Waste crime: the multi-million pound swindle

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Christine Cole, Nottingham Trent University

In Britain and other developed countries, disposing of unwanted things is taken for granted. There is (lots of) legislation in place to ensure waste is collected, transported and treated safely without having an impact on either health or the environment. But waste management is a costly business, increasingly seen by organised criminals and opportunists alike as an easy way to make quick money.

Two recent instances of waste crime, in my local area, show how this can happen. In the first, a deserted factory, used for the illegal storage of 5,000 tonnes of partially treated waste was deliberately set alight using an accelerant. It contained combustible materials, such as plastics and decomposing food, making it particularly fire prone. The police investigation looking for the source of the waste, as well as the reason it was set alight, is ongoing.

Illegal waste dumps such as this are becoming an increasing problem, both in open countryside and hidden in rented buildings due to the potential income available from these crimes. Estimates from waste industry experts put illegal profits from this one operation somewhere between £400,000 to £500,000 for the cost of just two weeks rental on the building.

This kind of thing appears to be a victimless crime, but it isn’t. The building owner in the case of the illegal storage fire (who appears not to have been involved) faces losses. And we are all victims: burning this illegally stored waste has polluting impacts on both local air quality and local watercourses. The incineration of waste is one of the most highly regulated waste management processes, and rightly so.

Fire services managed to control the fire, so estimate that only 10-15% of the waste present was burnt. This leaves the problem of moving what remains to proper treatment facilities – who pays for this? Or the cost of the 65 fire service personnel it took to control the fire?

In the second incident, a large quantity of asbestos was dumped. Asbestos was widely used in the UK in buildings for insulation, flooring and roofing until it was discovered that it can cause serious lung conditions, including cancer, asbestosis and pleural disease. It is now banned in the UK, but is still present in buildings built before 2000.

The removal, transport and disposal of asbestos is highly dangerous, heavily regulated and consequently expensive. This makes it attractive to criminals. Charging high rates for removal and dumping for free generates an easy profit. Again, wider society is the victim: there are serious health implications for anyone coming into contact with this waste, including the people that dumped it.

Asbestos is a public health hazard and must be properly disposed of.

The bill for clearing this incident will be paid by local council tax payers. Nationally, clearing fly-tipping (leaving waste on land that doesn’t have a licence to accept it) costs tax-payers in excess of £200m a year. Clearance of fly-tipping on private land falls to the landowner, be that a private individual or charity such as the Woodland Trust, who report an annual clearance bill in excess of £350,000.

Easy business

These waste crimes are taking place in plain sight. There are underlying causes to these crimes, which are allowing waste crime to flourish. Correct, legal waste disposal is expensive, with landfill and incineration charges now around £100 per tonne. This is why the profits of these crimes are high.

It seems that the traditional deterrents for these crimes, fines and prison sentences,
are not working, or are not tough enough. It is too easy for criminals to obtain documentation that makes their operations appear compliant. For example, waste carrier’s registration and waste exemptions, can be easily and quickly obtained online. These make waste operations – on the surface – appear legal.

It is also too easy for criminals to gain access to waste. On a small scale “scrap men” informally remove white goods and other metal objects from housing estates across the country. They have the implied consent of the householder who leaves unwanted items out and does not report their disappearance as a crime. Parts of these items which don’t have a resale value are often fly-tipped meaning the householder also, unknowingly, commits a crime themselves. There are more complaints to the local authority about the noise these collectors make with their bugles and loudspeaker appeals for “any old iron” than about the removal of items.

Outright theft

These informal or bogus collectors do not restrict themselves to scrap metal iron items. Used, unwanted textiles are worthwhile waste stream targets too because of the high prices they command in both secondhand markets and as a scrap.

Theft from community clothing banks is becoming all too common.
Philafrenzy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Here, different tactics are employed, from the small-scale individual “fishing” for the contents of textile banks in car parks (with some fatalities) to the organised collection of bulk unwanted textiles from households. This is done either by the distribution of bogus collection bags to all households in a defined area, or the kerbside collection of bags distributed by a reputable charity before their own collection teams can retrieve them. Either way, it deprives honest charities of a much-needed funding source.

On a larger scale, the offer of cheap waste collections can be quite tempting. Waste is removed, the service paid for and then the waste is fly-tipped or stored at illegal, unregulated, waste sites leading to an immediate profit at a cost to us all. Assets of almost £1m have recently been recovered from one such waste crime through the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The Environment Agency and local councils respond to these crimes when they take place. They also work with other agencies, such as HM Revenue and Customs and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to “disrupt” waste crime. Householders should make use of local council waste collections and check their local council’s website for information on the disposal of larger items. Bogus collections of textiles can be avoided by checking with your local council’s trading standards team, or checking the charity register.

