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.
More residual waste is now used as a fuel (energy recovery) than disposed to landfill. There are five landfills actively accepting municipal waste for disposal and two municipal waste incinerators. 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 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 2.6 million tonnes (Mt). Municipal waste recovery increased from 59 per cent to 79 per cent between 2012 and 2014 due to an increase in municipal residual waste used as a fuel. Municipal waste recycling was 41 per cent in 2014 compared to 40 per cent in 2012.
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 EPA's smartphone app See-It Say-It helps people to report environmental pollution such as fly-tipping, littering and backyard burning. In 2017, 4,810 complaints were received via the National Environmental Complaints Line and the See-It Say-It app and 85% were related to waste/illegal dumping. The government has launched the 2018 Anti-Illegal Dumping Initiative which is allocating €2 million for a targeted crackdown on illegal dumping black spots around the country.
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 2016, approximately 353,000 tonnes of biodegradable waste was accepted at composting and anaerobic digestion plants for treatment (not including facilities where waste generated on-site is treated on-site). 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, the EU Circular Economy Action Plan 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 Regional 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. In 2016, the EPA carried out 658 inspections, handled 413 incidents and opened 51 compliance investigations to tackle areas of non-compliance in relations to the waste sector sites they were responsible for enforcing. Local authorities prepare annual waste enforcement work programmes and in 2016, they reported carrying out approximately 140,000 inspections, handling 64,000 environmental complaints, undertaking almost 15,000 enforcement actions and over 400 prosecutions.
Waste Targets and Prevention
EU directives set targets for recovery of waste and its diversion from landfill. Ireland is currently meeting all statutory targets, apart from the 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), Smart Farming, Green Business 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 five active landfills in 2018, in comparison with 18 in 2012. There are two municipal waste incinerators.
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 residual 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.
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 failing to meet the current EU targets for the recovery and recycling of end-of-life vehicles, despite an upward trend in recovery/recycling of this waste stream in recent years.
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. There is national capacity for incineration of waste and co-incineration of waste at cement kilns of up to 1.18 Mt (million 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. The Commission's circular economy legislative package will introduce higher targets for the recycling of municipal and packaging waste and places limits on the amount of municipal waste landfilled.
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. Since late 2017, a government led campaign "Recycling List Ireland" is seeking to increase public awareness of the correct wastes to present in the dry recyclables bin and to present them "clean, dry and loose". See https://recyclinglistireland.ie/
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.