Waste crime remains a major problem for the Environment Agency and local councils.
The findings come despite a big rise in fly-tipping incidents across the country as councils reported over a million incidents during the first year of the pandemic.
Analysis of Environment Agency (EA) records found the enforcement body started 1,613 investigations for offences that occured in the 12 months to March 2021, a drop of 30% on the year before when 2,313 investigations were started.
Offenders, including those from the waste management sector, have also received light punishments for environmental crime. Thousands have received warning letters or sometimes simply advice after dumping waste, including material hazardous to human health and the environment.
But the drop in investigations is not down to less criminal activity.
Separate figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows councils reported 1.1 million fly-tipping incidents during the same period, a 16% rise from the year before.
Authorities are also dealing with vast volumes of dumped waste. Small van loads of waste are routinely dumped across the country and account for 34% of all incidents.
During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic household waste and recycling centers were largely closed across the country.
Campaigners at the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) said the EA’s significant loss of funding over the last 10 years was allowing polluters to “literally get away” with crimes.
The waste investigation data includes high level waste crime, not just local fly-tipping incidents reported by councils.
The waste management sector, the professional handlers responsible for safely disposing of waste, has been at the centre of over 10,100 investigations by the EA since 2012/13, more than any other sector.
The investigations concerned more than 13,200 offences. It was also responsible for more than 13,200 offences.
While the majority (31%) of offences relating to the waste management sector since 2012/13 are still in progress thousands have resulted in light punishments.
Advice and guidance to offenders has been provided in 20% of cases while 16% have resulted in warning letters and 16% have had no further action.
Light punishments for criminal dumping
Light punishments have also been the outcome for offenders dumping hazardous waste.
Of the 1,964 waste offences that involved hazardous materials since 2012/13, only 9% (171) resulted in a prosecution. Nearly a quarter (22%) concluded in advice and guidance being given, 20% (397) resulted in a warning letter and 16% (306) resulted in no further action. More than 500 (29%) are still in progress.
Examples of dumped hazardous waste have come from asbestos, agriculture and clinical from the waste management sector.
The most common type of waste dumped since 2012/13 was commercial waste, which was linked to 1,735 investigations. This was followed by ‘inert’ construction and demolition waste (non-biodegradable materials like plaster or concrete) with 1,727 investigations, and then vehicles, with 1,292 investigations.
Household waste, which is most commonly associated with fly-tipping, accounted for 1,031 investigations.
Yorkshire was also found to have seen the greatest number of waste crime related investigations. The region saw 2,198 investigations for offences that occured between 2012/13 and 2020/21. This is followed by the West Midlands with 2,020 and East Anglia with 1,731.
However the data is not broken down by usual English regions, instead using EA boundaries that include areas like ‘Solent and South Downs’ and ‘Hertfordshire and North London’ alongside larger areas such as Yorkshire.
‘Polluters are literally getting away with it’
Emma Montlake, head of casework at the Environmental Law Foundation, said a chronic lack of funding had affected the EA’s ability to tackle environmental crime.
“ELF is sadly not surprised at these findings, that there has been a massive fall in investigations carried out by the EA regarding waste crime offences,” she said.
“What we know is that the EA has lost significant funding over the last 10 years and this we see reflected in their ability to investigate, not just waste crime, but all areas of their regulatory, statutory investigative and prosecution roles.”
Ms Montlake added: “Environmental polluters are literally getting away with it and will continue to do so until the EA is properly funded.”
‘Firmly committed to improving compliance’
Waste dumping by organised criminal activity or by individuals remains a recurring problem for the EA.
In the 12 months to March 2021 the body started four investigations each day relating to dumped waste - the year before it was six.
The EA said the coronavirus pandemic had impacted their ability to bring offenders to account, with courts being closed or working at reduced capacity.
A spokesperson for the EA said: “Waste criminals show complete disregard for communities and the environment, and they need to know we are ready to take action.
“Last year, the EA prosecuted nearly 100 individuals and companies for waste crime offences, with fines exceeding £900,000, 28 custodial sentences and £1 million of confiscation orders.
“We know how frustrating and costly waste crime is for landowners and communities, as well as those who manage their waste correctly but see others breaking the rules to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
“We are firmly committed to improving compliance of the waste sector and clamping down on those who show complete disregard for the environment and the law.”
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