Across the UK illegal waste management practices are now a multi-million pound problem, with some serious underlying problems that need to be addressed. Apart from the associated criminality, fly-tipping damages the environment, poses risks to human health here and abroad, undermines legitimate businesses, reduces tax income so others have to pay more, and just looks really ugly. With the potential for easy, high profits – waste crime is joining the ranks of organised crime alongside drugs and human trafficking, cyber-crime and child exploitation and this has wider implications for society.

The ConversationWe must remember that many environmental regulations have been put in place as a response to serious incidents and resist the prospect of further deregulation. This may stand to cost us in terms of damage not only to the economy and environment – but also to human and public health.

Christine Cole, Research Fellow, Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jannik Giesekam chairs session at CIOB Annual Conference and presents at UK Green Building Council Masterclass

On the 22nd June CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam presented and chaired a session at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) Annual Conference in Cardiff. Speakers at this year’s conference included First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones; Chief Executive of Build UK Suzannah Nichol and author of the Farmer Review, Mark Farmer. The session Jannik chaired focussed on ‘Innovative construction materials and how to use them’. This included presentations on saving Egypt’s oldest pyramid, novel concrete canvas products, and innovative uses of local timber. Pictures, recordings and further information can be found on the CIOB Conference website.

On the 28th June CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam presented at a UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) Masterclass in London. The masterclass followed the launch of a new UK-GBC guidance document ‘Embodied Carbon: developing a client brief’, for which Jannik acted as a Technical Reviewer. The guidance sets out how construction clients can embed embodied carbon assessment on their projects, and includes detailed guidance on supporting tools, standards and methodologies. The masterclass focussed on helping a range of construction clients put the guidance into practice. Previous CIE-MAP research has demonstrated that reducing embodied carbon is an essential part of meeting the construction sector’s carbon reduction targets.

Suzana Matoh participates in ETH Academy on Sustainability and Technology

The ETH Academy group gathered together in front of the Kaubad Hotel

Suzana Matoh participated at the 10th ETH PhD Academy on Sustainability and Technology in Zürich and Appenzell in Switzerland. The academy took place from May 29 to June 3 and focused on ‘Ensuring a Sustainable Future: Technological, Organizational and Institutional Change’. Suzana was among 13 PhD students and postdocs from 8 countries who were selected to participate and present their research projects at this year’s ETH Academy.

The Academy began with a welcome dinner in Zürich where all the participants, organizers, and academy’s faculty met each other. The next day started with an introduction to the ETH Academy and short presentations by the academy’s faculty which consisted of Dr. Kathleen Eisenhardt, Dr. Inês Azevedo and Dr. Volker Hoffmann. Later on that day Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt gave a talk on ‘Weaving Strategic Decisions: Strategy Formation under Novelty, Resource Constraint and Complexity’.

A Traditional Swiss Fondue

After these talks the participants delivered paper presentations at the Kaubad Hotel. These were divided into three groups according to the Academy’s themes: technological change, organizational change, and institutional change. Each presenter was given a one hour slot for presentations and discussions. Suzana was a discussant for the paper on ‘Greening industrialization: Understanding how a technology’s product architecture and use environment affect local low-carbon industry development’ written and presented by Tyeler Matsuo from ETH Zürich.

Suzana also presented her paper on ‘Linking business model innovation to material demand reduction’. She was linked with PGR Hendrik Thelken from the University of Groningen as her discussant and Professor Eisenhardt and Professor Hoffmann for the in-depth feedback. Suzana received very useful feedback regarding her project in which she is linking decision-making to business model change in the sustainability context of material demand reduction. The feedback, comments, and suggestions from the discussant, professors, and other participants was very constructive and will help her move forward with the project.

Dr. Inês Azevedo also gave a very interesting and dynamic presentation about the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making and their projects related to energy systems, how they are likely to be shaped in the future, and energy efficiency in the U.S. There was then a roundtable discussion where the professors answered questions and gave advice on how to build an academic career, how to approach publishing papers, and how to communicate projects effectively.

Hiking in the Swiss Alps

The ETH PhD Academy is a great platform for postgraduates to showcase their work and to network with other like-minded scholars. There was time for work and there was time for relaxation while walking in the beautiful nature surrounded by the breath-taking Swiss Alps, taking a dip in the swimming pool, or joining the yoga session guided by the one of the other participants. The family owned hotel in Kaubad was a perfect place to be, we were spoiled by a warm hospitality and delicious food in abundance. We had fun during the breaks and meals where we have learned different fun facts such as how to approach eating a traditional Swiss cheese fondue.

Find out more about the ETH PhD Academy here.

