The Environment Agency prosecuted Biffa Waste Services for sending the waste collected from households, which also included sanitary towels and condoms, that the company claimed was waste paper.
The export of unsorted household recycling waste from the UK to China has been banned since 2016.
The jury at Wood Green Crown Court found Biffa guilty of two breaches of the law in May and June 2015 as it did not accept the company’s version of events that consignments leaving its depot in Edmonton four years ago complied with the law because they comprised of waste paper.
Evidence gathered by investigators at Felixstowe port identified contents of seven 25-tonne containers bound for China to include glass, electrical items and metal.
The Environment Agency said its officers found “everything from women’s underwear and plastic bottles to metal pipes”.
It added: “Instead of waste paper, investigators discovered diverse discarded debris such as shoes, plastic bags, an umbrella, socks, hand towels, unused condoms, video tape, toiletries and electric cable.
“The nappies and sanitary towels gave off a pungent ‘vomit-like’ smell when inspected by Environment Agency officers.
“Biffa was also trying to export laminate flooring, coat handers, pet food containers, toilet wipes, latex gloves and ironically, china.”
Sarah Mills, an enforcement manager whose team investigated the breaches for the Environment Agency, added: “Our officers found anything and everything in Biffa’s containers at Felixstowe. They were marked as waste paper, but contained a totally unacceptable level of contamination with other waste.
“The waste contained offensive material likely to have been discarded by the receiving country, at great risk and cost to the environment and people. The guilty verdicts justify our decision to prosecute Biffa.”
Biffa, however, pleaded not guilty at a hearing to two counts of breach and is considering grounds for appeal.
A spokesperson said: “We strongly contested this case and are very disappointed with this outcome.
“At the time of the case we supplied a vital raw material to China to be recycled in an environmentally sound manner as an alternative to forestry. The materials we supplied commanded market-leading prices and met both international industry and customer standards. Throughout this case the Environment Agency (EA) has accused Biffa of failing to meet standards that it has repeatedly failed to specify through guidance. The EA has been continually asked to specify a required level of purity by both the industry and in one instance the Court of Appeal and the failure to do so is a breach of its responsibilities to the market.
“Due to the lack of reprocessing capacity, the UK and Europe is reliant on the export market for recycled paper and cardboard. The charges in the case relate to contamination levels in seven containers of mixed paper that were due for export to China over four years ago. At that time China was a core market for UK exported materials for recycled paper and cardboard and Biffa was a key supplier to some of the largest, best-invested cardboard mills in China. These mills were all accredited by the EA as being of an equal or higher environmental standard as mills within the UK and Europe.”
Biffa said these materials were “regularly inspected” by customs in China and by a Chinese Inspectorate regime based in the UK prior to shipping.
It believes the EA needs to issue “clear guidance to the industry as to what are the acceptable levels of purity for UK exported mixed paper”.