We’re told we should recycle—but Sadie Robinson finds that firms have little regard for workers, the planet or the law
There’s one industry that’s booming despite the recession—recycling. Waste management firm Veolia reported a 6.7 percent rise in the revenue from its UK waste business to £1.38 billion in 2011.
And Viridor’s company profits were up by 7 percent to £30.6 million in the six months up to September 2011. Its parent company, the Pennon Group, said, “Recycling is now the company’s largest profit generator.”
But where does the waste go? Firms are granted multi-million pound contracts, often from councils, to recycle things like paper, glass, metal and plastic.
They process some of the waste to create new products to sell. For instance, more than 70 percent of the fibre used to manufacture paper and cardboard in the UK comes from recycled paper.
Any excess waste paper is exported. The UK exported 4.4 million tonnes of waste paper and cardboard for recycling in 2011.
Flying or shipping waste millions of miles around the world isn’t an environmentally friendly way to recycle it. And it isn’t guaranteed that exported waste will be recycled at all.
Firms are cagey about where their exported waste ends up. They say they don’t want to reveal “commercially sensitive” information.
It was only in March that the European Court of Justice ruled that waste exporters must specify where waste came from and where it went. Prior to that firms would just leave forms blank.
Could this be linked to waste export firms’ notorious history of breaching environmental law?
The government’s Environment Agency found routine breaking of the law on waste exports among private firms in 2007.It said that around half of 500 checked containers contained unsorted, unclean waste.
In February last year the boss of recycling firm Quest International Trading was convicted of illegally exporting old computers and other waste to Afghanistan.
And Environment Waste Controls, a leading recycling firm, was implicated in contravening regulations on electronic waste last year. Broken televisions ended up in Ghana and Nigeria. The firm said that a third party company had exported them.
The Environmental Investigation Agency’s investigation into Britain’s electronic waste last year said much of the waste was toxic.
It also found that it was frequently processed abroad in poor conditions where it threatened the environment and human health.
And earlier this year 89 containers of contaminated waste were sent back to Britain from Indonesia. Indonesian port officials said the scrap metal waste was contaminated with liquid and mixed waste.
Steel trader Stemcor, which shipped the waste, denies trying to break the law and the Environment Agency is investigating.
Recycling firms brag about their green credentials. But in reality leaving private firms in charge of recycling puts the planet, and workers, at risk.
Shropshire council awarded a 27 year contract to firm Veolia Environmental Services under the private finance initiative in 2007. The contract was worth £100 million.
It hasn’t always showed its gratitude though. The firm won an appeal against the council in January this year after the council had refused it permission to build a waste to energy facility. The case cost the council just under £760,000.
Working in the waste and recycling industry isn’t good for you. Some nine people died at work in the industry in 2010-11. The combined rate of fatal and major injuries in waste and recycling is more than four times higher than the average for all industries.
Recycling is a multi-million pound business. If there isn’t money to be made in recycling, firms don’t waste any time in abandoning it. Bosses at the EcoPark waste recycling plant in Newcastle announced last month that they would close the site—and sack 43 workers.