Government does not have the data it needs to assess the scale of waste crime in England, and the incentives for criminals to enter the waste market have increased, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
The 25-Year Environment Plan, published in 2018, states government’s ambition to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites in England within 25 years (by 2043).1 The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set out its approach to tackling waste crime in the Resources and Waste Strategy (the Strategy), and the Environment Agency (the Agency) is responsible for investigating waste crime. The Joint Unit for Waste Crime (the Joint Unit) was established in January 2020 to tackle serious and organised crime in the waste sector and consists of nine strategic partner organisations.
Defra and the Agency understand the nature of waste crime but recognise that the data they collect does not reflect its full extent. They have committed to improving how they measure waste crime, including through electronic tracking. Today’s NAO report finds:
- The number of active illegal waste sites in England known to the Agency has reduced from 685 in 2018-19 to 470 in 2020-21. However, travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fewer cases being identified.
- The number of fly-tipping incidents reported by local authorities has risen most years since 2012-13 and reached 1.13 million in 2020-21 – at a cost of £11.6 million to clear large-scale incidents. Most incidents involved household waste, and the most common place for fly-tipping to occur was on highways.
- Based on a 2015 estimate, the Agency believes that there is widespread abuse of exemptions from environmental permits for certain waste operations.
- The Agency does not know the scale of the illegal export of waste that may cause serious harm in the countries it is sent to. Since 2013-14, the number of containers intercepted and found to contain waste being exported illegally has varied between 200 and 500 containers per year.
The large rise in the standard rate of landfill tax2 has increased the returns criminals can potentially make from certain types of waste crime. The rise in landfill tax saw the amount of waste sent to landfill reduce by 75% between 2010-11 and 2020-21. At the same time, there has been an increase in the money criminals can make by avoiding landfill tax through the misdescription of waste, illegal waste sites, and some types of fly-tipping. HM Revenue & Customs estimates that in 2019-20, £200 million of landfill tax was not paid through non-compliance.
Organised crime groups have become more involved in waste crime.3The 60 organised crime groups monitored by the Joint Unit have extensive involvement in other types of crime – 70% are involved in specialist money laundering. Over the first half of 2021-22, the Joint Unit led or took part in 24 coordinated days of action with partners to prevent and disrupt the involvement of organised crime groups in the waste sector, resulting in 35 arrests.
The most common actions that the Agency takes in relation to illegal waste sites are issuing advice and guidance (52%) and sending warning letters (37%). The Agency’s response to investigations into breaches of environmental permit conditions and major fly-tipping incidents follows the same pattern. The number of times the Agency has prosecuted organisations for waste incidents has dropped from a 2007-08 peak of almost 800, to around 50 per year in the period running up to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Progress against the actions in the Strategy has been slower than Defra anticipated. Defra told the NAO that the COVID-19 pandemic meant that resources had to be diverted, and though some actions in the Strategy have been completed, many are at the consultation stage. An evaluation of the Strategy’s progress has been commissioned and will be published in 2027.
The Agency has received ringfenced government funding to combat waste crime as incentives for criminals have increased, but many other organisations involved in tackling waste crime have not. The Agency’s spending on enforcement and waste crime rose from around £12 million in 2010-11, to £17 million in 2021-22 in cash terms. During the same period local authorities and the police have been making resource decisions in the context of shrinking budgets. The Joint Unit and its partner organisations do not receive any dedicated funding from government.