Survey suggests almost a fifth of all waste is illegally managed

Environment Agency survey of informed stakeholders suggests 18% of all waste in England may be illegally managed

Waste crime encompasses a range of illegal activities, including the dumping, burning, illegal shipping and misdescription of waste

The fight against waste crime continues apace after the National Waste Crime Survey 2023 found nearly a fifth of all the waste produced in England ends up in the hands of criminals.

Waste crime encompasses a range of illegal activities, including the dumping, burning, illegal shipping and misdescription of waste, as well as the operation of illegal waste sites.

Industry research suggests waste crime costs the English economy £1 billion every year through evaded tax, environmental and social harm and lost legitimate business.

The Environment Agency’s third national survey on the extent and nature of waste crime found 18% of all waste in England was perceived to be illegally managed – that’s approximately 34 million tonnes across England every year, enough to fill 4 million skips.

These findings provide the evidence the Agency needs to update and refine its approach to enforcement continually as criminals shift their ways of working. Stopping and shutting down criminals in the waste sector remains a top priority for the Agency.

Respondents felt that waste crime requires severe sanctions, with court-issued penalties, visible activities, disruption tactics and criminal sanctions considered the most effective deterrents. In the 2021/22 financial year, the Agency brought 94 prosecutions against individuals and companies for waste crime offences, resulting in total fines exceeding £6.2 million.

Steve Molyneux, the EA’s strategic lead on waste regulation, said:

"Waste criminals put us all at risk every time they break the law. Their toxic crimes cause widespread and significant harm to people, places and the economy.

"The Environment Agency is facing well-resourced, highly organised criminals whose crimes stretch beyond the waste sector to include human trafficking, drugs and money laundering.

"We know crime in the waste sector is rife and this survey provides us with the evidence we need to help us stay one step ahead of the criminal gangs."

In 2021, the Agency adopted a new enforcement strategy to stop waste crime, moving to upstream interventions with a focus on prevention. The approach follows the Home Office’s ‘4P’ model – looking to Prepare, Prevent, Protect and Pursue.

This means there are fewer larger prosecutions for waste crime as the Agency intervenes earlier. The strategy sees specialist Agency teams collaborate closely and share intelligence with partners including the police, HMRC and the DVSA.

The Agency’s approach is that we are stronger when we combat waste crime together. For example, as part of the Joint Unit for Waste Crime, the Agency works with counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as HMRC, the police and the National Crime Agency, to disrupt waste crime and share intelligence about serious offenders.

The Agency has also had access to the Police National Computer, the Police National Database and the National Automatic Number Plate Recognition Service since April 2022. The Police National Database provides important real-time intelligence on suspected and known offenders, assets and locations held by all police forces, as well as direct access to maps of groups of organised criminals. We are one of only three non-police law enforcement agencies with permission to access it.

However, the survey found just 25% of waste crime is thought to be reported to the EA, with many organisations raising concerns around reporting mechanisms and enforcement action.

The survey respondents believe the increased cost of living to be increasing the scale of waste crime, as individuals and businesses seek to minimise costs.

Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said:

"The hardened criminals and organised crime gangs that have infiltrated the sector damage the environment, cause misery to communities and cost society more than a billion pounds each year – all while undermining circular economy investment by legitimate operators.

"The survey response reinforces the fact that waste crime is widespread and underscores the need for effective and well-resourced enforcement alongside tougher penalties for those successfully prosecuted. The ESA and its members want to work with the Environment Agency, and the Joint Unit for Waste Crime, to help achieve these goals."

We are taking effective action. A prolific offender was jailed for three years for undertaking illegal waste activities at two sites in Lancashire without a permit, with the Agency confiscating £368,0000 of criminal profits under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 in January.

We recently used drones purchased with Proceeds of Crime Act funding to take aerial photos to gauge the scale of an illegal waste site in Essex and convey that to the court. In January, the court imposed a 13-month custodial sentence upon the individual operating the site and awarded the Agency costs.

The government is also implementing reforms which will help in the battle against waste crime. It is consulting on reforming the carriers, brokers and dealers regime, which will mean those transporting or making decisions about waste must demonstrate they are competent to do so, as well as on the introduction of mandatory digital waste tracking, which will use powers in the Environment Act to overhaul existing waste record keeping. This will enable regulators to detect illegal activity and combat waste crime more effectively.

Regulators, industry and the public must all work together to help stop waste crime. Don’t let the criminals get away with it. Report anything suspicious to Crimestoppers anonymously online or by calling 0800 555 111 or our 24-hour incident hotline on 0800 80 70 60.

Environment Agency