One of the UK’s biggest waste firms has lost a case in the court of appeal to overturn a criminal conviction for exporting dirty waste to China.
The Environment Agency, which brought a successful criminal prosecution a year ago against Biffa Waste Services Ltd, which was convicted of trying to send used nappies and other contaminated materials illegally to China, welcomed Friday’s ruling and said exports of this kind of illegal waste “blighted the lives and environment of people overseas”.
The ruling has clarified the rules about exporting waste overseas.
The case focused on an incident in May 2015, in which Biffa dispatched 175 tonnes of waste from its recycling plant in Edmonton, north London, destined for two reprocessing plants in China.
Biffa had said that the unsorted household waste was paper. The company was prosecuted by the Environment Agency after investigators stopped seven 25-tonne containers from leaving Felixstowe in Suffolk over suspicions about the content.
Instead of waste paper, investigators discovered a mix of used nappies, sanitary towels and incontinence pads, sealed bags containing faeces, hot water bottles, hi-vis jackets and food packaging. Biffa was fined GBP350,000.
In the 1970s and 80s it was common for the UK to dump waste in developing countries, but regulations around shipment of waste were brought in to stop the west dumping this detritus on other countries.
In 2018, China banned imports of plastic and other waste materials from the west, including all mixed paper, amid growing anger at the way the west exported its rubbish.
Biffa appealed to the court of appeal against last year’s criminal conviction, arguing that further consideration should have been given in that case to whether the waste the company planned to export met China’s environmental standards for recycling and processing waste.
It also highlighted in last year’s case charitable work it had carried out, but complained when negative issues about its track record were made known to the jury to balance the positive points.
Friday’s judgment refers to 18 previous offences committed by Biffa, four involving health and safety, three of which involved deaths.
The three judges hearing the case rejected Biffa’s arguments. Their judgment has clarified the law around export of waste to other countries. The case is likely to be noted with interest not only by UK waste exporters but also by those from other European countries.
Household waste cannot be exported for paper recycling and the court of appeal judges said that waste must be categorised at the outset of its journey rather than at its final destination – in this case in Edmonton rather than China.
In any criminal prosecutions of waste companies, neither the destination of any waste nor any standards applied by the receiving country should be relevant to a jury, the judges said. Opinions of mill owners in foreign countries, foreign laws or environment agencies are “irrelevant to the application of that standard”, according to today’s ruling.
Sailesh Mehta, a human rights and environmental barrister who represented the Environment Agency in the court of appeal case, welcomed the judgment.
He said: “The court of appeal has helped to clarify the law on the export of our household waste, masquerading as waste paper. This is a Europe-wide problem and this case will have far-reaching and beneficial consequences. The Environment Agency sought to enforce our legal and moral obligations, and to protect the environments of developing nations who receive our harmful waste. The export of our unwanted waste is a multimillion pound business, here and in Europe. The court of appeal has confirmed and clarified the law and given valuable guidance that will help in our fight to save the environment,” he said.
Sarah Mills, the enforcement manager at the Environment Agency, said: “The court of appeal’s judgement in upholding Biffa’s conviction for exporting waste collected from households, labelled as paper, justifies our decision to prosecute the company. Illegal waste exports blight the lives and environment of people 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.”
A spokesperson for Biffa said:”We are disappointed with this outcome and are now considering our options.”