Ireland’s waste management practices, infrastructure and regulation have matured significantly over the last 20 years. This change has been driven by EU and national legislation, national policy and economic initiatives. Since 2012, there has been a clear government policy focus on waste as a resource and virtual elimination of landfilling.
The current and future focus is on waste prevention, reuse, maximising recycling and using waste as a fuel in replacement of fossil fuels: all elements of the circular economy strategy to boost competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs.
The most significant recent change in waste management practices is that more residual waste is now recovered (i.e. used as a fuel) than disposed to landfill. There are now just six active landfills for the disposal of municipal waste. Segregation and separate collection of food waste from households has been legislated for since 2013 and municipal waste recycling at composting and anaerobic digestion facilities has increased as a result. Ireland is currently heavily reliant on export markets for the treatment of residual and recyclable wastes.
Municipal waste in Ireland is made up of household waste as well as commercial and other waste that, because of its nature or composition, is similar to household waste. Municipal waste generation is a good indicator of the consumption behaviours within society. The amount of municipal waste generated in Ireland in 2014 is estimated at 2.73 metric tonnes (Mt), an increase of 6% since 2012. Household waste is a core component of municipal waste. Preliminary data indicate that 1.52Mt of household waste was generated in 2014 (331kg per person), which is similar to the European average.
Litter and Fly-tipping
The presence of litter and fly-tipped waste in the environment is one of the most visible and undesirable aspects of waste generation. Local authorities are responsible for its management and for enforcement. The best estimate for 2014 is that 70,000 tonnes of waste from litter and street bins and from street cleansing, fly-tipped and community clean-up was collected for management. The sociological reasons for littering are complex, but in the main stem from cost avoidance and poorly developed citizenship values.
The main cause of litter pollution is passing pedestrians (41%). The main constituent elements of litter pollution are cigarette-related (55%), chewing gum (15%) and packaging (12%). The EPA’s smartphone app See it? Say It! helps people to report environmental pollution such as fly-tipping, littering and backyard burning. Some national anti-litter initiatives, which are examples of good citizenship, include: National Spring Clean run by An Taisce, SuperValu Tidy Towns competition, and Irish Business Against Litter (IBAL) National Litter League.
The current National Hazardous Waste Management Plan (NHWMP) 2014-2020 sets out the priorities to improve the management of hazardous waste. There is no commercial hazardous waste landfill in the State, and there are limited hazardous waste treatment operations (these are mainly used for oil recovery, healthcare waste treatment and solvent reclamation), meaning that Ireland is dependent on export for treatment of many hazardous waste streams.
Biological Waste Treatment
Composting and anaerobic digestion are the main biological treatment processes for biodegradable wastes (food waste, garden and park waste, sludges). In 2015, approximately 300,000 tonnes of biodegradable waste was accepted at composting and anaerobic digestion plants for treatment. The Food Waste Regulations, which require the segregation and separate collection of commercial and household food waste, are resulting in increasing amounts of organic waste being available for recycling and are an example of regulation driving better outcomes for the environment.
Consumption and Waste Generation
Consumption of products and services is the key driver and pressure for waste generation, at household, commercial and industrial level. With regrowth in the economy, there is a risk that waste generation will increase to pre-recession levels, particularly for waste streams such as municipal waste and construction and demolition waste.
Ireland’s population is estimated to grow by 1 million persons in the next 20 years, which will put further demands on waste infrastructure. Resource efficiency and the circular economy (including waste prevention programmes, Eco-design initiatives, and similar) must be kept at the heart of policy and economic initiatives to ensure environmental sustainability.
Through periods of economic boom and recession, Ireland has struggled with littering and fly-tipping, which indicates that an element of our society disregards the environmental impact of poor post-consumption behaviours. Although sanctions are available (on-the-spot fines, prosecutions), this does not seem to have been successful as a deterrent to this poor citizenship. While urban communities are well serviced with waste acceptance and collection facilities, the same is not always the case for rural communities, although the issue of littering and fly-tipping is not unique to rural or urban areas.
What's Being Done
Waste Policy and Planning
European Union (EU) legislation, EU action programmes and EU roadmaps continue to be primary drivers of change in relation to waste management practices in Ireland. There are three waste management planning regions: Connacht-Ulster, Eastern-Midlands and Southern. The 2015‑2021 Waste Management Plans analyse the current situation and provide information on waste infrastructure. The plans set three performance targets and eight strategic objectives for key policy areas with linked actions and roles and responsibilities.
The EPA, the National TransFrontier Shipments Office (NTFSO), the National Waste Collection Permit Office (NWCPO) and local authorities are responsible for regulation of the waste industry (i.e. storage, transit and treatment), and approximately 4,500 waste authorisations are in place. The waste sector, particularly non-hazardous waste facilities and landfills, continues to be the source of a high number of odour complaints. In 2014, apart from complaints, the EPA carried out 270 inspections, handled 630 incidents and opened 64 compliance investigations to tackle areas of non- compliance. Local authorities prepare annual waste enforcement work programmes and, in 2014, they reported carrying out approximately 64,000 inspections and initiating over 450 prosecutions.
