Panorama focuses on tyre dumping and exports
On 16 July the BBC’s Panorama prime-time documentary series reported on the subject of illegal tyre dumping. It’s always good to see the BBC talking about tyres in a high profile slot, but questions will be asked about whether everything reported was either representative or wholly accurate.
The programme, entitled ‘Britain’s Biggest Waste Dumpers’, looked at what it described as “fly-tipping on an industrial scale” and highlighted three key issues: The perceived lack of transparency and clarity relating to retail tyre disposal charges; illegal dumping in the UK; and the negative effects of exporting end of life tyres. This last point referred to both the effects this practice has on the domestic tyre recycling market and on the destination country and referred to both legal exports of tyres for use as fuel to countries that control their emissions, such as South Korea, and illegal exports to unrestricted countries like China and Vietnam.
As part of the documentary undercover reporters asked staff at national garage operations about tyre disposal fees. In two cases staff at Halfords Autocentres incorrectly told reporters that the £2 green fee the chain charges for tyre disposal is a legal requirement. In the second instance shown, staff told Panorama’s reporter that even if they took the tyres away themselves the customer would still be obliged to pay the green fee.
Transparency and clarity
A Halford Autocentres statement gave the company’s view of events: “Our colleagues correctly stated that it is a legal requirement to dispose of tyres properly and our price for disposal reflects all the costs incurred,” adding: “there was no intent to give the wrong information and we apologise if we weren’t clear enough on the reasons for the disposal fee we charge. We will ensure customers receive a clear answer to this question in future. Halfords disposes of all tyres by legal and professional means.”
The problem the tyre retail trade will no doubt want to address is that Panorama’s Raphael Rowe also explained how the programme has asked similar questions of many high street branches, but in response got only “confusing” information. The lack of clarity was not limited to garages such as Halfords Autocentres, but also looks like it involved tyre specialists to one degree or another.
This is all a legitimate point that the Tyre Industry Federation and the more retail focused NTDA are likely to hit head on with some kind of awareness raising campaign amongst members. The line Panorama drew between the lack of clarity about the green fee and the demise of UK recycling and simultaneous increase in illegal exports, however, appeared to be somewhat overstated at best.
Tyre dumping in the UK
Mention a name like Carl Steele and everyone remembers the infamous case. The disparity between the £2.5 million made by the 33 year-old’s tyre dumping exploits and the £122 he has so far repaid has a lot to do with why this story is etched into the market’s collective memory. Panorama reprised this story with footage of chasing another similar operation that is apparently on the run in Spain. It is probably a fair bet that many in the tyre industry take a fair degree of satisfaction from seeing such individuals called to account. What is less fair is the way retailers drew implicit criticism for apparently pushing down the price of collections. This is despite the fact that Panorama went on to provide a different and more convincing explanation for this (illegal exports) later in the documentary.
During the programme Jeff Cooper, president of the International Solid Waste Association, and the programme makers suggested this means tyre retailers are misusing the green fee “as a profit stream.” However there were a number of logical inconsistencies in the programme’s reporting. Early on the documentary, Raphael Rowe’s narration put the annual number of truck and car tyre end of life tyres in the UK at 50 million. Throughout the programme green fees of around £2 a tyre were bandied about. But the programme also suggested that the green fee generates £50 million a year so, with this being around 50 per cent of what you would expect based on the programme’s estimates, it is not clear which figures are right.
Nevertheless, to this end the programme also interviewed Andy Carlin of tyre collection and recycling business SITR Midlands Ltd, which is not a member of the Tyre Recovery Association. He spoke of how the fee his business receives for taking away tyres has plummeted over the years. He explained how four years ago he could get £1 a tyre, but since then collectors have seen prices driven down to 85p a tyre and even as low 65p each. At this point it is worth putting these figures into perspective, infamous tyre dumper Carl Steele built his empire by undercutting legal and responsible businesses and charging 70p per tyre collected.
Tyre Recovery Association (TRA) secretary general Peter Taylor OBE was also briefly interviewed: “The problem is that at the margins there are operators that work to different standards than ourselves,” Taylor commented, referring to the 80 per cent or more of UK tyre arisings collected and lawfully disposed of by the association and its allied Responsible Recycler Scheme and adding: “The main issue in all of this is enforcement and observance of duty of care. And if some people at the margins of our business decide to disregard the duty of care and if the enforcement regime is inadequate then we will continue to have problems.”
However one of the greatest tyre recycling problems of recent years, according to Panorama, has been the illegal export of used tyres for use as fuel in unregulated markets. Tyres & Accessories has heard reports from several UK tyre recyclers saying they have been approached by agents looking to export their stocks of tyres on a weekly basis. Upon first glance these offers are said to look legitimate with documents pointing to a legal destination in a country like Indonesia. What the BBC showed in its documentary is that these addresses aren’t all they see. With the aid of some undercover photography, Panorama demonstrated that that one such location wasn’t a tyre recycling factory at all and that in fact the tyres were re-exported to Vietnam before being driven 10 hours north to the border with China and being sold as fuel for porcelain factories. Not only is the trade in as many as 1.5 million used tyres a year illegal, but as the programme pointed out, it could be seen as far cry from consumer expectations when they pay for tyres to be disposed of. But once again you have to challenge the premise for Panorama’s argument here for more on this.
The highlight of the documentary was watching the BBC do what it does best and produce professional investigative journalism that followed scrap tyres all the way to China. But too much emphasis on the minority of recyclers and collectors that are not members of associations like the TRA and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of the majority of this part of the business somewhat undermined this. In, fact when you discount the illegal activity of the periphery of the business, it seems that Panorama spent most of its time talking to a handful of firms representing the roughly 10 per cent of non-TRA member companies that are not illegal collectors or exporters. Businesses should be free to chose whether or not they join professional bodies of course, but respected broadcasters such as the BBC really ought to do a better job of representing the industry as a whole.