Owners and employees of a string of waste disposal companies have been fined more than £200,000 following Britain's largest investigation into the illegal export of toxic dumped electronics to the developing world.
The eight men, whose firm’s operated across the country, were found to have been at the heart of a lucrative trade which sends tonnes of waste computers and other consumer durables to west Africa and Asia every year to be stripped of valuable metals in grim conditions, often by children.
One of the company owners, Joseph Benson, whose BJ Electronics toured civic waste sites picking up electronic goods to be sent illegally to Nigeria from east London, was convicted following an investigation by The Independent, Sky News and Greenpeace.
Mr Benson, 52, whose company was shown by The Independent to have sent a broken and therefore unexportable television set to the Nigerian commercial capital, Lagos, pleaded guilty to breaking waste export laws last November after initially denying any wrongdoing. His fine of £11,000 can only be reported following the conclusion of linked trials last month at Basildon Crown Court in Essex.
The landmark case follows a four-year investigation by the Environment Agency into the burgeoning trade in “e-waste” which sees thousands of tonnes of defunct products, including computers with confidential information on intact hard drives, being sent from the industrialised world to developing countries. Although there is a lawful trade in functioning second-hand goods, it is illegal under European and international law to export electronic goods which no longer function.
Andy Higham, head of the agency’s national crime team, said: “This confirms the legal position on exporting electronic waste to developing countries. Sending hazardous waste to developing countries is unacceptable and our teams will continue to track down and stop those who risk damaging human health and the environment.”
The investigation centred on a shipping agent, Orient Exports, based in Thurrock, Essex, which was found to have sent a dozen 40ft-long shipping containers filled with hazardous electrical waste destined for Nigeria until they were intercepted at Felixstowe, Tilbury and a Belgian cargo facility.
The contents and other illegal shipments were then traced back to ten firms posing as lawful waste companies which in reality were flouting environmental laws by collecting material for export from civic waste tips and recycling sites. The firms operated across the country, from Sussex and Norfolk, to Birmingham, Leicester, Leeds and the North West.
Some of the seized shipping containers had an initial layer of legitimate working computers behind which was concealed tonnes of broken and discarded material.
Among the 450 tonnes of electronics that the companies, who were not linked or acting together, attempted to ship for dumping in Nigeria, Ghana and Pakistan were broken computers and monitors, fridges, televisions, drills and lightbulbs.
A total of 11 company owners and employees tracked down by investigators pleaded guilty to breaking international waste shipment regulations during two separate sets of proceedings.
At a sentencing hearing today, the largest fine - £112,000 - was handed to Krassimir Vangelov, owner of KSV Sussex and known in the waste trade as "Bulgarian Kris".
Godwin Ezeemo, owner of Orient Exports, was fined £18,000 and his son Chika, who worked for the company, was given a two year conditional discharge.
The involvement of Mr Benson, who is a Nigerian national, and his company in e-waste export was exposed by The Independent in 2009 after a tracking device was placed inside a television which had been deliberately damaged beyond use.
The television was traced to a market in Lagos next to a dump site where children can be found breaking down computer components loaded with heavy metals and burning the plastic housing from cables. Mr Benson and BJ Electronics were last year fined a total of £50,000.