High Court convicts nursery of wrongful disposal of plant pots

The High Court has ruled that plastic plant pots constitute packaging, and consequently convicted a Hampshire nursery of contravening European packaging waste regulations.

Under the rules, companies with a turnover of more than £2 million, or those producing more than 50 tonnes of packaging, must register with the Environment Agency and pay for a proportion of the waste to be collected and recycled.

Hillier Nurseries, in Romsey, is one of many garden centres and retailers that did not register, thinking that plastic plant pots did not fall into the relevant category. However, the Environment Agency disagreed, and attempted to prosecute them at Lymington magistrate’s court last June. The magistrate found in Hillier’s favour but the High Court this week overturned the decision and ordered a conviction.

Hillier was also denied leave to appeal, angering the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), which has been backing the nursery since the case began.

“We are very unhappy about this,” said Alison Lee, Director of business development at the HTA. “We wanted an opportunity to go to the European Courts with an appeal. This legislation isn’t enforced anywhere else in Europe. There are European countries which define plastic pots as waste but they don’t enforce the law.” However, Lee is not aware of any plans for future prosecutions, as the Environment Agency had agreed to postpone any further action while the Hillier case was decided.

According to Hillier’s, workers were following HTA guidelines, which are in line with industry practice in Europe, and so believed that they were complying with regulations. “The EA inspected us and issued a certificate of non-compliance,” said Tim Mason, Hillier Merchandise Manager. “We then received a fairly aggressive letter asking me to attend an interview under caution. After consulting the HTA, which is in negotiations with the EA on this matter, I declined to attend and we received a summons the following month.”

Daniel Wiley, a solicitor for the Environment Agency, explained that plant pots intended to have plants permanently kept in them are not considered by the Environment Agency to fall under the regulations. “But if you go into your local garden centre and buy a plant for your garden, or buy plants in a seed tray, that is packaging covered by the regulations,” he said.

According to Mason, he was surprised that the High Court “totally quashed” the original decision but says Hillier has received overwhelming support from the public. “Our local radio station, Radio Solent, held a poll and had their biggest ever response. 91% of callers were backing us, and just 9% supported the EA’s stance,” he said.

Hillier’s punishment now falls to the discretion of the original magistrate who tried the case, who has the right to either impose a fine or grant a conditional discharge.

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