A massive shipment of toxic waste, alleged to have been illegally exported from the UK to Brazil, arrived back in Britain yesterday after its discovery prompted an angry complaint to the United Nations from the Brazilian authorities.
The 1,400 tonnes of rubbish, said to include condoms and hospital waste ranging from syringes to bags of blood, were found in three Brazilian ports in July, in 89 containers believed to have been exported from Britain under the guise of recyclable plastic.
The discovery caused outrage in Brazil, provoking a personal protest from Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declaring his country was not prepared to be "the world's rubbish bin".
Earlier this month, officers from the Environment Agency's National Environmental Crime Team, with Wiltshire Police, raided premises in Swindon in connection with the shipment and arrested three men, aged 49, 28 and 24. They also arranged for the shipment to be returned to the port from which it had been sent, Felixstowe in Suffolk.
Yesterday, 71 of the 89 multi-coloured containers arrived at the port on board the cargo ship MSC Serena, although it will be a week before Environment Agency investigators can examine the contents themselves as it has to be fumigated first. The rest of the containers will return later.
The agency said the shipping lines contracted to transport the containers from the UK to Brazil had agreed to bring them back at their own expense. Once all of the evidence has been gathered, it will ensure the waste is safely dealt with by an appointed contractor.
The head of the agency's National Environmental Crime Unit, Andrew Higham, was at the dockside to meet the shipment. He said: "According to our colleagues in Brazil, the waste had been exported under the guise of recyclable plastic, and from what we are told, contained hazardous and toxic waste.
"The agency obviously takes this very seriously. Unfortunately, waste does get exported from this country but we are taking proactive steps to get ahead of the game." He went on: "The containers will be fumigated, after which we will carry out an investigation of the contents to help us to gather evidence for our ongoing inquiry into its source.
"The United Kingdom has taken a strong global lead to stamp out the illegal waste trade, in order to protect people and the environment, and is not going to allow our waste to be dumped on developing countries."
Waste can be sent abroad for recycling, but it is illegal to export it for disposal. The crime carries a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison.