Dirty business: who will stop the UK tip mafia? | Georges monbiot
They made millions of them. They threatened our health and poisoned the earth. Among the dirt they buried were industrial quantities of syringes, bloody bandages, oily waste from scrapped cars, shredded plastic and asbestos. Fleets of trucks traveled from as far away as Birmingham to drop off their loads at the sites the two men operated in South Wales, to avoid paying the landfill tax. Yet these men, despite being responsible for one of the biggest illegal dumping crimes ever prosecuted, have suffered nothing worse in the past week than conditional sentences, community service, fines and orders. confiscations that together make up about a tenth of the money they are known to have earned.
In recent months, we have started to see the barely regulated pollution of our rivers and seas. But hardly anyone is aware of what is happening to the earth. If anything, it’s even worse. The illegal dumping of mostly hazardous, mostly persistent waste is now a massive crisis in the UK, caused by shocking government failures. Vast swathes of land and crucial groundwater sources are contaminated by illegal dumping, and hardly anyone in power seems to care.
Waste disposal in this country relies to a large extent on self-regulation. It’s up to you to check that the person to whom you hand over your waste is an approved and responsible carrier. But a study of illegal dumpsites and unregistered waste carriers in England by Ray Purdy of Oxford University Law School and Mat Crocker, the former deputy director of waste at the Environment Agency , shows that control is almost impossible. Hundreds of different companies use identical names on the official Environment Agency register, often unrelated to the names under which they advertise or trade. Many provide fake names and locations, including abandoned buildings, sports venues, and in one case, a Premier Inn. Technical glitches, not corrected after five years, make the site barely functional.
Surprisingly, Purdy and Crocker found that the Environment Agency had no data on online traffic and no research on how many people knew about the registry. There is no possibility in the register to report companies working illegally. Over the past three years, although 140,000 companies have applied to be listed as waste managers, the Environment Agency has refused only 19. Despite extensive evidence of fraud and several prosecutions, it has not subsequently revoked only two registrations. Frequent misspellings in company names and addresses suggest that even the most basic checks were missed.
But that’s the least of it. Research by Purdy and Crocker shows that most companies don’t appear on the list at all. Of the thousands of waste disposers they sampled, they found that almost two-thirds were unregistered and therefore were operating illegally. In total, they estimate, there are over a quarter of a million unregistered waste handlers in England.
While investigating ads placed by people offering to take your trash out, Purdy and Crocker reported that many of those who appeared to be independent traders (“man and van”) were in fact part of organized networks. Out of 10,426 ads on Gumtree they tracked, they found that over 4,000 had been purchased by just two organizations, which together spend around Â£ 300,000 a year advertising on the platform. Yet these advertisements claim to promote local small businesses. Each of the vans in a network could save the organization Â£ 132,000 in taxes, researchers say. The return on investment for a company that runs 100 bogus independent traders, they estimate, is between 40 to 1 and 80 to 1. Here, like in Italy, it looks like we have a waste mafia. But unlike the Italian Mafia, ours rarely needs to resort to intimidation or violence, because no one is against it.
In total, the report suggests, between 1 and 6 million tonnes of waste in England is handled each year outside the legal system. Illegally dumped wastes contaminate soil, water and – when deliberately burned or spontaneously ignited – the air with a wide range of toxins, most of which are likely to go unmonitored and unrecorded. The more hazardous the waste, the greater the incentive to cut corners.
We have no idea what impact that could have on our health and that of the rest of the living world, nor what the results of this staggering regulatory failure would cost to clean up. In a rare 2019 lawsuit, a court heard that a large illegal dump of waste at a quarry near Chew Valley Lake in Somerset could end up costing us up to Â£ 9bn in remediation, if contaminants seep into the water feeding Bristol and other colonies.
Rusty drums pictured at an illegal landfill in Pirbright, Surrey, next to a series of nature reserves, are suspected of containing extremely toxic polychlorinated biphenyls. An unidentified yellow substance has been reported leaking from the site into local waterways. If part of this sludge emanates from the barrels, the possible consequences are hardly calculable. Local activists say Surrey County Council and the Environment Agency have known the identities of people using the site since 2009, according to the ENDS report, but have not taken legal action against them.
On the rare occasion that the Environment Agency, or its equivalents elsewhere in the UK, can find the money for a pair of wellington boots and a high-visibility jacket and send someone to check it out, it tends to offer repeated warnings before acting. Even then, the most common sanction is a fixed penalty notice. If a case goes to court, people who could have made a fortune through their illegal activities are fined a few hundred pounds. In a recent lawsuit, it was discovered that a man had run an illegal landfill containing more than 600 tons of waste, and evidence was presented that he had burned hazardous materials. He was fined Â£ 840. The Environment Agency announced: “We hope this case will send a clear message.” He will, but not the one he hears.
It’s a familiar story: one of an almost total collapse of regulation. The failure of the Environment Agency’s waste registry resembles the devastating business registration farce denounced by Oliver Bullough. This story reminds me of both the catastrophic failure to protect the elderly and vulnerable from fraud and the dumping of raw sewage and farmyard manure into our rivers and seas.
All of these failures are the inevitable result of 40 years of “cutting red tape”, budget cuts to regulators, outsourcing and self-reporting. We were promised freedom. But the people our governments have freed are criminals. Yet another dirty business is cleaning up.