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.

“Defra and the Environment Agency agree that their data significantly understates the scale of some types of waste crime. The evidence available shows that waste crime is increasing, and organised criminals are becoming more involved. 

“Government needs to target resources effectively and understand what progress it is making towards its aim of eliminating waste crime by 2043. To do so, it will need a robust set of performance measures to identify when actions are off-track.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Investigation into government’s actions to combat waste crime in England

Notes for editors

  1. The NAO’s 2020 report Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals assesses progress towards the 25-Year Environmental Plan.
  2. Between 2004-05 and 2014-15, landfill tax on waste that emits greenhouse gases rose from £15 per tonne to £80 per tonne, and landfill tax on non-emitting waste rose from £2 per tonne to £2.50 per tonne. Since 2014-15, landfill tax has risen in line with inflation. HM Treasury is reviewing landfill tax in England and Northern Ireland to ensure the tax continues to support the government’s environmental objectives.
  3. Government and industry stakeholders believe that the involvement of organised crime groups in waste crime is increasing. Based on interviews, the 2018 Independent review into serious and organised crime in the waste sector concluded that in recent years there has been a steady rise in organised, large-scale waste crime.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.


About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.

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