Waste management firm Biffa has been convicted of illegally sending waste collected from households to China and claiming it was waste paper, according to The Environment Agency.
From this, the firm has agreed a figure of £9,912 to be paid for proceeds of crime, although it disputes the claims made against it.
The Environment Agency prosecuted Biffa for sending what it said was household waste containing used nappies and food packaging, even though the export of unsorted household recycling waste has been banned since 2006.
After a three-week trial, a jury at Wood Green Crown court found Biffa guilty of two breaches of the law in May and June 2015, as evidence by investigators at Felixstowe port who identified the contents of seven 25-tonnes containers bound for China including plastics, metals, glass and electricals.
Jurors heard Biffa used two firms, or brokers, to act as intermediaries to manage the deal to send the waste to two delivery sites in Shenzhen and Guang Dong on the South China Sea coast.
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 by contacting Biffa. A price of around £350,000 was agreed for the export, due to take place the following month.
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 Environment Agency prevented any of the seven containers from leaving Felixstowe.
Enforcement manager Sarah Mills whose team investigated the breaches for the Environment Agency said: “Our officers found anything and everything in Biffa’s containers at Felixstowe. They were marked as waste paper, but contained a totally unacceptable level of contamination with other waste. The regulations around shipment of waste were brought in to stop the West merely passing the problem to other countries. It was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s for developed nations to send vast amounts of waste abroad. The waste contained offensive material likely to have been discarded by the receiving country, at great risk and cost to the environment and people.”
Judge Simon Auerbach deferred sentencing until 27 September. The court was told the Environment Agency and Biffa had agreed a figure of £9,912 to be paid for proceeds of crime.
In response to this a spokesperson from Biffa has said: “We strongly contested this case and are very disappointed with this outcome. We are considering our 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.”
The spokesperson added that due to the lack of reprocessing capacity, the UK and Europe is reliant on the export markets for recycled paper and cardboard, and the charges in the case relate to “the contamination levels in seven containers of mixed paper that were due for export to China over four years ago”.
During this time, China was a major market for UK exported materials, with Biffa a supplier to some of the largest 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”.
The spokesperson said: “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.”