Britain’s recycling industry is being exploited by criminal gangs that have illegally shipped large quantities of toxic material to developing countries, prosecutors will claim at a series of court cases in the pipeline.

The Environment Agency is pursuing 30 cases, most of which involve electrical waste that has been sold illegally in west Africa. Many other cases involve tyres, sent to south-east Asia, as well as household waste.

Typically, the culprits pretend that the broken televisions, computers and other devices are “used electronics” that are still fit for use, applying “tested” stickers before packing them in the back of containers.

But once they arrive in Nigeria or Ghana, the waste is burnt to remove the plastic while workers, including children, scramble through the remains to pick out useful metals, such as copper. They are exposed to harmful substances such as cadmium and mercury while working in the toxic fumes, while heavy metals leach into the water supply.

It is thought that huge quantities of waste are being illegally exported without the knowledge of the local councils that have organised the recycling.

Sarah Chare, manager of the Environment Agency’s national enforcement service, said the cases were the result of the agency’s biggest investigation to date into waste exports.

“This is a reputational issue for our country. If people from this country are dumping waste in this way,” she said, “this is a despicable crime.”

Five cases are going through the courts at the moment. One will see 11 defendants, including three companies and eight individuals, stand trial at Basildon Crown Court in Essex in March on charges relating to breaches of waste regulations. Inspectors working on that case discovered 20 containers of electrical waste, equivalent to 10,000 TVs or computers.

The gangs, which can make thousands of pounds on each container after shipping costs, are not unique to the UK; waste is also flooding into west Africa from the US and Europe.

Britain sends about 500,000 tonnes of electrical objects for recycling every year, largely as a result of implementing the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which stops such objects being put into landfill.

The Environment Agency is unable to estimate how much waste intended for recycling is exported to developing countries.

Ms Chare warned that successful convictions over illegal waste could result in unlimited fines or jail sentences of up to two years.

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