Kate Scott publishes Resource Consumption Policy Brief

Researcher Kate Scott, with colleagues from CIEMAP, explores the potential for material productivity measures in UK industry to help meet the 4th and 5th carbon budgets. The analysis shows there is a unique opportunity to align industrial and climate policy through improved resource productivity which can drive innovation and develop new markets. While resource efficiency options are limited in energy intensive sectors, the analysis shows considerable opportunities further down the supply chain that address manufacturing, develop alternative business models and improve asset utilisation. A broad collection of strategies are needed across sectors, and researchers, businesses, trade organisations and government need a collaborative programme to inform and exploit these opportunities.

Resource Consumption Policy Brief

What people really think about the circular economy

On 11th May 2017 we hosted a stakeholder engagement event exploring public perceptions of the circular economy that was attended by 30 high level guests, including researchers, policy makers, government officials, and heads of industry.


As businesses look to experiment with circular economy approaches, understanding how people feel about the new models, products and customer relationships involved will be crucial to their success. Social scientists from Cardiff University conducted an extensive set of public workshops to learn how people respond when presented with ideas like sharing their hedge trimmer with their neighbour, buying their washing machine and clean clothes as a service, or taking their detergent bottles back for a refill. Aiming to interest businesses, policymakers and researchers working on the circular economy, the workshop was a unique opportunity to hear about the initial findings of Cardiff’s research from Professor Nick Pidgeon and to shape their on-going analysis.

Exploring six aspects of the circular economy (products, business, ownership, community, waste and lifestyles) the event discussed the implications of the research findings for business and policy. A main outcome of the event was to identify a range of key challenges that need to be overcome in order to move towards a more circular economy. These included:

  1. How to inspire trust concerning consumer-to-business and peer-to-peer relationships?
  2. How to encourage the convenient and secure repair of products and technology often considered essential and hard to part with (e.g., mobile phones and laptops)?
  3. How to overcome categorisation of product categories as unsuitable for sharing, leasing, remanufacturing etc?

Overall, the event was extremely successful in highlighting the importance of public perceptions and attitudes towards achieving a more circular future.

Plate 2017 Conference in Delft, 8-10 November, 2017

We are pleased to announce the 2nd Conference on Product Lifetimes and the Environment, PLATE 2017, which will take place in Delft, from 8-10 November, 2017. PLATE 2017 is the second international conference to address product lifetimes in the context of sustainability. It is the meeting place for researchers, designers, practitioners, and educators from a broad range of traditions and communities from all around the world.

An increase in product lifetimes and a move to a more circular economy are increasingly recognized as essential elements in resource efficiency, waste reduction and low carbon strategies for sustainability. For this reason, the first PLATE conference was held in 2015 at Nottingham Trent University, UK, which brought together over 100 academic researchers and industry representatives with a shared interest in tackling the detrimental effect of our consumption through product longevity. To continue this success, the PLATE 2017 Conference will be held at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology.

The conference will provide a great opportunity to review the current state of research in this emerging field of knowledge. Academic researchers, industry representatives and policy stakeholders are invited to share their experiences and debate the implications of product longevity for environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Register for the conference here.

Community repair: a pop-up alternative to the throwaway society

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Christine Cole, Nottingham Trent University and Alex Gnanapragasam, Nottingham Trent University

A not-so-quiet repair revolution is taking place in communities across Britain. Consumers, fed up with having to throw away broken phones, toasters and other appliances, are instead meeting to learn how to repair them and to extend the lifetime of their products. These repair “pop-up parties”, where like-minded people can improve or learn new skills in a supportive environment, can prevent still-useful products from ending up in the bin, while saving money. The Conversation

Advances in technology and new applications, combined with faster product obsolescence, means that electrical and electronic equipment make up one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. The growing demand for these products is also driving unprecedented levels of resource extraction to keep up with increased rates of manufacturing of everyday goods – something that the planet can hardly support.

The number of electrical appliances and devices in UK households tripled between 1970 and 2002 and it continues to grow – the average household now owns around 41 electrical items. Many products develop simple faults which are challenging for the amateur to repair, resulting in replacement products being purchased and equipment with small faults being disposed of. For many consumers, repair is now only an option for high cost items such as cars and personal computers, or for household fixtures such as heating systems – washing machines, kettles and toasters are easier just to throw away.

Down but not out?

The ability to repair goods is key to maintaining the functionality of products and delaying, or avoiding, their disposal. The government recognises the value of repair as part of a waste reduction strategy, and the Welsh and Scottish governments have also signalled strong backing for practical action that encourages a circular economy. In Sweden, there are plans to reduce the VAT on repair work from 25% to 12%, and in France there are penalties for “planned obsolescence”, intentionally producing goods with short lives. Germany and Spain have also been looking at the issue.

Restarts and pop-ups

Community-based organisations are providing innovative approaches to the repair of a variety of products including clothing and electrical equipment. Access to information, spare parts and tools is available on websites like iFixit, which publishes guides that teach people “how to fix almost anything” and invites users to create new ones.

