Private firms are routinely breaking the law on the export of British rubbish to the developing world, say the Government's environmental investigators.
Half of sea containers of recyclable material checked by the Environment Agency during the past two years have been found to breach regulations intended to prevent the dumping of waste on poorer states.
The agency is conducting 11 separate investigations into suspected illegal exports by the booming private waste industry. Several are likely to reach the courts.
In the most recent prosecution, Grosvenor Waste Management, of Crayford, Kent, was convicted at Maidstone Crown Court of "illegally exporting shipments of more than 75 40ft containers of unsorted household waste to India, China and Indonesia", according to Environment Agency. The company, which recycles waste from London and the Home Counties, pleaded guilty to breaching the 1994 Transhipment of Waste Regulations.
As part of the Campaign Against Waste, The Independent has shown how an estimated two million tonnes of detritus is shipped annually from the UK to China, where workers, some as young as four, sift through tonnes of pizza wrappers, plastic bags, sandwich boxes and other packaging. Some is recycled, some is burnt and some put in landfill.
Sorted recyclable waste may be legally exported and the Environment Agency says there has been a "dramatic" increase in such exports, due to increased levels of recycling and insufficient processing capacity in the UK.
Liz Parkes, head of waste at the agency, said there was no problem with sorted recyclable waste being sent abroad, where it could be made into new goods. But she said that in checks of 500 containers in the past two years, about half did not contain the clean, sorted recyclables required by law. "This is material that is clearly not clean recyclables. It should have been sorted to a high standard."
The Environment Agency's latest prosecution followed its investigation into shipments by Grosvenor between November 2004 and February 2005. In its defence, the company, which agreed to pay the Environment Agency costs of £85,000, said the rubbish would have been recycled abroad but accepted it had failed to provide notification. Sentence will be passed on 4 April. The maximum penalty is two years' jail or an unlimited fine.
John Burns, of the Environment Agency, said: "This successful prosecution shows that we won't hesitate to pursue companies that export waste illegally."
Twenty-two MPs have signed the Commons early day motion supporting The Independent's campaign and have urged supermarkets to cut excess packaging.
Many readers have been irritated by plastic wrapping on "multipacks", where tins of fish or bottles of water are bound together in a plastic sheath.
Heather Barrett railed against one example she encountered on a recent shopping trip. "I was in Asda the other day and noticed how Evian and other bottled water companies put lots of plastic wrapping round their six bottle multibuy packs," she emailed. "I don't know if this is special biodegradable stuff, but I cannot see the point of it as the water is bottled anyway.
"Why not have a sign designating the price for the number of bottles or just put a piece of tape around the bottles? All this plastic seems a waste to me."
Evian, which is owned by the French food giant Danone, decided not to share its wisdom on the problem.
Driven to distraction by the shrinkwrap, trays, wrappers, cards and cardboard that swaddle and strangle your goods? Support The Independent's campaign by sending examples of over-packaged products to us. We will take up your gripe with the company. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, urge your MP to sign the Early Day Motion supporting the campaign.Reuse content