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Increased Fly-tipping in the UK During Lockdown
Have you ever taken a walk, peacefully immersed in the beauties of nature, when, all of a sudden, a filthy mattress, a couple of stained pillows, and evidently the rest of someone’s disowned bedroom caught your eye in the surrounding countryside? Then you have witnessed fly-tipping. Britons reading this will probably be familiar with the problem because fly-tipping is common in the UK. Unfortunately, with the impact of the coronavirus, there are fears that fly-tipping has increased even further. This article will discuss why fly-tipping is such an issue, and how we can try to prevent it amongst the difficulties of the pandemic.
What is Fly-tipping?
Fly-tipping can be defined as the ‘illegal disposal of household, industrial, commercial or other controlled waste’. Controlled waste refers to waste that is subject to legislative control in its handling or its disposal. The waste is usually discarded on public land, most commonly the highways (43% of incidents) but seeing it on private land is not unusual.
You might ask, ‘what’s the difference between fly-tipping and littering?’. Well, it’s mostly a question of scale. Littering refers to the improper discarding of small items that are most commonly associated with eating, drinking and smoking. Fly-tipping, on the other hand, connotes the disposal of larger quantities of waste. This ranges from a single bin bag of waste to large quantities dumped from trucks. Small van loads and the equivalent of a ‘car boot or less’ are the most common size category. Furthermore, unlike littering, fly-tipping places emphasis on the attempted avoidance of paying disposal costs.
Is putting rubbish in somebody else’s bin illegal or classified as fly-tipping? It could technically be deemed fly-tipping as you are disposing of waste in a place that is not meant for your waste. You may even be trespassing if the bin is on somebody else’s property. Save the hassle, just ask your neighbour if you can use their bin!
UK Fly-tipping Statistics
So, how much fly-tipping actually happens in the UK? There are around a million incidents of fly-tipping per year in the UK. The latest statistics for England, covering the period of April 2019 to March 2020, show that authorities had to deal with 976,000 fly-tipping incidents, a 2% increase from 2018/19. Altogether, enforcement actions for the period totalled 474,000, with prosecutions doubling since 2016. In total, fines for 2019/20 amounted to £1,170,000, a 7% increase from 2018/2019.
With regard to the fines, how much do people pay? Fly-tipping is punishable by up to £50,000, or 12 months imprisonment if convicted in a Magistrates Court. However, there can be an unlimited fine and up to 5 years if convicted in a Crown Court. Other penalties include fixed penalty notices, which can be between £150 and £400, and having vehicles used for fly-tipping seized. Even householders who pass their waste onto an unlicensed waste company for fly-tipping can be fined up to £400.
Who Removes Fly-tipping?
This usually depends on where the waste is dumped, and on what scale. If the waste is left on public land, it is usually down to the local authorities or the UK Environment Agency to clear it up. The local authorities are responsible for smaller scale waste, whilst the Environment Agency take care of large-scale waste (more than a lorry load). On private land, the costs actually fall on the landlords to clear up, and this can be enforced by local authorities or the Environment Agency. Overall, fly-tipping costs £86m-£186m a year to investigate and clear up, a cost which mostly falls on us taxpayers!
Why Do People Fly-tip?
Some may just be doing it because they know no better and are unaware of the environmental impact or financial implications if caught. Others may be lazy and have a ‘someone else will clear that up’ attitude. It is most likely, however, that they are attracted by the cheaper prices for waste disposal offered by criminal gangs. Complications brought about by the coronavirus have broadened the opportunities and incentives for criminal gangs, as well as individuals, to fly-tip.
Why Did UK Fly-tipping Increase During Covid?
As soon as the first nationwide lockdown hit in March 2020, many waste disposal facilities closed their doors, leaving a lot of people with nowhere to dispose of unwanted household items. The UK-wide waste disposal app, ClearWaste, recorded a huge increase in fly-tipping reports in April. Thus, due to pressure from some disgruntled locals, the government began to reconsider, and by June, a lot of the waste facilities were allowed to reopen. Yet, unbelievably, the app registered its biggest increase yet in July; a 74% increase from April.
This shows that, by the time the facilities were allowed to reopen, it was too late; many people had already become accustomed to fly-tipping. The more people saw the waste piling up on the highways, the more they viewed it as acceptable, and the more they added to it. Also accounting for the increase is that, even after many waste facilities had reopened, they did so at a significantly lower capacity, and at times could be booked up way in advance.
What are the Long-term Results of Fly-tipping?
All of this fly-tipped waste has detrimental effects on the environment. It is mostly non-biodegradable, and may contain hazardous materials which can be poisonous to animals, plants, and even humans. It can also have long-term negative effects in the soil as toxic chemicals can seep in and end up in the groundwater. Disease is another issue; animals might eat from the waste, or even make their homes from it. This could cause them to become infected, and spread disease to other animals, the water supply, or even the local food that is grown from the soil. All of these instances could lead to humans themselves becoming infected.
There can also be stark financial implications. For one, illegal fly-tipping undermines legitimate waste businesses because of the cheaper prices offered, thus those who go about the process lawfully end up losing out. Furthermore, areas burdened with high rates of fly-tipping may suffer declining property prices as well as suffering business losses as people stay away from the area. As demonstrated in this Purple Turtle article on sustainable cities, economic prosperity is strongly linked with environmental factors, and waste management is certainly one of these factors.
What are the Fly-tipping Solutions?
Something must be done. The solutions mostly lie in making changes that make it more difficult for fly-tippers to get away with their crimes. Fortunately, due to the disquiet raised over recent fly-tipping increases, the Environment Agency has been given additional funding and the government has already started to make some changes.
For example, there are provisions in the Environment Bill 2019-20 to enable the electronic tracking of waste. In addition to this, many councils have now installed CCTV at fly-tipping hotspots; increased fly-tip clearance operations; started landscaping to block hotspots; and even started ‘wall of shaming’ fly-tippers on the internet! Sometimes, even licensed waste companies contribute to fly-tipping. The government is thus currently in the process of reforming the licensing system in order to ensure ‘stricter background and competency checks’. However, there are worries that the fines, however hefty they may appear, are not large enough to deter a lot of criminals. The Local Government Association is leading the campaign to increase these fines.
What Can We Do?
It is not just down to the government. We must do what we can as individuals too. Firstly, we must ensure our waste is going to the right people. If the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is, so exercise caution when you spot waste disposal service advertisements at cheap prices. Also, as per government guidelines, we should keep our unwanted household items with us until our preferred (legal) tips reopen. If we happen to witness others dispose of their waste illegally, we should report it to the police immediately.
Most of the waste that is fly-tipped is household waste, accounting for 65% of it in 2019/2020. Thus, it is clear that more can be done to reach out to ordinary people, to educate them on the harm that fly-tipping does to the environment. A good example was set in Wales, with the ‘Fly-Tipping Action’ national awareness campaign, which has seen a large decrease in fly-tipping since 2012. This is something that we should encourage more of from the government.
More education about the issue, combined with our collective individual efforts to make the right choices with regards to our waste and being sure to report perpetrators, are factors which can go a long way towards eliminating fly-tipping. We must attach more urgency to an issue that has been side-lined amongst the chaos of the pandemic. As restrictions lift, however, our adventures in the great outdoors are set to return. The last thing we want is the sight of illegally disposed waste throwing a dampener on our new-found freedom. We can change things for the better if we unite in the cause!
Any thoughts or ideas about how to prevent fly-tipping? Let us know in the comments below.
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