More than 1,400 tonnes of waste including bags of blood, used syringes and old medicine is set to be sent back to Britain from Brazil after it was exported illegally across the Atlantic disguised as recyclable plastic.
The hazardous rubbish, which also includes waste electronic equipment, car batteries and soiled nappies, was discovered in 89 shipping containers spread across three ports on Brazil's southern coast after being sent from Britain between February and May this year labelled as harmless plastic.
The Brazilian authorities have named two companies in Swindon, Wiltshire, set up by Brazilian citizens since 2007, as the suspected exporters of the waste and said yesterday they expected the rubbish to be returned to Britain as soon as possible and those responsible for its shipment to be punished.
The Environment Agency, which is in charge of enforcing the Basel Convention that bans the movement of toxic waste across international borders, confirmed yesterday that it was investigating the shipments, which have caused widespread anger in Brazil that it is being used as a dumping ground for poisonous British rubbish.
Roberto Messias, president of Ibama, the Brazilian government's environmental watchdog, said: "We will ask for the repatriation of this garbage. Clearly, Brazil is not a rubbish dump of the world."
Amid diplomatic embarrassment at a clear reverse to Britain's claim that it operates stringent export checks, the British embassy in Brasilia said it was taking "immediate steps" to deal with the case, although it is understood it will take several weeks before any shipments can be returned to the UK.
The containers which had been sent from Felixstowe had stood undetected on the dockside at Santos, near Sao Paulo, and two other ports in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, for up to four months before a routine inspection discovered their festering contents.
The medical waste included the seats from chemical toilets and used bandages mixed with the bales of recyclable plastic while other containers held computers, televisions and car batteries. Another container held a collection of dirty toys with a note in Portuguese saying they should be washed before being distributed to "poor Brazilian children".
Such is the level of alarm about the nature of the waste among the Brazilian authorities that it has been isolated in the ports and monitored for radioactive contamination.
Ibama and federal prosecutors said that five companies had already been fined in Brazil between £60,000 and £150,000 despite protestations from the importers that they were duped and believed they were being sent recyclable plastic.
The investigation in Britain is likely to focus on Worldwide Biorecyclables Ltd and UK Multiplas Ltd, the two British companies named by the Brazilian authorities as being responsible for exporting the containers. Worldwide Biorecyclables ceased trading earlier this year. The linked companies, which were both registered to the same domestic address in Swindon, were set up in the past two years by Andre De Oliveira and Julio Da Costa, two Brazilian immigrant workers who had arrived in Britain six years ago as building labourers.
Worldwide Biorecyclables last year began a trial contract with Wiltshire County Council and Hills Waste Solutions Limited, a waste contractor which operates across southern England, to collect rigid plastics from consumer durables to food containers. Under the contract, some 700 tonnes of waste was supplied to the Brazilian-owned company to be shipped to Sao Paulo for reprocessing.
Speaking last year to a local newspaper, Mr De Oliveira said: "We started as regular immigrants doing labouring and after a lot of struggle, we were able to start our own business. We collect a mix of all plastics. This can be anything from a Coke bottle, to a meat tray, to a toy or even a gardening chair. The business is going well.
"We and our families what we have here, we owe to Swindon and the UK, and with the recycling contributions we are hoping to pay back all the opportunities that we have had here in the town."
Neither Mr De Oliveira nor Mr Da Costa were contactable yesterday. A woman who described herself as Mr De Oliveira's landlady said she believed he had returned to Brazil.
In a statement, Hills Waste said: "At no time have we or Wiltshire Council supplied Worldwide Biorecyclables with hazardous waste for disposal."
The Environment Agency said it was liaising with the Brazilian authorities for precise details of the waste and would take legal action if an offence had been committed.