Ireland’s economic woes have been well documented in recent times. Financial turmoil has crippled its economy, forcing the need for an EU bailout. So, it’s no surprise this has resulted in a familiar outcome - with waste generation levels falling as consumers tighten the belt. But how significant has that been?
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According to latest figures, despite a rise a population, the country’s overall municipal waste generation fell 16% in three years from its peak in 2007. Meanwhile, the quantity of household waste collected for treatment also fell by 5% to in spite of the increased population.
These latest figures have been revealed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Ireland in its National Waste Report 2010, giving a useful overview of the current state of Ireland’s waste and recycling market. The report’s co-author and the EPA’s programme manager, Dr Jonathan Derham, says the lack of disposable income is the main driver for the fall in waste.
“People are not as consumerist,” he says. “Their old consumerist habits that might have been there in a more aggressive way up to 2006/7 have dissipated.” Meanwhile, Darrell Crowe, a spokesman for Repak, an industry-funded group aimed at growing packaging recycling, says: “People are being more diligent in food waste - they are watching their best before dates and buying their shopping more often, in smaller quantities”.
The report also offers good news on recycling rates. The rate of recycling of municipal waste is now at 38% - just 2% off the EU norm. Asked if he is happy with that, Derham replies: “Absolutely.” He adds: “From our point of view, we’re a small economy. We don’t have a very sophisticated range of infrastructure, we don’t have the economies of scale that would have bought on a lot of infrastructure. But despite the hard times, people are making the effort.”
Reports suggest however that Ireland could come out of recession in 2012, which would most likely lead to a boost in consumer confidence and consumption. Though economic growth would clearly be a good thing, the EPA is attempting to “break the link” between a buoyant economy and a rise in waste levels. This is being done through its National Waste Prevention Programme, aimed at both businesses and local communities. Derham says the support offered is “not really about major structural changes, just more about can we make businesses and communities more efficient with what they’re doing in managing waste.”
Challenges remain for improving Irish recycling rates however. And Derham identifies two things the EPA would like to see happen. One is, regulation of the waste collection market where companies compete to get the contract, and operate in a regulated market, instead of the current free-for-all.
“We’d like to see the waste collection market regulated, so people tender for the market, like they do in the UK so there’s competition,” says Derham. “We would like competition for the market rather than competition in the market.”
The other wish is an increase in the landfill levy, currently at 50 Euros per tonne -although the government has already signalled this will rise to 75 Euros per tonne in the next two years. But Derham warns: “There’s no obligation for householders to participate in a collection scheme or otherwise to demonstrate they are managing their waste responsibly. And 29 of every 100 houses do not participate in a collection service.”
He adds: “If we want to keep on pushing our recycling numbers forward we are going to have to get the collectors to really push and give them security in the market so they can become sophisticated in what they’re doing.”
The economic downturn has also seen a fall in the quantity of waste collected at kerbside - down by 4% in 2010. Again Derham puts this down to “people tightening their belts” and consuming less. The EPA report reveals the extent to which local authorities are moving out of the household waste collection market and private firms are moving in. In 2010, the private sector collected 65% of household kerbside waste, up from 60%in 2009 and 57% in 2008. Just three councils remain that do household collections as Ireland seeks to adhere to the European Services Directive.
However, the EPA report shows that only a third (34%) of households are getting a three-bin service (residual, mixed dry recyclable and organic). Derham admits he is disappointed at this figure, but explains: “Again that is something where there is no legal obligation and the collectors won’t offer it unless they are forced to because it’s very expensive and only where they have enough density will they offer it.”
Meanwhile, there is concern around the issue of organic waste. In 2010 the amount collected fell to 85,000 tonnes from 86,000 in 2009, despite three-bin penetration increasing from 29% in 2009 to 34%. Overall organic waste accounted for only 5.8% of household waste managed. Repak’s Crowe points out that the bio landfill diverson targets for 2013 are under threat because of this. Despite a 41% increase in distribution of brown bins, the volume collected through them is effectively static. Crowe seeks to explain this: “When people get a brown bin, they are proactive, but then hold back due to smells and residue.”
In terms of its waste infrastructure, the EPA reports that Ireland has a remaining national landfill capacity of 12 years. At the current fill rates, 15 out the 28 active municipal solid waste landfills will have reached their capacity within three years. But Derham expects this to be eased by Ireland’s first municipal waste incinerator - opened last October - and one on the cards for Dublin.
The first incinerator near Duleek faced major opposition and plans for a facility in the capital are eliciting similarly fierce feelings. Derham says the 600,000 tonnes-capacity Dublin incinerator has an EPA licence and planning permission, but the operators are “just trying to decide commercially whether they are going to go ahead or not.” Although he describes the opposition to the plans as “enormous”.
And what about EU targets? The EPA report says the country is “well advanced” towards achieving “most of its EU obligations”. However, one area of concern is the fact Ireland is failing to meet its current targets under the End of Life Vehicle (ELV) Directive. Derham admits: “We are a couple of percent shy of where we need to be really,” he says. But with higher targets coming into place in 2015, the report notes that “urgent action is needed to increase reuse/recovery and recycling of ELV materials”. Another challenge is meeting biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) targets coming into force next year and 2016, which the report says are currently “at risk”.
But overall the feeling from Ireland is positive with recycling rates up, waste generation down and most EU targets being met. Derham points to the wider implications for this: “The fact we are meeting most of our EU targets enhances our green credentials and it helps tourism as we are seen as a green compliant economy.”
And the government also appeared heartened by the progress. Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan says it is “encouraging to see proof that, through the actions of the public and business, supported by those involved in waste management in the public and private sectors, Ireland is delivering better environmental management of its waste”.
Main findings from EPA Ireland’s National Waste Report 2010
- Municipal waste generation fell by 3.6% compared to 2009.
- Household waste recovery increased by 11% compared to 2009
- Household waste collected for treatment fell by 5% and commercial waste collected fell by 12% compared to 2009
- Municipal waste recycling achieved a rate of 38%, a 3% increase compared to 2009, and close to the EU27 norm of 40%
- Irelandmet its 2010 EU Landfill Directive target for diversion of biodegradable municipal waste from landfill
- A recovery rate of 74 per cent was achieved for packaging waste, exceeding the EU target of 60 per cent by 2011
- Irelandis failing to meet the End of Life Vehicle Directive targets for reuse, recovery and recycling of vehicles and their components.
- 29% of occupied houses do not participate in, or are not offered, a waste collection service
- At current fill rates, 15 of the 28 currently active municipal solid waste landfills in Ireland will close in the next three years.
- Use of waste as an energy fuel grew by 20per cent from 2009 figures to 183,000 tonnes in 2010