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A van driver has been penalised for having a plastic bag full of litter in his van. However, it's hoped that the incident will help raise awareness among commercial vehicle drivers of an important bit of documentation that they are likely to need when carrying out their business – a waste carriers' licence.

As a responsible van driver, either as a sole trader or as part of a larger fleet, it's unlikely you would drive anywhere without a proper low-cost van insurance policy in place. But comprehensive insurance isn't the only thing to sort out. For instance, if you transport, buy, sell or dispose of waste, you'll need the appropriate level of waste carriers' licence.

A roofer from Cheshunt found this out the hard way when he was pulled up by council workers who were carrying out spot checks in east London. The workers searched his van and found a plastic bag full of empty crisp packets, water bottles and sandwich containers in the back of the vehicle. The white van man was using the bag to store the empties from his lunch.

The workers from Waltham Forest Council informed the driver that he was in violation of the law by transporting waste around in his vehicle without a waste carriers licence and issued him an on-the-spot fine of £300 for "failure to furnish documentation (waste carriers licence)". The driver's attempts to appeal the fine were unsuccessful, and he was told that he would have to go to court if he refused to pay.

The driver contested the decision as unfair: "I've not fly-tipped. I've not left it in someone's garden," the driver said, adding that "it's a lot of money for one bag of rubbish".

A spokesman from the council justified the decision to impose a fine, saying, "The waste in this case was being transported in [a] commercial refuse bag in the trader's vehicle. Regardless of what the items are, if waste is being stored in a commercial refuse bag in a trader's van it is necessary that they have a valid waste carriers' licence."

The spokesman also said that even if tradesmen transport "small quantities of waste", they need to be licensed.

And while many are likely to sympathise with the driver in this case – and agree that it was perfectly reasonable for the driver to be carrying around his own rubbish as long as it was kept in a bag and he intended to dispose of it legally – this story does go to show that councils are serious about imposing the law, and no one is exempt, even if it is just a few empty lunch wrappers.

So, the question is, under what circumstances do you need a waste carriers' licence and how do you go about getting one?

Waste carriers' licences are required by all businesses that transport waste; buy, sell, or dispose of waste; or arrange for someone else to buy, sell, or dispose of waste. The licence was introduced in January 2014 in an effort to better manage businesses that transport waste and to help discourage fly-tipping, which has become a major threat to the environment.

You can head over to the Gov.UK website for more information on the different levels of licence and the appropriate fees, and to register as a waste carrier in England.

So, if you keep waste of any kind in your van, make sure you apply for your waste carriers' licence. It's one more consideration you need to make as the driver of a commercial vehicle, along with making sure you have the right low-cost van insurance for your specific circumstances.