It’s a relatively recent but decidedly nasty business, waste crime: nasty for the environment, for the people affected, and for legitimate businesses that pay for waste-disposal licences, permits and tipping fees. It ranges from small, individual operations to large, complex networks involving multiple sites, companies and sometimes countries.
And it is a big, and growing business: according to the Environment Agency’s first national report on waste crime, published recently, there were 1,175 illegal waste sites in England and Wales as of March this year.
Most deal in construction and demolition waste, the biggest single category; others take household and commercial, and end-of-life vehicles (what with the oil, the battery, the brake fluid and the air-con, depolluting a dead car is expensive. Far cheaper, as the gang at the end of Bowdler’s garden knew, to just reclaim the metal and dump the rest).
Until quite late in the last century, of course, we barely cared about this at all. But a succession of laws – the Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act in 1972, the Control of Pollution Act two years later, and most significantly the Environment Protection Act in 1990 – have raised awareness and imposed increasingly tough restrictions on what we may dispose of, and how. These days, we devote £17m of public money a year to tackling waste crime. Those who commit it are united mostly by the prospect of quick, easy money and a frequently breathtaking disregard for the the law, the natural environment and their neighbours.
Make legal recycling more expensive and more difficult and people start to illegally recycle.
It is all, obviously, about the money: saving it, for the waste producer; making it, for the illegal operator. “Broadly speaking, it’s at least 50% cheaper to get rid of stuff illegally,” says Rutherford. “Here, a legitimate company will charge £180-£200 per skip. The bad boys will be asking £100-120, cash. You can see the temptation for the producer.”
Meanwhile, of course, people like Tim will be “pocketing the £100; avoiding the costs of all the various permits, licences and taxes; burning the waste; pulling out any valuable scrap metal, and selling it. You rent the corner of a farmyard or a field or an industrial unit, buy a few skips, and you start dumping. It’s really very easy money.”
I mean seriously: who would have thought it?