Dumping goes unpunished as Environment Agency passes buck

Despite recent high-profile reports that UK computer waste is being illegally shipped to west Africa, the UK government has yet to take action to investigate the practice, insisting that the dumping of e-waste in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria is outside its jurisdiction.

The Environment Agency (EA), the government body responsible for policing the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive and ensuring e-waste is disposed of in line with environmental best practices, said it had not launched a follow-up investigation into revelations that PCs from the UK, including many from across the public sector, have been found in African scrap yards.

It added that it was unaware of any formal evidence arising from the original Greenpeace investigation, which found that broken machines were being stripped by workers in scrap yards in Ghana and Nigeria to remove valuable components and metals. In the process, local water tables are polluted and workers, many of whom are children, are exposed to toxic fumes, the report said.

Greenpeace revealed photos of computer waste from UK local councils and universities, including Kent County Council, Southampton County Council and Salford University.

Greenpeace investigator Martin Hojsik said he was concerned that the body tasked with enforcing e-waste regulations had taken no action despite widespread media reports following the Greenpeace investigation.

Although Hojsik believes the manufacturers of the dumped products should take steps to address the problem because under the WEEE directive they are responsible for the safe disposal of their products, he added that the EA should be doing more to police the directive.

A spokeswoman for the EA said if the body believed there to be evidence relating to WEEE offences it would seek to secure the evidence and launch an investigation.

However, she added that while a National Environment Crime Team was responsible for investigating e-waste and its export from the UK, it did not have the jurisdiction to look into waste that had already left the country.

"The Environment Agency only has legal powers in England and Wales. We do not have the jurisdiction to investigate illegal dumping abroad," the agency said in a statement. "If we thought that there may be evidence held abroad that relates to an investigation of offences in England or Wales (or both) in the form of witnesses and forensic evidence that are vital to us bringing a case to court, we would consider securing that evidence but only through the correct legal channels. We could not just go and collect witness statements abroad without reference to our own and the foreign country's criminal justice system."

However, critics remain unconvinced that the Environment Agency is doing enough to police the WEEE directive, noting that it is now more than a year after the legislation was introduced and there has not been a single prosecution.

The agency claims it is investigating several hundred businesses that may be producers of electrical equipment but have failed to register with approved waste-handling organisations. But according to industry insiders it remains unclear if the Agency has yet undertaken any investigations into waste-management operators, some of whom it is believed are responsible for illegally shipping machines to Africa.

Karen Coneely, group commercial manager at IT asset management software outfit Real Asset Management, said that the company was unaware of any Environment Agency investigation into waste-management operators or firms disposing of their IT kit.

"WEEE has not made much of an impact thus far, it is certainly not being strongly enforced by government and a lot of the businesses we come across are still ignorant of the legislation," she said. "The focus from the government is still on the manufacturers and has not yet turned to looking at business users. As a result, a lot of businesses just don't see compliance with WEEE as a concern."

But while the EA will not launch an investigation until it receives more evidence, local councils are beginning investigations themselves.

Kent County Council deputy leader Alex King said the council is launching an investigation into the third-party companies it uses to dispose of its waste after some of its computers were uncovered by the Greenpeace report.

She said they are seeking more information to identify equipment serial numbers. "This will be essential to establish which of our suppliers had responsibility for disposal of the items in question," she added. "The reports indicate a clear failure to comply with contractual obligations and if an audit trail can be established, the council will take action against the company concerned."

A spokesman for Salford University said contact from BusinessGreen.com's sister title Computing represented "the first we've heard" of the illegal dumping, but added that it would be urgently contacting its waste contractors and Greenpeace to stop the practice.

Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) Environment Board, Paul Bettison, said he would write to the EA and urge it to take more action to tackle the problem.

However, he added that while much of the responsibility for the dumping lay at the door of waste-handling firms, some councils also had to deliver major improvements in their waste and recycling policies.

He said 61 councils had not yet produced statistics on the equipment they recycle, possibly because they are signing up to waste-management firms that have not been officially approved. He added that he had written to councils warning them of the severity of not reporting recycling statistics and reminding them that where councils failed to provide data it would be assumed they are sending all their waste - both reusable and non-reusable - to landfill, leading to higher council taxes for residents.

Rosalie Marshall

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