Waste Targets and Prevention
A number of EU directives set targets for recovery of waste and its diversion from landfill. Ireland has met all statutory targets, although some future targets are at risk, particularly for separate collection of portable batteries and recycling/recovery of end-of-life vehicles.
Ireland’s National Waste Prevention Programme (NWPP) was established in 2004 and is led by the EPA. Businesses, households and the public sector are given support and guidance to be more resource efficient, not only in waste prevention but also in the reduction of energy and water consumption. Some examples of NWPP initiatives are Stop Food Waste, LAPN (Local Authority Prevention Network projects), Green Business, Green Hospitality and Green Healthcare.
Waste Management and Infrastructure
While the collection and treatment of waste is essentially privatised in Ireland, local authorities have a key role in the provision and management of civic amenity and bring bank infrastructure. The most significant change in residual waste treatment has been the shift from disposal to landfill to energy recovery, with six active landfills in 2016, in comparison with 18 in 2012. One operational municipal waste incinerator has opened since 2012, with a second due to open in 2017.
Three cement kilns are accepting solid recovered fuel (SRF) for co-incineration as an alternative to fossil fuels. Although energy recovery is preferable to disposal on the waste hierarchy, there are challenges in the processing and storage of these wastes, manifested in odour complaints and increased number of fires. There is also the risk that, if energy recovery replaces disposal as the preferred option for treatment of residual waste, opportunities for maximising extraction of recyclables from residual waste will not be fully exploited.
In early 2016, built landfill capacity was identified as critically low; additional capacity was authorised to prevent environmental impacts, such as stockpiling of wastes or illegal activity. There is a risk that increased generation of municipal waste, or lack of waste to energy capacity, will increase the biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) disposal tonnage to landfill in future.
Hazardous Waste Management
The National Hazardous Waste Management Plan (NHWMP) identifies three strategic needs if additional hazardous waste is to be treated in Ireland: (1) expansion of physico-chemical treatment, (2) addressing the deficit in thermal treatment capacity, and (3) securing long-term disposal arrangements for hazardous waste streams not suitable for thermal treatment or recovery. Ireland would be vulnerable in the event of a crisis such as an infectious disease outbreak.
Between 2007 and 2015, the EPA’s Research Programme funded approximately 30 waste research projects with a total commitment of €4.1 million. Research informs policy development and implementation, enforcement and sustainable waste treatment options. A key finding from a research report led to the establishment of the National Waste Prevention Programme (NWPP). Key findings of specific research projects (mechanical biological treatment and pay-by-use charging) were referenced in the National Biodegradable Waste Management Strategy.
Waste Treatment Capacity
Proactive planning for adequate future treatment capacity in the State is essential to ensure that there are no negative environmental impacts from increased waste generation. There was a 10-fold increase in residual waste exported for use as a fuel in the period between 2010 and 2014. While energy recovery is preferable to disposal to landfill, export is not helping Ireland to move towards self-sufficiency.
Ireland has some waste infrastructure deficits, such as the lack of a hazardous waste landfill, and currently has limited capacity for other infrastructure (waste to energy, landfill, recycling). Ireland is at risk of failing to meet some of its future EU waste targets, in particular the recovery and recycling of end-of-life vehicles and portable battery collection. It is expected that a recent public consultation process will result in a number of policy measures to incentivise treatment of waste in Ireland, which will also result in Ireland benefitting from the associated resource and jobs potential.
The farm hazardous waste collection initiative has been a tremendous success. A similar initiative could be rolled out for household hazardous waste streams, which, owing to a lack of awareness and/or outlets, are improperly managed. The consolidation of waste management planning and waste enforcement regions will result in more focused, strategic and consistent waste management planning and enforcement. A key challenge will be ensuring that the lead authorities for these regions are adequately resourced to carry out these important roles.
Increased Recycling Rates
Another challenge is whether we can become a recycling society. By the end of 2017, there will be national capacity for incineration or co-incineration of up to 860,000 tonnes per annum. The perceived risk is that recycling will suffer at the expense of energy recovery, however there are regulatory controls in place at these facilities to prevent acceptance of recyclable material.
Waste operators report high rates of contamination in bins presented for collection, which limits their ability to recycle the material. Significant improvement in national recycling rates could be achieved through improved segregation behaviours at point of generation of waste. With pay-by-weight coming into force in July 2017, it will be important that a major public awareness and educational programme is rolled out prior to the implementation of the charging measures.
Last but not least, we must ensure that prevention of waste and preparations for reuse remain central to Ireland’s waste management policy. Ireland has pioneered economic initiatives which have changed consumer behaviour and prevented waste (e.g. the plastic bag levy). Ireland should seek to be innovative and productive at this time of opportunity while the concept of the circular economy is taking root, being planned and implemented.