Biffa hit with £600k bill for illegal waste exports

Biffa hit with £600k bill for illegal waste exports

One of the UK’s largest waste management companies - Biffa Waste Services Ltd - has been ordered to pay a total of £599,912 for breaching waste export regulations.

Biffa was found guilty of sending contaminated household waste, described as waste paper, to China between May and June 2015. Although marked as waste paper, the contents of the containers included soiled nappies, food packaging, items of clothing, bags of faeces, wood, tin cans, plastic bottles and electric cables.

Exports of unsorted household recycling waste from the UK to China are banned. During an Environment Agency investigation, officers prevented seven 25-tonne containers destined for China at Felixstowe Port from onward export.

In a hearing held last week at Wood Green Crown Court the court heard brief details about four further charges against Biffa illegally exporting 42 containers of waste collected from households to India and Indonesia between November 2018 and February 2019.

The court fined Biffa £350,000 and ordered that the company pays costs of £240,000 and a further £9,912 under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA).

The EA has introduced a number of additional measures to tackle illegal exports including working closely with HMRC reviewing inconsistencies between customs information and packaging data, and creating an investigations team to target serious offenders.

Malcolm Lythgo, Head of Waste at the Environment Agency, said: “We are pleased with the court’s decision. We want all producers and exporters of waste to be responsible and make sure they only export material that can be legally and safely exported for recycling overseas.

“Illegal waste export blights the lives and environment of those overseas. We continue to treat illegal waste exports as a priority and will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those found to break the rules.

“Between 2018 and 2019, we prevented the illegal export of 12,690 tonnes of unsuitable waste and are working with the government on a number of measures to tighten controls including increasing monitoring of international waste shipments and charging higher fees to improve compliance.”

During the trial, jurors heard how Biffa used two brokers to arrange the export to two paper mills in Shenzhen and Guang Dong, a coastal province of southeast China. The jury did not accept Biffa’s version of events that consignments leaving its depot in Edmonton four years ago complied with the law because they comprised of waste paper. The first broker took up a request from a Chinese client in April 2015 to arrange shipment of 5,863 tonnes of mixed waste paper from Biffa. A price of around £350,000 was agreed for this order. At the same time, Biffa agreed with a second broker to ship 4,992 tonnes of mixed paper in a contract worth almost £290,000. The seven stopped containers were part of these two orders.

In a statement issued by the company, Biffa said it was ”very disappointed” with the outcome and was considering its position and grounds for appeal.  

 “At the time of the case we supplied a vital raw material to China to be recycled in an environmentally sound manner as an alternative to forestry. The materials we supplied commanded market-leading prices and met both international industry and customer standards. Throughout this case the Environment Agency (EA) has accused Biffa of failing to meet standards that it has repeatedly failed to specify through guidance. The EA has been continually asked to specify a required level of purity by both the industry, and in one instance the Court of Appeal, and the failure to do so is a breach of its responsibilities to the market.

“Due to the lack of reprocessing capacity, the UK and Europe is reliant on the export market for recycled paper and cardboard. The charges in the case relate to contamination levels in seven containers of mixed paper that were due for export to China over four years ago. At that time China was a core market for UK exported materials for recycled paper and cardboard, and Biffa was a key supplier to some of the largest, best-invested cardboard mills in China. These mills were all accredited by the EA as being of an equal or higher environmental standard as mills within the UK and Europe.

“These materials were regularly inspected by customs in China and by a Chinese Inspectorate regime based in the UK prior to shipping. In addition, all buyers conducted pre-checks before shipping to confirm that the materials were 98.5% pure paper, which was the accepted industry standard. With the UK recycling more, there is a level of contamination in recyclable material, which we make strenuous efforts to minimise at our industry leading sorting facilities and reprocessing capabilities. The court heard no evidence to suggest we were outside of the industry tolerance for contamination and no customer ever rejected any material on quality grounds.

“This case highlights the need for the EA to issue clear guidance to the industry as to what are the acceptable levels of purity for UK exported mixed paper. In this instance the jury was asked to make a judgement as to whether they considered the level of contamination was minimal, without any quantitative guidance. In the absence of any EA guidelines our products always met the standards set by our customers and provided a route to recycling in an environmentally sound manner."

The EA said all UK waste exports must be made in accordance with Waste Shipments Regulation and it has a system of inspections in place to verify compliance. The Government’s Resources and Waste strategy puts forward a suite of measures including: extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging waste; a consistent set of materials to be collected for recycling by local authorities; a deposit return scheme (DRS) for beverage containers; and a ‘plastics tax’ on packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled plastic.