Two British businesses responsible for attempting to illegally export 259 tons of mixed waste to China were fined the maximum amount on Wednesday.
The businesses disguised 10 containers of mixed waste as scrap metal for export but were discovered at Felixstowe, the largest British port, during a routine inspection by the British government’s regulatory body Environment Agency.
The last time illegal shipments to China caused a public stir was in 2005, when more than 1,000 tons of contaminated British household refuse disguised as waste paper was intercepted in the Netherlands.
Under current international shipping laws, OECD countries can only export waste to non-OECD countries for recycling, and not disposal. Because mixed waste falls into the “disposal” category, it cannot be exported, as opposed to scrap metals that can be recycled into manufacturing products in countries such as China.
Although the containers were labeled as “aluminum from construction and demolition waste”, inspectors found in them a mix of steel car parts, copper wiring, circuit board, chipboard and wood fragments, glass, foam, brick, stone and other waste material.
The exporting company is Chungs UK Ltd, which sources and exports scrap metal and plastic to sell, mainly to China. The containers were loaded at BW Riddle, a vehicle dismantling and metal recycling site in the English Midlands.
BW Riddle was fined 15,500 pounds ($243,000) and Chungs UK Ltd 11,500 pounds.
BW Riddle partner Colin Riddle said that he was “surprised and disappointed” to have “unintentionally” breached the law.
He said that he was “not aware that the sale of non-hazardous mixed waste comprising mainly of metal, plastics and rubber to an exporter, exporting to China, was subject to specific requirements”.
He said that it was “a technical breach” and he “did not intend to commit” an offense, adding that “there will be no further exports of such waste in contravention of the regulations”.
Riddle set up the company with his late father in 1973 and “has worked in the recycling industry for nearly 40 years without any previous environmental convictions”.
Both companies admitted that it was not the first time they had exported this type of waste to China without notification or consent from the authorities, according to Miriam Tordoff, prosecuting lawyer for the Environment Agency.
“Preventing the illegal export of waste is a top priority for the Environment Agency, and we will take action where we find evidence of illegal waste movement,” said Claire Parker, an agency officer.
The agency established a National Environmental Crime Team in 2008 to help prevent illegal waste exports.
Andrew Higham, NECT’s manager, said that in recent years his team has moved away from “random inspections” to an “intelligence led approach”.
“So in excess of 90 out of 100 containers that we stop, we will find some offense,” Higham said, adding that another case of attempted illegal export to China, discovered earlier this year, is still to be investigated.
He said that illegal exporters make significant monetary gains from such activities. For example, it may cost 50 pounds to dispose of an old TV in a legal and environmentally friendly way in Britain, but on average just 1 pound to ship it abroad.
“To be frank, it is impossible to stop all crime,” said Higham, “so what we try to do in moving forward is to make our inspections more targeted and have better outcomes”.
The illegal export of British waste has long been suspected, but the scale of the trade has only recently come to light.
In 2009, more than 90 containers labeled as mixed plastics were sent back to Britain after Brazilian authorities found they contained household waste. Last year, a British electrical recycling company was found to be illegally shipping old computers to Afghanistan.
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