Some of the biggest NSW waste companies broke rules meant to keep contamination out of landscaping products

<span>Guardian Australia can reveal the companies that have breached NSW regulations for testing a type of cheap soil made from recycled construction and demolition waste.</span><span>Composite: Guardian Design</span>
Guardian Australia can reveal the companies that have breached NSW regulations for testing a type of cheap soil made from recycled construction and demolition waste.Composite: Guardian Design

Some of the best-known waste companies in New South Wales are among those that broke safety rules that led to potentially contaminated soil fill being supplied to back yard landscapers, schools, childcare centres and parks across the state.

As part of an investigation into soil contamination, Guardian Australia can reveal that Bingo Industries, Aussie Skips Recycling, Benedict Recycling and KLF Holdings breached state regulations for testing a type of cheap soil made from recycled construction and demolition waste.

The fill – known as “recovered fines” – is used in place of virgin materials in construction projects, and in public spaces such as sporting fields, but is also sold directly to consumers for home landscaping by landscape and garden stores.

Some waste companies also sell the fill in bulk directly from their facilities.

A previous Guardian Australia investigation revealed the state’s environmental regulator, the Environment Protection Authority had known for more than a decade that companies had breached regulations meant to limit the spread of contaminants.

Now more than 20 of those waste and recycling facilities have been named in documents tabled in the NSW parliament.

The NSW Greens environment spokesperson, Sue Higginson, asked for the information about the identity of companies that engaged in practices highlighted by EPA investigations to be tabled, after the first Guardian reports.

“It is deeply concerning that some of the largest producers of recovered fines have avoided their obligations to ensure their products do not contain harmful contaminants,” Higginson said.

Widespread breaches

Recovered fines are made from residues found in skip bins at construction and demolition sites.

Recycling facilities process the waste, which would otherwise go to rubbish tips, to produce soil fill that is sold under names such as recycled turf underlay, budget fill, crusher dust or recycled road base.

Each year facilities in NSW produce about 700,000 tonnes of fill made from recovered fines. They are required under resource recovery regulations to test their products for hazardous contaminants such as lead. If they exceed legislated thresholds, they must dispose of the product and report the results to the EPA.

Related: We tested landscaping soil on sale in Sydney stores for asbestos – it came back positive

But two EPA investigations, one in 2013 and one in 2019, found widespread breaches of routine sampling and testing requirements. The 2019 investigation looked at about 50,000 pieces of testing and sampling data taken by facilities in 2017 and 2018.

The EPA also took samples from waste facilities and tested them.

The investigations also found that instead of reporting non-compliant results to the EPA and disposing of contaminated products, some companies retested samples until they received a compliant result.

Retesting of recovered fines is not prohibited. But if any test shows a sample has exceeded a contaminant threshold, the product is considered non-compliant.

The regulations do not require producers to test for asbestos but the recycling and reuse of asbestos in any form is prohibited. They are required to test for a range of other contaminants including lead and other heavy metals, physical contaminants and pesticides.

The regulator has now named the responsible companies in response to the NSW Greens’ questions.

  • Companies found in the 2019 investigation to have asked private laboratories to keep retesting samples when they exceeded contaminant thresholds were: Bingo Industries in Auburn, four Benedict Recycling facilities in Sydney, Breen Resources in Kurnell, South Coast Equipment Recycling at Warrawong, Hi-Quality Waste Management at St Marys and Brandown Pty Ltd at Cecil Park. The 2013 investigation also found two Benedict Recycling facilities were retesting samples.

  • Twenty-one facilities were found in the 2019 investigation not to have been meeting EPA sampling rules such as the frequency with which samples should be collected and tested and what they were tested for: eight sites owned by Bingo Industries, four owned by Benedict Industries and one each by Aussie Skips Recycling, KLF Holdings, Breen Resources, Brandown, Hi-Quality Waste Management, Budget Waste Recycling, Rock & Dirt Recycling, South Coast Equipment Recycling and Builders Recycling Operations. Aussie Skips Recycling and Hi-Quality Waste Management were also among 11 facilities found in 2013 to be breaching testing rules.

