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Government approach to large parts of waste crime "closer to decriminalisation" than tackling it

19 October 2022

In a report today PAC says that despite the antisocial, polluting and costly impacts of waste crime, Defra and the Environment Agency are making only “slow and piecemeal” progress in implementing the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy - and there is still no strategy or plan for achieving its hugely ambitious target of eliminating waste crime by 2043. Four years into that 25 year target, measures central to achieving the aim such as digital tracking of waste are “not even at the pilot stage”.

Waste crime - which includes well known issues such as fly-tipping as well as illegally mis-categorising waste for disposal - is a huge issue in England. Antisocial and polluting, it already costs the economy around £1 billion a year - though that is likely an underestimate - and the number of incidents of waste crime and the cost of addressing them has been increasing over recent years.

The Committee says “waste crime is not getting the local or national attention needed to effectively tackle it, despite it being on the rise and increasingly dominated by organised criminal gangs” and with the cost of living crisis potentially further increasing the “incentives for people to get rid of waste inappropriately”.

Interventions such as landfill tax and local charges for disposing of waste create perverse financial incentives to commit waste crime, with penalties not proving effective. HMRC has only pursued one prosecution for landfill tax evasion and it failed, at a cost to the public of £3.5 million. The Committee is also concerned about the levels of illegal waste exports, which the “Environment Agency is not doing enough to prevent”. By the Agency’s own admission, most of these illegal exports end up in non-OECD countries where controls on the harms it may cause and capacity to ameliorate them are less.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“Another day, another policy headline with no plan or demonstrable progress towards achieving it, despite years of resources put in. The result is property and countryside blighted by fly-tipping, toxic leaks into our soil, and tonnes of waste illegally exported by the UK to developing countries even less able to cope with its indefinite negative effects.

“With growing involvement of criminal gangs, adept at evading detection and who regard the fines if they are caught as merely a business expense, a much more serious approach to enforcement is required. Currently the Department’s approach to large parts of waste crime is closer to decriminalisation. Targets become meaningless – rubbish, you might say - when there isn’t even a strategy for achieving them, much less any indication or measurement of progress. Sadly, all the signs 4 years into a 25 year target period are that the problem is getting worse.”

Further information

Image: Chris Reynold/Creative Commons Licence