The UK’s largest waste company, Biffa, has been fined £1.5m after exporting filthy rubbish marked as waste paper for recycling in India and Indonesia, in actions a judge called “reckless, bordering on deliberate”.
Last week, the company was convicted of sending more than 1,000 tonnes of household waste to India and Indonesia, in breach of a ban on sending such waste to developing countries after a two-week trial at Wood Green crown court .
Approximately 50,000 tins, 40,000 plastic bags, 25,000 items of clothing, 3,000 nappies – and even a frying pan, condoms and a souvenir New York T-shirt were among the items packaged as waste paper for export to Asia in Biffa’s recycling facility in Edmonton, north London, between 2018 and 2019.
The seven-figure fine is the second time in two years the company has been fined for exporting household waste to a non-OECD country.
Investigators who discovered the rogue waste recorded “a strong putrid” smell and an “acidic aroma” after they held sixteen 25-tonne containers at Southampton, but 26 more had already left the port.
Biffa said the prosecution brought by the Environment Agency had not been in the public interest. However, after Friday’s sentence, it removed that statement from its website. Instead Biffa told the Guardian: “We take our responsibility for environmental stewardship very seriously and we accept the court’s judgment. We no longer export waste paper outside the OECD and will carefully review our processes to ensure they fully meet the implications of this judgment.”
Judge Shane Collery QC told Wood Green crown court Biffa had shown no contrition. He found the company’s previous comments about being picked on by the Environment Agency and no public interest served in being prosecuted a second time as “aggravating and unattractive”.
The Environment Agency brought the prosecution against Biffa after uncovering rolling contracts to send vast amounts of waste to India and Indonesia.
Malcolm Lythgo, the head of waste regulation at the Environment Agency, said: “Biffa shipped banned materials to developing countries without having systems in place to prevent the offences. The Environment Agency will pursue those who blight the lives of overseas communities through illegal exports. This guilty verdict underlines that anyone producing or handling waste must only export material legally and safely for recycling.
“The Environment Agency stopped the illegal export of almost 23,000 tonnes of unsuitable waste in 2019-20. We have stepped up increased monitoring of international waste shipments.”
During the most recent trial, jurors were told of Biffa’s rolling monthly contracts worth a combined £39,500 to move the household waste to India or Indonesia.
The company was convicted of four breaches of regulation 23 of the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 2007 between October 2018 and April 2019. In addition to the £1.5m fine, Biffa was ordered to pay costs of £153,827.99, and a proceeds of crime order of £38,388.
In September 2019, Biffa was fined £350,000, with costs of £240,000 and a proceeds of crime order of £9,912, for sending household waste, described as waste paper, to China between May and June 2015.
Britain is a signatory to international agreements to ensure that household and hazardous waste produced here is not exported to developing nations.
Sailesh Mehta, prosecuting for the Environment Agency, told the jury: “We have a moral and legal obligation not to pass on our pollution problems to other countries such as India and Indonesia.”
The Biffa group has a turnover of more than £1bn, and about 100,000 tonnes of waste is exported from its Edmonton site.