In the last decade, Ireland has moved from a position of almost total reliance on landfill for managing waste, to a high level of recovery of certain materials, with complex waste flows to and between different waste recycling and recovery activities. Recent data shows that Irish society is producing less waste per capita and is deriving more value from the waste it does generate through recycling and use as a fuel. Maximising the resource efficiency of all materials consumed is an essential aim of our transition to a sustainable economy, and in order to achieve this we need to ensure that we can operate an integrated, and well-regulated waste management service sector.
Ireland’s waste infrastructure is now changing rapidly with more sophisticated infrastructure for the pre-treatment and end-treatment of waste. The amount of municipal waste sent to landfill for disposal is decreasing. Ireland's first merchant municipal waste incinerator commenced operations in 2011, while some cement kilns are also authorised to accept waste to use as a fuel in substitution for fossil fuels. However, many municipal waste streams are still exported for energy recovery and/or recycling.
Municipal waste in Ireland is made up of household waste, commercial waste (including non-process industrial waste) and cleansing waste (e.g. street sweepings, municipal parks and cemeteries maintenance waste). Municipal waste generated per capita has decreased by 24 per cent over the period 2007 to 2012, from 0.78 tonnes of waste generated per person in 2007, to 0.59 tonnes in 2012. Whilst the economic downturn undoubtedly had an impact on the levels of waste generated, this indicates a trend towards less waste generated and improved waste prevention in the country.
2012 was the first year that the percentage tonnage of municipal waste recovered (59 per cent) exceeded the percentage tonnage disposed (41 per cent). This reflects a combination of measures including an increase in the use of municipal waste as a fuel (energy recovery), both in Ireland and abroad, as well as increases in the landfill levy for disposal of waste to landfill This levy has helped to divert municipal residual waste from disposal to landfill to other treatment options, including its use as a fuel. These estimates also show that 40 per cent of municipal waste was recycled in Ireland in 2012.
Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW)
BMW comprises those elements of the household, commercial and cleansing waste streams that will rot or degrade. The main constituents of the biodegradable proportion of municipal waste are typically parks and garden waste, food waste, timber, paper, card and textiles.
Landfilling of BMW results in high emissions of methane which is a greenhouse gas and a potential source of odour nuisance. There are targets under the Landfill Directive to divert BMW from landfill. Ireland met it's 2013 target, but the recent economic recovery may lead to an increase in the disposal of BMW to landfill which would put achievement of the 2016 target at risk.
Producer Responsibility Initiative Waste Streams
The recovery rate for packaging waste was 87 per cent in 2012, compared to 79 per cent in 2011. This is well above the current Directive target of 60 per cent. The increased rate in 2012 was due to the increase in packaging waste in residual waste that was used as a fuel.
In 2012 a total of 40,818 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was collected for recovery. This included 7.5 kg per person of household WEEE, exceeding the European Union (EU) target of 4 kg per person. In 2012, Ireland achieved compliance with the 2006 EU target of 80 per cent for reuse/recycling of End of Life Vehicles (ELVs), and the target of 85 per cent for reuse/recovery of ELVs for the first time, but the 2015 targets are more onerous and are at risk.
Other Waste Streams
The quantity of Irish construction and demolition (C&D) waste managed in Ireland has been decreasing since 2008. The decline in the economy and the number of houses being built had a direct effect on this waste.
Industry is the largest generator of hazardous waste in Ireland, though substantial amounts are also generated by households, small businesses etc. There was a 6 per cent reduction in the overall amount of hazardous waste treated both on-site at industry, and at hazardous waste treatment facilities in Ireland in 2012, compared to 2011.
Up to 2007, Ireland’s waste generation mirrored the growth in population and economic performance. However, since then there have been declines in the generation of waste such as municipal waste, and construction and demolition (C&D) waste, which reflected the decline in personal consumption as the economy contracted over the period 2007 to 2012, despite an increase in population over the same time period.
Nevertheless, per capita waste generation is still considered to be at an unsustainably high level in Ireland. Reducing the inefficient and inappropriate use of raw materials and resources will reduce waste generation, energy use, transport impacts and all consequential environmental impacts.
In 2012, 59 per cent of managed municipal waste was recovered. Recovery includes preparation for reuse, recycling, energy recovery and backfilling. In relation to exports of municipal waste, 34 per cent of municipal waste managed in Ireland was exported for recovery in 2012. Ireland has no glass manufacturing facility, paper mill or metal smelter, so these waste streams are mainly exported for recycling.