The London-based Restart Project is a community-based repair initiative that runs a forum for motivated individuals to attempt repairs that extend the working lifetime of a variety of items, concentrating primarily on electrical and electronic equipment, and promotes awareness of recycling routes for items they can’t fix.

Repair coaches.

Restart also arranges pop-up events, where members of the public can take along broken electrical items and attempt to repair them with some support. Restart do not charge a membership fee, and admission to the events they organise is also free. Their aim is simply to enable repair to help extend the lifetime of electrical and electronic equipment and reduce the number of these items that become waste. Restart’s volunteers act as “repair coaches”.

They are also social gatherings, so even if repairs are unsuccessful, participants are still happy to go along and have a go.

Restart also acts as an education tool: through a variety of media channels they distribute information and raise awareness about the environmental impacts of end-of-life products and signpost those with unsuccessful repairs to recycling schemes. Some local authorities have also shown support for these initiatives.

Extending the network

Despite the good work being done, the repair network is complex and fragmented – there could be more of them, more widely located, and better known to consumers. Some consumers lack the skills, knowledge or confidence to attempt repairs, even when the resources are available. In a recent study conducted in partnership with The Restart Project, we asked participants at pop-up repair events about their previous experiences of repair. We also asked them about their recycling behaviours and their experiences at the pop-ups. Over half the participants had previously attempted to repair items on their own with different levels of success.

Confidence appears to play an important role in willingness to attempt repairs. It’s often easy to learn how to repair and purchase the tools and parts online, but the compact design of electricals and electronics often makes it an unforgiving task. Pop-up repair events offer a supportive environment in which you can receive help and support completing repairs, building your confidence.

Participants also described a lack of trust in commercial repair services with nearly half of the participants unable to name a repairer they trusted. Several mentioned that the perceived cost of a repair would discourage them from using local, paid-for repair services.

Informal community-based enterprises such as The Restart Project appear ideally placed to develop local networks and respond to the gap in trust.

We also identified that participants were less likely to recycle their electrical items than other waste such as paper, glass and tins. This is a problem because electrical items contain materials which require large energy inputs to create and transport. Nevertheless, pop-up repair events may be able to encourage correct disposal of broken and unwanted household items by telling people how best to dispose of them.

Pop-up repair events, such as those organised by Restart, have the potential to reinvigorate our enthusiasm for repair.

Christine Cole, Research Fellow, Architecture Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University and Alex Gnanapragasam, Research Fellow in Sustainable Consumer Behaviour, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jannik Giesekam presents at Ecobuild

On the 7th March Jannik Giesekam presented at the annual Ecobuild conference at the London ExCel. This year’s conference focused on redefining sustainability in the built environment. Jannik presented in a session on ‘Carbon emissions in the built environment: Current status of emissions and activities’ alongside speakers from the Green Construction Board, M&S and Arup. Jannik’s talk was entitled ‘UK carbon emissions in design, construction and operation’ and the slides can be downloaded here.

Jannik Giesekam presents at Healthy Buildings Expo

On the 15th February CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam participated in the Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo, organised by the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) and hosted by UCL. The conference focussed on how careful product selection can have a positive influence on occupant and planetary health. Expert speakers addressed current occupant health issues such as overheating, moisture and mould, and indoor air quality and explored how building products can exacerbate the problem or provide a solution. Jannik gave a presentation on the importance of low carbon, resource efficient building products in maintaining a healthy planet. Jannik also chaired a session on ‘Problem solving with healthy products’ and participated in a panel discussion answering the question ‘What do we need to do to increase the uptake of healthy products?’. All presentations from the day are available from the ASBP site.

Anne Owen publishes new book: Techniques for Evaluating the Differences in Multiregional Input-Output Databases

This book introduces the Eora, Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) and World Input-Output (WIOD) databases and provides detailed metadata on the data sources, database structures and construction techniques used to build each system. It offers a detailed account of how multi-regional input–output (MRIO) databases are used to calculate consumption-based accounts – guiding the reader through each mathematical step and explaining the associated equations. It demonstrates that different MRIO databases calculate different national level consumption-based CO2 accounts. If these results are to be used as evidence in climate policy-making, analysts need to be confident about the accuracy of the databases and understand why the results differ.

It carefully explains the mathematical equations behind each technique and provides a link to a repository where the reader can access specially prepared MATLAB functions associated with the techniques.

To make meaningful comparisons between the three MRIO databases, each is mapped to a consistent classification system comprising 40 countries and 17 sectors. Further, readers can access the aggregated databases using the link provided. The effect of this aggregation is shown to be minimal, so readers can be confident that the aggregated versions of each database reflect the full-sized versions.

The book concludes by making recommendations as to how future MRIO databases could be accurately and consistently constructed and how they should be used in policy-making in light of the findings.

Buy the book here.

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