The Environment Agency (EA) is awaiting a formal request from Sri Lankan authorities to remove thousands of tonnes of waste they say has been illegally exported from the UK.

According to the south Asian news website News 18, nearly 3,000 tonnes of illegally imported hazardous waste has been found in the country. It said the Sri Lankan customs service believed the consignment to contain ‘mortuary waste’ and large quantities of plastic among what purported to be metal.

Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin said the case was “horrific, and does the massive majority compliant side of our industry no favours at all”.

Finance minister Mangala Samaraweera said: “We have ordered the importer and shipping agent to take immediate steps to return the containers to their origin (Britain). I have also ordered that all those responsible be prosecuted immediately.”

He said 130 containers had been taken to a free-trade zone near Colombo. Some had been emptied, causing contamination of water sources and air pollution.

“The importer has been asked to immediately repack all the garbage back in the containers,” the minister said.

The company involved, Ceylon Metal Processing Corporation Privater, has denied that the containers included bio waste.

In other cases of waste improperly disposed of in Asia, the news site reported that Indonesia is to send more than 210 tonnes of waste back to Australia, while Canada has agreed to accept 69 containers of rubbish it had shipped to the Philippines between 2013-14.

Fiona Nicholls, ocean plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said:

“This is just the latest we have heard about contaminated UK waste being shipped abroad, and it is unsurprising that other countries have had enough.

“We cannot continue dumping our waste on other people’s doorsteps. We must urgently reduce how much waste is being produced in the first place, and we urge the Government to set legally binding plastic reduction targets in the upcoming Environment Bill.”

A spokesperson for the British Metals Recycling Association said:

“We don’t know which company was involved, but we absolutely condemn the illegal export of hazardous waste under the guise of metal recycling.”

An EA spokesperson said: “We are in contact with the Sri Lankan authorities and have requested more information which would allow us to launch a formal investigation.”

The EA said there were a small number of businesses that intentionally break the rules and they were targeted through compliance and enforcement activity.

The agency can repatriate waste that has been illegally exported from England if it receives a formal request from the relevant overseas authority, there is evidence to show that the waste has been illegally exported directly from England and those responsible cannot be identified or refuse to repatriate the waste.

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