Ireland’s first municipal waste incinerator became fully operational in 2012, which contributed to increased recovery rates, with 17 per cent of managed municipal waste used as a fuel. In addition, some cement kilns are also accepting waste for use as a fuel. Baled municipal waste and refuse derived fuel (RDF) are increasingly being exported for energy recovery at municipal waste incinerators in mainland Europe.
Waste infrastructural development projects can often take a long time to progress through the planning and environmental licensing processes. Significantly landfill capacity is not distributed evenly throughout the State and some regions are at critical capacity shortage stage. At the end of 2012, there was approximately 17.3 Mt of remaining consented capacity for landfills, and of this, about 1.6Mt is available at open, operational landfills. This equates to circa two years landfill capacity based on the 2012 fill rate.
It is important that planning of our potential waste management infrastructure needs is undertaken well in advance. It is also essential that this planning process allows for (and promotes as appropriate) a diverse range of waste infrastructural needs spanning, inter alia, preparation for re-use, bio-waste treatment, materials recovery, incineration and landfill. Ireland is now divided into three regions for the purposes of waste management planning: Southern, Eastern-Midlands and Connacht-Ulster. Final waste management plans for the three regions were published in May 2015.
What's Being Done
A range of regulatory and market based instruments have been utilised to achieve more sustainable waste management practices. These include increases in the landfill levy, source separated collection of waste, including mixed dry recyclables and bio waste, as well as pre-treatment and restriction of particular waste streams to landfill.
In 2012 "A Resource Opportunity - Waste Management Policy in Ireland” was launched. The policy sets out a series of measures which aim to move Ireland away from dependence on landfill for the treatment of municipal waste, and through which waste will be reduced and the resources recovered from waste maximised.
Ireland is well advanced concerning achievements of its EU recovery/recycling obligations in relation to a range of EU directives. However, poor level of sophistication in waste infrastructural provision, as well as Ireland being reliant on waste export markets to an unsustainable extent is a concern. The provision of indigenous industry to deal with recyclables is being addressed by the rx3 Market Development Programme, but this will be influenced by the size of the Irish market.
A National Waste Prevention Programme, led by the EPA was initially launched in 2004, and since then this programme has developed a number of prevention initiatives. These have targeted business (Green Business, Green Hospitality), households (Green Home Programme), hospitals (Green Healthcare Project), retail (Green Retail Programme), packaging (Packaging Waste Prevention Programme), and local authorities (Local Authority Prevention Network, Stop Food Waste) to prevent waste generation. The full range of prevention initiative resources can be accessed from the EPA website at www.epa.ie/begreen.
In June 2014, the EPA published the revised National Hazardous Waste Management Plan (2014-2020). This focuses on the prevention of hazardous waste and also seeks to promote the safe collection and treatment of such waste.
Environmental research, funded by the EPA, has also played an important role in informing waste management practices and policy, such as research on the potential of mechanical biological treatment technologies. This research can be accessed from the EPA Research pages.
Ireland remains relatively underdeveloped in respect to the sophistication of essential waste treatment infrastructure necessary for the pre-treatment of municipal waste prior to disposal (e.g. mechanical biological treatment), and for materials recovery/recycling.
In the coming years it will be important that further implementation of the National Waste Prevention Programme assists in the decoupling of waste generation in Ireland from the predicted subsequent growth in Gross National Product (GNP), post recovery. The full implementation of the rx3 Market Development Programme should assist in managing more recyclable waste in Ireland.
Waste operators report that green bin (mixed dry recyclables) and brown bin (food and garden waste) contamination has increased quite significantly in recent times. This may be due to a combination of factors such as the recession, lack of engagement, poor communication, as well as ongoing educational requirements.
There needs to be a major effort by both the waste industry and regulatory authorities to re-engage with the public on these issues, and this should be addressed as part of the proposed Householder waste collection regulations.
Ireland needs to continue to increase diversion of waste from landfill, and to increase its recycling rates. The quality as well as the quantity of recycling is critical, as most of the contaminated green bin (mixed dry recyclables) and brown bin (organic) waste will end up being diverted to landfill.
Increasing the waste to energy ratio can play a role in diverting waste away from disposal to landfills, but it is important not to allow for over capacity for waste to energy, as this could lead to municipal residual waste being imported to try to fill any significant surplus in the incineration capacity in Ireland. However, the priority is to ensure that recyclable materials from waste streams continue to be recycled where possible.