  • After the 2019 investigation, the EPA issued prevention notices to six facilities because it detected asbestos in their recovered fines. In at least two instances the product had already been removed for use in the community.

  • In one case, 16 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated soil produced by KLF Holdings was supplied to an apartment complex in Bankstown and the regulator was forced to order a clean-up.

Guardian Australia contacted each of the waste companies. One – Builders Recycling Operations – could not be reached. Detailed questions were sent to the other nine. Five – Benedict Industries, KLF Holdings, Aussie Skips Recycling, Breen Resources and South Coast Equipment Recycling – did not respond. Budget Waste Recycling declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Rock & Dirt Recyling said the company “does not propose to respond to your questions other than to reject the false premise that Rock & Dirt is supplying contaminated material to members of the public”.

A spokesperson for Bingo said the company had long been an advocate for improved standards of compliance and supported rigorous enforcement of the regulations.

“In response to the findings from the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s (EPA) investigations in 2019, BINGO Industries met all requirements and obligations for recovered fines,” they said.

“As part of the investigation, EPA visited and took samples from BINGO’s Kembla Grange facility in 2019, the only BINGO facility producing recovered fines at the time. The EPA subsequently confirmed that the samples taken by the EPA were compliant.”

A spokesperson for Hi-Quality Waste Management said the samples of recovered fines taken by the EPA during its 2013 and 2019 investigations were found to meet the regulated thresholds for all contaminants.

They said the company “regularly reviews and evolves its practices to ensure it is meeting the highest environmental, safety and operational standards”.

“Hi-Quality recognises that recovered products are crucial to creating a more sustainable sector and welcomes the opportunity to work with industry and stakeholders to strengthen regulation and advance the sector.”

A spokesperson for Brandown said several changes had been made since the 2019 investigation, including the introduction of new standards by the EPA to improve the management of construction and demolition waste.

“To further strengthen these standards, Brandown has advanced its testing protocols and made operational changes to reduce potential risk.”

Samples positive for asbestos

The 2019 investigation found only 29% of waste facilities were testing for asbestos. When the EPA took samples at 14 facilities, it found eight had asbestos in recovered fines; six of those were ordered to temporarily implement a stricter testing protocol.

Related: NSW environment watchdog investigating asbestos ‘concerned’ about mulch sold throughout 2023

The facilities that received notices were two owned by Benedict Industries and one each by Aussie Skips Recycling, Brandown, KLF Holdings and Builders Recycling Operations. According to public prevention notices published by the EPA, in the case of KLF Holdings and Builders Recycling Operations, 100% of the samples taken by EPA officials tested positive for asbestos.

The EPA said most of the stockpiles where it found asbestos was present in 2019 were kept in storage at the facilities and were either disposed of or broken into smaller batches and reassessed.

The EPA also found breaches of the legal thresholds for contaminants other than asbestos in samples it took from Aussie Skips Recycling, Benedict Recycling and KLF Holdings.

But despite recommendations from its own officials, the regulator abandoned plans for tougher regulations for recovered fines in 2022, when the Coalition government was in power, after pressure from the waste industry.

One of the recommendations made by EPA investigators in 2013 was that recovered fines not be permitted for use in landscaping because of the higher risk for potential human exposure to contamination.

The current chief executive of the EPA, Tony Chappel, pointed to changes passed by parliament that increase maximum penalties for breaching resource recovery orders from $44,000 to $2m, or $4m where asbestos was involved.

“We know we have more to do around recovered fines, which is why we are consulting with industry to make improvements and also finalising a recent compliance campaign to help us work on the areas that need prioritisation,” Chappel said.

“Over the next 12 months, we will also conduct targeted programs to assess industry compliance and take enforcement action for identified non-compliance with resource recovery orders.”

Higginson said the evidence tabled in parliament was shocking: “These potentially contaminated materials may have wound up in consumer products and may also have been sold for use in public areas.

“The history and evidence of non-compliance means we may never know how far and wide these companies … spread their potentially contaminated products.”

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