Murky past of company accused of shipping toxic waste emerges

Doubts about Britain’s recycling industry were growing last night as it emerged that a company suspected of shipping hazardous waste to Brazil was supplied with recyclable plastics by a business with previous convictions for pollution.

An investigation by The Times has discovered that Worldwide Biorecyclables, which allegedly shipped syringes, condoms and soiled nappies from Britain, received deliveries from a company that has broken environmental laws repeatedly.

Hills Waste Solutions has been convicted four times of pollution offences, two of them last year. The first two convictions were under the company’s previous name, Hills Mineral and Waste. The company pleaded guilty to failing to control at a landfill site the level of leachate — a liquid developed from decomposing waste that can contain metals such as arsenic, and cyanide — in its latest prosecution in December 2008.

Swindon Council struck a deal with Worldwide Biorecyclables, a small organisation newly created by local Brazilian immigrants, to sell materials for recycling, and Wiltshire Council uses Hills Waste Solutions to run recycling centres despite its convictions.

Three men linked to the Brazil shipment inquiry who were arrested on Thursday were released yesterday but their passports were confiscated.

There is no evidence that any of the 1,400 tonnes of waste sent to Brazil, which included hazardous items, came from Hills’ recycling centres where the public dumps recyclable waste.

Worldwide Biorecyclables benefited from a loophole in the Environment Protection Act 1990 which allows waste management companies to avoid Environment Agency scrutiny by registering their businesses as “low-risk” operations.

The company was granted a “simple exemption” from seeking an environmental work permit when treating waste for the purpose of recovery and storing waste in a secure place.

Multiplas UK, a company run by a Brazilian immigrant, Julio Da Costa, from Swindon, which is also being investigated over hazardous waste sent to Brazil, operated despite having neither permits nor exemptions.

Up to 7,000 sites, including supermarkets and department stores, handle low-risk waste, according to the Environment Agency. The watchdog admits it lacks the resources to ensure they are all adhering to the exemptions rules. It acts on tip-offs from the public and other sources.

The Times disclosed yesterday that the Environment Agency is reviewing recycling industry rules.

Hills Waste Solutions refused yesterday to disclose details about its eight-month trial contract with Worldwide Biorecyclables, saying it was “commercially sensitive information”. While Hills could not rule out that syringes may find their way into bins allocated for rigid plastics at the ten household recycling sites the company runs on behalf of Wiltshire Council, the company said it was “extremely unlikely”.

“You can’t say it could not, nothing is a 100 per cent … but it’s extremely unlikely to happen,” Hills’ company secretary Alex Henderson said. Two full-time workers on each site monitored disposals to help to ensure nothing “pollutes the waste stream”.

Wiltshire Council defended its contract with Hills to manage household recycling centres, which are separate from the landfill sites it was convicted of mismanaging.

“Despite these two recent convictions the company has [a] good record of environmental compliance,” a Wiltshire Council spokesman Allan Clarke said. “The prosecutions, while regrettable, did not amount to sufficient cause to terminate the current contract.”

The 20-year contract between the council and Hills is due to run until 2016. Wiltshire Council said it had alternative arrangements to collect syringes and medical waste.

Hills suspended its dealings with Worldwide Biorecyclables when the Brazilian immigrants’ company left its premises on an industrial estate in Swindon. It is understood that Worldwide was evicted after falling behind on rent. The Times visited the Worldwide site and found eviction notices stuck on doors by bailiffs, dated March 23, 2009. Nothing had been left apart from two portable toilets.

Richard Kerbaj - The Times

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