Wednesday, 20 March 2024 16:22

The threat of large-scale fly-tipping (article by Rob Symons, Operations Director, CRJ Services)

In 2022/23 there were 42,000 large fly-tipping incidents in England alone. This cost hard-pressed local authorities £13.2 million (compared to £10.7 million the previous year) and created a threat to human health, wildlife habitats and the wider environment. Defined as being at least one tipper lorry load in size, large fly-tipping incidents also create a barrier to land development, improvement and restoration.

Fly-tipping is a fast-growing problem in the UK – and one that has a widespread environmental impact. Defined as the "the unlawful disposal of various types of waste, including household and industrial waste, which can be either liquid or solid", it can be done on a small scale, usually by individuals, or on a larger scale, normally by businesses or criminal organisations.

Bromborough fly tipping v3As well as the scale of the waste disposed of, a particular issue lies with what is being dumped. This can include everything from hazardous items such as syringes and other medical waste to broken glass, asbestos, toxic chemicals and other dangerous substances.

But ambiguities exist around fly-tipping legislation, such as who should be responsible for clearing it up and how offenders should be dealt with. With around 18% of all waste currently being illegally disposed of (according to last year's National Waste Crime Survey), the government is planning to introduce waste tracking in the coming years, while there are still calls from landowners and others to reform fly-tipping policy.

Here we take a closer look at the growing problem of fly-tipping in England, assess the impact it can have on particular sites, and examine how government policy currently addresses the problem.

As the operations director at specialist environmental services company CRJ, I'll also give a personal account of our approach to this issue, including how we helped to clean up large-scale fly-tipping at a brownfield site on the Wirral (see photographs in this article).

Large fly-tipping incidents are on the rise

In last year's Waste Crime Survey, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, has referred to large-scale fly-tipping and other waste crimes as "the new narcotics". This is largely because, according to Bevan, "it causes widespread and significant harm: to people, places, the economy, to law and order, and to the environment".

It's also because criminal organisations are becoming increasingly involved in waste crime – leading to more cases of large-scale fly-tipping. As an example, in 2022/23, 42,000 fly-tipping incidents were of 'tipper lorry load' size or larger; an increase of 13% from 37,000 in 2021/22.

In many cases fly-tipping is done by groups posing as legitimate waste-disposal companies before dumping truckloads of waste anywhere from fields and building sites to other privately held land. In recent years, there have even been cases of criminals hiring out buildings and using them to fly-tip waste, before abandoning the buildings and leaving the landlords or authorities to clean them up.

In many cases, fly-tipping has been shown to pollute land and waterways and cause potential harm to human health, as well as to the health of the surrounding habitats. This is especially the case when it's industrial and commercial waste that's being dumped, which can include toxic and hazardous substances such as asbestos and chemical waste.

The resulting clean-up bill is often huge. But, in England, the responsibility for who should pay for this clean-up has long been debated. And in many ways, this highlights the complexities of the current legislation around fly-tipping.

The law on fly-tipping

In English law, legislation around fly-tipping is generally covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990, as amended by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. Currently, under this law, the responsibility for cleaning up any waste fly-tipped onto private land falls on the private landowners themselves. Small-scale fly-tipping on public land falls to local authorities, while the Environment Agency is responsible for dealing with larger-scale fly-tipping, hazardous waste and fly-tipping by organised gangs.

With the increase in fly-tipping, private landowners have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to this law, where they are responsible for meeting the waste disposal costs. In some cases, where landowners won't clear the waste, local authorities might intervene and then retrospectively charge the landowners expenses for the clean-up.

Where a landowner discovers fly-tipped waste on their land, it's crucial they don't touch the waste or disturb the site at first. This is to avoid any contact with potentially harmful materials or substances, and to preserve any evidence that might lead to identifying the fly-tippers. Instead, landowners should try to visually assess what the waste consists of, before contacting the authorities and working out how the waste should be cleared.

Bromborough fly tipping v2Where fly-tippers are caught and prosecuted, punishments can range from fixed-penalty notices to larger fines - although there is currently no minimum fine set out in law. In some case, it can also lead to prison sentences. How harsh the penalty is will depend on how serious the offence is and such criteria as its impact on the environment and the cost of the clean-up. While individual sentences are handed down by courts, councils can, in some circumstances, hand out fixed-penalty notices.

The system is far from perfect and in the National Waste Crime Survey 2023, it was clear that few respondents believe the Environment Agency is able to effectively deter waste crime. Firstly, just 24% of respondents believe incidents of waste crime are actually reported to the Environment Agency, while 48% disagreed that the Environment Agency is adequately resourced in relation to waste regulation.

With so many complexities around legislation, then, and with the weight of responsibility often falling on the victim of the crime, calls for reform have grown louder in recent years. This has led to plans to introduce mandatory digital waste tracking by April 2025, providing greater oversight on what is happening to the waste produced in the UK and helping to prevent criminals from carrying out fly-tipping and other forms of waste crime.

