For years, international waste crime has been overshadowed by other aspects of environmental crime, and yet it is a problem that can no longer be ignored by governments all over the world.
According to Ioana Botezatu, operational support officer at INTERPOL, the world’s largest international police organisation, boasting 190 member countries: “Environmental crime, including mining and fishing, is estimated to be around $90bn and is growing exponentially, while the waste sector hasn’t received that much attention.”
Consequently there is no easy way of measuring the cost of international waste crime.
So what constitutes waste crime? Essentially it is the illegal management of waste and ranges from illegal dumping of household and industrial waste to huge fraud involving landfill tax and recycling fees.
In September last year, Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, called waste crime “the new narcotics” and estimated its cost to be £1bn a year. It was also reported that over 1,000 illegal waste sites were discovered last year, more than in the previous two years combined.
“It feels to me like drugs felt in the 1980s,” stated Bevan. “The system hasn’t quite woken up to the enormity of what [is] going on and [is] racing to catch up.”
What is being done on the global stage to combat waste crime?
Commissioner Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, tells RWW: “Reports from Europol, INTERPOL, IMPEL (the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law) and other sources on the trade in illegal e-waste show how serious this is. It’s not just fly-tipping and illegal landfills, it’s also illegal waste exports to developing countries.
“We are already doing a lot,” says Vella. “Since 2011, we have worked with Member States to improve the overall waste management situation. So far, this ‘compliance promotion’ has focused on municipal waste management, but it’s being extended to hazardous waste, WEEE and end-of-life vehicles. The inspection requirements under the EU waste shipment regulation were recently strengthened, giving inspectors increased powers and making risk-based inspection planning compulsory.”
INTERPOL’s interest in waste crime goes back to the early 1990s.
Botezatu again: “Pollution matters have attracted INTERPOL since 1992 when a couple of African countries met and created the Pollution Crime Working Group (PCWG) to enable countries to have a dialogue; however, Europe has some problems in this area and there are other continents we need to connect with. As the mandated global channel for sharing information that is needed operationally, we can connect the European community with continents like the US, Asia and Africa.”
In 2013, INTERPOL launched Project Eden, an initiative to combat the illegal trade in waste, particularly electronic waste (e-waste). The project is said to work closely with the PCWG to raise awareness of the illegal transnational movement of waste, and the environmental and health consequences and aims to promote an intelligence-led approach and conduct operations to suppress criminal activity and disrupt trafficking.
Then there is the Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT) project that was set up to provide a set of recommendations to support the European Commission, law enforcement authorities and customs organisations in countering the illegal trade of e-waste in and from Europe.
However, even with setting up such initiatives, Botezatu admitted it is a challenge to get this issue to the top of governments’ and agencies’ priorities despite the fact that in 2012 only around three million tons of the estimated total of nine million tons in WEEE was officially collected, treated and reported to authorities across Europe.
“If you think about discarded products like e-waste, which contains valuable materials such as gold, copper and palladium as well as hazardous materials like mercury and cadmium, it is difficult to get people’s attention. They don’t see waste as being of interest so we have to find creative ways to investigate the e-waste stream,” says the operational support officer, who goes on to explain the measures taken by INTERPOL as part of the CWIT Project.
“We conducted several studies in law enforcement, air quality and proposed a strategy for better co-ordination. We offered recommendations for policy-makers and to consumers to be more responsible for the disposal of waste. However, it is an unregulated market and in terms of law enforcement, waste is not seen as a high-risk crime.”
Having said this, in recent years waste crime in the UK appears to have been given a higher priority, in particular the illegal export of waste. In April 2014 the UK government allocated additional funds to the Environment Agency to tackle waste crime.
“Some of that was used to enhance our work on waste shipments and subsequent evaluation indicates that it had a noticeable impact on the amount of waste illegally exported. That enhanced funding remains in place,” according to the Environment Agency, which has a specialist crime unit using intelligence to track and prosecute organised crime gangs involved in illegal waste activity.
The Environment Agency reported officers carrying out 1,388 container inspections prior to export in 2015/16, compared with just 167 three years previously.
However, according to Botezatu this is not enough.
“We have identified that there is more illegality happening at the EU level than actually just e-waste being undocumented and exported. You think of the EU as the region with one of the most studied legislation in the world and countries have the ability to transpose it into law. It’s not enough. The most important thing is action. It is the missing link. E-waste tends to fall down here. We at INTERPOL are taking the lead. We can guide and help the community to appropriate resources in this area.”
Nor is an increase in regulators enforcing the law seen as being adequate on its own.
Laura Tainsh, a partner at Davidson Chalmers, tells RWW: “As well as an escalation of enforcement at the criminal end of the scale, there has also been a suggestion that a national clamping down on the duty of care could have a direct and potentially significant impact on waste crime. If everyone in the industry were fully aware of and compliant with their obligations under the duty of care, they would as a consequence know where their waste was going, and that should cut off the supply of waste materials available to criminals operating in the sector.
However, statistics from April 2016 indicate that over 50% of businesses (the majority being SMEs) are not complying with their duty of care, creating yet another challenge for the regulators.” (See page 33 for more information on the regulation landscape in the UK).
Tainsh’s concerns have been validated by new research commissioned by the right Waste, right Place campaign that reported agricultural businesses and rural land owners throughout the UK are bearing the brunt of waste crime, with almost a third (32%) suffering incidents of fly-tipping on their land. The survey shows that the number of those falling victim in the last three years rose to 43% in some areas such as London and the South East.
According to the campaign, and depending on the region of the research, up to 100% of survey respondents believed they were compliant with ‘Duty of Care’ law, whereas previous research carried out by right Waste, right Place reveals that only half are likely to be compliant. The campaign said that this lack of understanding of duty of care is directly contributing to waste being illegally dumped in rural areas.
Nicky Cunningham, deputy director of waste regulation at the Environment Agency, says: “It’s crucial that all businesses understand their duty of care responsibilities for the waste they produce. Too often, when these responsibilities are misunderstood or ignored, we see the impact of waste crime where waste is deliberately dumped on land with no permit. This can cause serious pollution, put communities at risk and undermines legitimate businesses that are doing the right thing.”
Work in the EU arena is ongoing according to Commissioner Vella.
“Last year the Justice and Home Affairs Council launched a peer review process on waste crime in all Member States under the Environmental Crime Directive, due to conclude in 2018.
“This year’s Commission Work Programme also makes it clear that there will be more support for Member States, particularly for waste crime, so there is more help on the way,” confirmed the commissioner.