More than 40 shipments of toxic waste that could contaminate developing countries have been prevented from leaving Scotland in the latest attempt to crack down on the multi-million-pound criminal trade in waste.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), the government’s green watchdog, has this year stopped or sent back export containers full of broken TVs, defunct computers, old fridges, contaminated paper, worn-out tyres and even clapped-out cars.
According to officials, the hazardous junk is heading for Africa or Asia, where much is likely to end up being burnt or dumped, triggering the escape of poisonous toxins that will pollute air and water. Sometimes electronic items will be dismantled using child labour, in a business that has links to serious, organised crime, they say.
The illegal trade is driven by the big profits to be made by selling unsafe or polluting equipment abroad, or by extracting valuable components and materials. A Sepa study suggests that traders would be able to make a profit of around £7,000 for every container of old TVs they export.
“Illegal shipments are a way for criminals to make serious money by dumping our waste on other countries,” John Kenny, Sepa’s waste and enforcement manager told the Sunday Herald.
“There are significant risks to the environment and human health as a result. That’s why Sepa is cracking down on those who flout the law by stopping waste, before it leaves Scotland, through intelligence sharing and targeted inspections.”
Since the start of 2011, Sepa has conducted 308 inspections of waste exports at business premises, ports and railheads across the country. As a result inspectors issued legal notices insisting that 42 waste containers stayed where they were, were sent back to the company of origin, or were dispatched for proper disposal.
The bulk of the illegal wastes – 36 containers - were old electronic goods destined for West Africa. They were meant to be exported to Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Kenya.
The containers came from sites in the south of Glasgow, Fife and around Edinburgh. The exporters cannot be named, Sepa says, because of pending prosecutions and ongoing investigations, but many are African nationals who travel to Scotland to try and make money.
The remainder of the illegal trade is contaminated paper or other waste destined for China, Indonesia or Thailand. Often it is meant to be recycled, but can’t be because it’s mixed up with non-recyclable waste.
“We suspect that criminal networks are involved,” Kenny said. “We have evidence from other enforcement agencies of organised crime.”
Although not everyone involved is part of a criminal gang, there may be links to the smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and arms. “This is a priority area for Sepa, added Kenny.
More illegal exports were being uncovered because more effort was being invested in looking for them, he said. He was hopeful that Sepa could successfully tackle the issue “but we don’t underestimate the scale of the problem.”
Over 100,000 tonnes of old TVs, computers, microwaves and other electrical equipment are reckoned to be thrown away every year in Scotland. Some estimates suggest that as much as half of that may be unaccounted for, with up to 20,000 tonnes “leaking” from legitimate recycling operations in the west of Scotland.
Kenny pointed out that Sepa was now leading action on waste shipments by the European Union’s network for the implementation and enforcement of environmental law (IMPEL). This helped ensure more effective and targeted enforcement, he argued.
Sepa also helped launch an initiative last week to combat all forms of environmental crime in Scotland. The Scottish government has promised to come forward with new legislative proposals and set up a task force in the New Year (see below).
Environmental groups have welcomed the crackdown on the illegal waste trade. “Sepa is to be applauded for its efforts, especially as this comes at a time when it is seeing its budgets cut by the Scottish government,” said Stan Blackley, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“This type of environmental crime can be big business for unscrupulous businesses, and its negative impacts can be felt across the world, as we unload our toxic burden on poorer communities in countries with lower environmental and human rights standards. We should be doing everything we can to stop the exporting of our mess and pollution to the developing world.”
Blackley pointed out, however, that Scotland also ought to throw out less. “What we really need to see is these items being built to last, repaired more, traded second-hand, re-used or re-made, and recycled domestically,” he said.
“We also need to change our disposable, throw-away culture, in which we renew items like mobile phones and televisions far too regularly. If it's not broken, don't throw it out. If it's broken, get it fixed. If it can't be fixed, make sure it's recycled or re-used.”
Tackling environmental crime in Scotland
New laws and an expert task force to tackle environmental crime in Scotland have been promised by the Scottish environment secretary, Richard Lochhead.
At a summit in Edinburgh he said that in the New Year the Scottish government would consult on “specific proposals for improving environmental legislation, making it simpler and more effective”.
The remit and membership of a task force “to coordinate delivery of the Scottish government’s commitment to tackling environmental crime” would also be announced early in 2012.
“We will do our utmost to work with enforcement agencies to ensure unscrupulous individuals or businesses who seek to recklessly undermine our natural resources for criminal profit or through wilful neglect will pay the price,” Lochhead said.
He wanted “more penalties which reflect the seriousness of the damage caused by these crimes”. But he also spoke of the need for a “lighter touch for lower risk activities”.
“Harmful and illegal practices, without suitable controls and investment in infrastructure, undermine legitimate business, the rule of law and put our communities at risk.”