How fly-tipping impacts individuals and communities

For now, landowners and communities are reckoning with the growing problem. And it's a problem that is impacting just about every area of the UK.

For instance, when taking into account the number of fixed-penalty notices (FPNs) issued in relation to fly-tipping in 2022/23, the geographical breakdown is spread across the country. In total there were 69,000 FPNs served (according to the Government's fly tipping statistics for England 2022-23), with local authorities from London and the South East, the South West, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the North West and the North East all appearing in the top 20 highest FPNs-to-incident ratios.

There have been reports of fly-tipping in rivers, on National Trust land, on council land, next to highways and railways, and, in particular, on agricultural land. The latter has caused some farmers to resort to measures such as constructing security fencing and laying concrete blocks to fortify their farms against the problem. The Country Land and Business Association said a recent survey estimated that two-thirds of farmers and landowners were affected by the fly-tipping of tonnes of household and commercial waste.

At this scale, it's obvious that fly-tipping is increasingly becoming a problem for entire communities, as well as individual landowners and other victims. Where fly-tipping occurs on land set for construction works, it is also causing problems for development, with developers responsible for clearing the site before building work can begin.

The problems of site clean-ups

Disposing of illegally dumped waste can be problematic for a number of reasons. And for private landowners, one of the first may well be cost. A proper clean-up will often require bringing in a waste-management company, which can lead to a financial burden.

Waste disposal is subject to strict regulations and guidelines, so again it requires professionals with specialised equipment to handle a clean-up – particularly where materials have been fly-tipped on a large scale.

There are also challenges around how to handle and dispose of the waste properly when there might not be clarity over what it contains, with the risk that it could include hazardous materials. There are also risks associated with environmental contamination if the fly-tipped waste isn't properly contained and removed. It can, for instance, pollute soil, groundwater, and surface-water sources.

Importantly, clearing away fly-tipped waste will often need a collaborative effort between landowners and waste management companies.

Bromborough fly tipping v1The Wirral: a case study

At CRJ, we have experience of disposing of waste that's been fly-tipped on a large scale, ensuring the waste is carefully managed and the site is left free from contamination.

Recently we partnered with contractor Knotweed Services (KS) to clear a brownfield site on the Wirral that had been earmarked for housing development. The site had been left by previous landowners with a massive 30,000 tonnes of mixed waste, including soils, hardcore, and general waste. This case of fly-tipping posed environmental concerns, as well providing a major obstacle to the site's redevelopment.

With KS and the owners, we developed an innovative solution to minimise the environmental impact and reduce the waste sent to landfills. That involved removing around 9,000 tonnes of mixed waste from the shed and surrounding areas in the first phase. But recognising the potential fire risk, pollution, and other hazards posed by the waste, the new site owners wanted to find a more sustainable approach than simply sending the waste to landfills.

KS and the owners worked closely with the Environment Agency and other stakeholders to obtain a Local Enforcement Position. This allowed them to process and reuse a significant portion of the waste on-site, reducing the need for importing new materials during the future development phase.

The collaborative effort resulted in a remarkable outcome. Out of the estimated 9,000 tonnes of waste in the first phase, only 3,200 tonnes were sent to a waste recovery site. The remaining 5,800 tonnes were separated into hardcore (1,500 tonnes) and soils (4,300 tonnes), which were retained on-site for reuse.

By keeping a substantial amount of waste on-site, the project significantly reduced vehicle movements and the associated carbon footprint. If the entire 9,000 tonnes had been sent to the nearest landfill site, approximately 450 vehicle trips would have been required. However, by retaining 5,800 tonnes on-site, the number of vehicle movements was reduced by 290, resulting in substantial emissions savings. In total over 4,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions were reckoned to have been saved.

CRJ also provided some kit including picking stations, as mobile processing lines were built on-site and multiple machines used.

This on-site processing and separation of waste also helped to prevent any potential environmental disasters, such as fires. According to Zero Waste Europe, each tonne of waste that is openly burned can release between 0.7 and 1.7 tonnes of CO2. With an estimated 3,200 tonnes of combustible waste present, a fire could have resulted in the release of up to 3,840 tonnes of CO2, not to mention other pollutants and emissions.

Why collaboration is the way forward

The growing problem of large-scale fly-tipping in the UK poses significant challenges for landowners, local authorities, and the environment. However, innovative and collaborative approaches – such as the work we did on the Wirral – can effectively address these challenges while minimising environmental impact.

On a wider scale, the government's waste tracking plans will surely have some impact on the regularity and volume of fly-tipping, but until it is fully implemented, we can't know for sure.

But what we do know is that as the issues of fly-tipping continue to persist, it's crucial for policymakers, industry professionals, and communities to explore and implement sustainable waste management solutions. By embracing collaboration and a commitment to environmental responsibility, we can see off the worst impacts of fly-tipping and pave the way for a more sustainable future.