is the new narcotics – it feels to me like drugs felt in the 1980s”, we invited the Environment Agency’s chief executive, Sir James Bevan, to explain how he sees the issue of waste crime and how it is being addressed
Since becoming chief executive of the Environment Agency last November, I’ve travelled pretty much the length and breadth of the country. And as someone who has spent most of the past 30 years abroad during the course of my career, the transformation – for the better – has made a big impression on me. England is now a better place to live – with cleaner air, soils and water. Rivers that I remember as black in my youth now have clear water and fish in them – a jaw dropping improvement.
Regulation – and the Environment Agency – has played a big part in this. Recently published reports show that emissions to air from the businesses we regulate are down, including harmful greenhouse gases, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides; serious pollution incidents are down and bathing water standards continue to improve. Encouraging news, but there is always more that we can, and will, do.
In the waste industry regulation continues to have an impact. Waste recycling and treatment rates continue to rise – household waste recycling has reached nearly 45 percent, the highest on record, while sites permitted by the Environment Agency recovered 65 percent of their waste in 2015, compared to 39 percent in 2000.
Quality protocols have diverted over 61m tonnes of material from landfill, and have saved businesses around £466m. Serious pollution incidents caused by permitted waste sites has fallen by 36 percent and methane emissions from the landfill sector are down too – by over 60 percent since 2002.
Through regulation we’ve seen a decrease in the number of persistently poor performing waste sites, with 97 percent of regulated sites rated satisfactory. And sites of high public interest – the worst neighbours, the ones who blight local communities with unacceptable levels of noise, dust, odour – they have fallen by over 50 percent too, thanks to a concerted campaign by our staff to work with them to bring them into compliance, or shut them down.
The industry itself continues to drive environmental improvements too, with the majority of operators we work with being well managed and committed to ensuring the right waste goes to the right place.
Time To Get Tougher
So regulation of legitimate waste operators works – and the trends are going in the right direction. But where regulation can’t reach – the illegal waste operators – we are getting even tougher. In the last year we’ve stopped nearly 1,000 illegal waste sites, including 304 high risk sites – more than in each of the previous two years. And we’re shutting down new illegal waste sites more quickly than ever before, with over 50 percent shut down within 90 days.
But waste crime remains a serious issue, and a priority for the Environment Agency, because waste crime can be big business with serious consequences. It can cause serious pollution to the environment; put communities at risk; and undermine the legitimate operators who do the right thing. It’s also often linked to other organised crime, so we put considerable resources into cracking down on waste crime. Since April 2011 we have invested £65.2m in tackling the issue and we have set up a specialist crime unit using intelligence to track and prosecute organised crime gangs involved in illegal waste activity.
Waste crime can be seen as an easy way to make money. We need to make it much harder. So as well as shutting down and prosecuting offenders, we are increasingly using new approaches that are designed to disrupt illegal activity, including putting up signs and physical barriers at illegal sites, and making those who deliver waste to such sites aware that they too are committing offences.
The message on illegal waste sites is that we’re finding more, and nailing more; focusing on the activities that cause most harm to the environment and local communities and directing our considerable expertise, money and enforcement powers to ensuring that waste crime doesn’t pay.
This article was first published in the CIWM Journal