A GLOBAL investigation into illegal waste exporting sparked when a computer belonging to a North East health authority was discovered on a toxic dump in Africa has brought 10 men and three companies to justice after a four-year probe.
The multi-national crackdown – dubbed Operation Boron – came following a string of “international fly-tipping” cases.
Environment Agency crime teams spent months closing in on the criminals, who come from all over the UK, and who were shipping hazardous rubbish from the UK to developing countries.
The Journal revealed in 2010 how a computer previously owned by Northumberland Mental Health NHS Trust was found among mounds of waste in the tip in Ghana after being illegally shipped there.
Televisions, fridges and old computers were among the 450 tonnes of electronics illegally exported to Nigeria, Ghana and Pakistan, while the gang pocketed money by claiming to be reusing the waste legally and safely.
Eight men and three companies have now been ordered to pay over £220,000 for the part they played in the plot. Another two defendants are still to face sentencing and a third is still at large.
Jeff Warburton, a senior environmental crime officer on the National Environmental Crime Team, said: “It was a very protracted case and very complicated involving numerous individuals and numerous companies.”
The investigation began in 2008 following a tip-off which led Agency officers to intercept shipping containers due to leave the UK.
“It was a case of discovering them trying to export the goods out of the country as a result of intelligence. We did full forensic examinations to discover whether they were working electronics or waste and we found up to 50-60% to be waste,” said Mr Warburton.
“A lot of the containers were what we called ‘window dressed’ which means, for example, a television could be wrapped and made to look as if everything was in order but it actually wasn’t.”
When the Northumberland Mental Health NHS Trust computer was discovered, investigating officers contacted the trust about its waste disposal practices and advised it on its legal duty to ensure all electrical waste is treated correctly.
Mr Warburton added: “There’s money to be made in this type of waste exporting.
“What tends to happen is a majority of local authorities have contractors to dispose of electric waste items on their behalf, but in some cases there are individuals who circumvent the system to make a killing by putting them in a shipping container to developing countries.”
Officers moved in to make their first arrests in 2009 with court proceedings getting under way in 2010.
The investigation uncovered waste collected from civic amenity sites and unsuspecting businesses across the UK being sent to developing countries.
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment regulations, introduced in 2007, aim to ensure more electrical waste is recycled within the UK instead of going to landfill.
But the expense of recycling electronics means organisations are normally charged by companies who take it away and there are criminals who will pay to get their hands on electric goods to strip them for valuable items.
Exporting electrical waste has been outlawed, but authorities say it is often loaded into containers and labelled as working equipment to get it through customs.
A spokesman for the Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Trust, which took over the work of the Northumberland Mental Health NHS Trust in 2006, said: “We were shocked to learn of this practice when originally informed of it by The Journal.
“Northumberland Mental Health NHS Trust, like a number of other local NHS Trusts at that time, employed a specialist IT company to dispose of old IT equipment in an appropriate fashion.
“We can assure the public and our patients that, as our trust does now, Northumberland Mental Health Trust had strict procedures in place to ensure that all IT equipment was thoroughly checked for sensitive information which, if found, would be removed prior to decommissioning.”