People living in Ireland produce over 15 million tonnes of waste every year. We do this in our homes, our places of work and leisure. The Environmental Protection Agency’s waste statistics team collects information on this waste and reports national estimates of specific waste streams.
International and national waste policy is drawn up so that we create less waste, and so that the waste we do create, is recycled as much as possible. What cannot be recycled should at least serve another useful purpose (e.g. energy production). To draft effective waste policies and to assess whether or not they work, we need information on waste generation, collection and treatment in Ireland.
International developments strongly influence the waste sector in Ireland and also its regulation. A large proportion of Irish waste legislation springs from our membership of the European Union and our participation in international conventions. A recent example is the European Union ‘Circular Economy’ package of measures. This legislation intends that once raw materials have entered our economy, they will keep circling around rather than drop out for disposal after one use.
Ireland’s international involvement brings with it extensive obligations to report on waste. The waste statistics team uses the data it collects to help to fulfill Ireland’s international reporting obligations, support waste policy makers and inform the general public.
In our everyday lives we produce a general mix of waste in our homes, offices, schools and similar premises. This type of waste is called municipal waste. It is usually collected at kerbside or we bring it to collection centers. It excludes special types of waste, such us construction and demolition waste, waste from industry and waste cars, for example.
The amount of municipal waste generated in our country is an important measure of how wasteful our everyday lives are. In 2016, each person living in Ireland produced, on average, 580 kg of municipal waste. This is well above the European average of 487 kg, and this type of waste is particularly difficult to recycle.
As it is made up by all the bits and pieces we throw out as we go through our daily lives, municipal waste is a mix of very different types of materials. To make recycling possible, the different materials need to be collected separately or mixed municipal waste must be segregated into recyclable single material streams. Due to the nature of municipal waste, this is very difficult and more than half of the municipal waste generated in Ireland in 2016 was therefore either landfilled or incinerated to recover energy - only 41% were recycled.
Low recycling rates represent a loss of resources to society, so the European Union has set recycling targets for municipal waste. By 2020, European member states must recycle 50% of their municipal waste. This target will increase by five percentage points every five years, until it reaches 65% in 2035.
Figure 1 shows that the percentage of Irish municipal waste that was recycled has increased little over the last few years. Reaching the European municipal waste recycling targets therefore challenges Ireland, as it does many other European member states. The good news is that each one of us can make a difference: we can take action to produce less of this difficult type of waste, and to make the waste we cannot avoid generating as recyclable as possible.
Figures 2 and 3 show that, in Ireland, municipal waste generation, economic spending power and, (from 2008 on, ) Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, follow similar trends over time.
The likely interpretation of these similarities is that, Ireland has not yet managed to decouple economic growth from the generation of waste and greenhouse gases. When it comes to waste the trends suggest that the more money we have, the more things we buy, and many of these become waste within a relatively short time. The amount of municipal waste will decrease if we 1) buy items that last longer, are easy to repair, and contain less packaging, and 2) purchase services rather than goods (waste prevention).
Manufacturers of the things we buy play an important role in helping us reduce waste. To allow us to choose goods that last longer and can be recycled easily, products must be designed for longevity, for easy recycling and without (or nearly without) harmful substances that can hinder recycling. More than half of the things that become municipal waste are covered by producer responsibility initiatives. This means that, once these goods become waste, the producers have to organise and pay for their collection and treatment. This encourages manufacturers to make things more recyclable, and producers provide convenient ways for consumers to bring their waste items for recycling. Waste packaging, electrical and electronic equipment and batteries in municipal waste are covered by producer responsibility schemes. By using the collection bins and boxes provided for these waste items, we can ensure that they will be recycled.
Separate collection of recyclable material will generally make recycling of municipal waste easier. When we look at what is in our waste bins (see below), it becomes clear that there is room for improvement in this area. Using our bring centres and bins in a way that keeps recyclable materials away from other waste, will help us to drive up Ireland’s recycling rates.
The amount of municipal waste sent to landfill has decreased over time; and the number of landfills accepting this type of waste has fallen from 120 in 1992 to four in 2019. The tax applied to municipal waste sent to Irish landfills illustrates how a policy action discouraged landfill of municipal waste, which is the least desirable waste management option (Figure 4). Exploring the use of more policies that set price signals which directly favour recycling or discourage all other waste management options is therefore an action that can foster recycling.
A waste characterisation study analyses the amounts and types of waste in our bins, whether the waste is in the right bin and how clean the recyclables are. The EPA carried out such a study in 2018.
The previous national waste characterisation study was completed in 2008. Municipal waste in Ireland is collected in bins for recyclable waste, general waste, and compostable waste (Picture 1). The separate collection of food and garden waste is more established now than it was in 2008. This and other societal changes necessitated an updated waste characterisation.
The 2018 waste characterisation study sheds light on the current composition of waste in each type of bin from households, businesses and organisations. The results of the study will help us to improve the treatment of municipal waste and track our progress in meeting EU targets.
- The EPA collected general, recyclable and compost bins from 50 houses and apartments to represent the different household types and areas around the country.
- The waste was then mixed and a one tonne sample was put onto a sorting table and sorted into buckets representing 42 different types of waste e.g. glass, plastics, paper, card, metals, food, garden waste, textiles, etc. Buckets were weighed to give an average composition per bin type.
- Wastes in the wrong bin were weighed and identified. We also checked to see if recyclables were properly cleaned and ready for recycling and we measured any food or liquid left in or on the containers. These weights gave us a contamination rate.
- We collected general, recyclable and compost bins from 50 premises that represent the six main sectors of non-household municipal waste. These were retail, offices, wholesale, hotels and restaurants. These waste were not mixed they were sorted separately so that we could identify the waste composition for each sector. Contamination rates were also calculated for non-household waste.
Picture 2: Waste tipped onto the warehouse floor, mixed and then a sample is sorted.
Picture 3: Waste was sorted into 42 different waste categories.
The study illustrated the amounts and types of waste (by weight) contained in the general waste, recycling and compost bins collected from households. There were changes in the amounts and types of waste in the bins in 2018 in comparison to 2008.
An important finding of the study is that we could greatly reduce landfill and improve recycling if we used our bins correctly (Figure 5). We could reduce our general waste by one third, increase recycling by half and double the amount of food and garden waste sent for composting.
Household general waste
The household general waste bin changed considerably over time. Food and garden waste used to take up 24% of this bin. However, this has now dropped to 16%. This is most likely due to the successful roll out of the brown bin for food and garden waste. The other thing to notice about the general waste bin is that plastic now accounts for accounts for 19% - an increase from 14% in 2008. There is also 11% of the waste that does not belong in the black bin. Metal, glass, wood and hazardous wastes account for 11% of the general waste bin. In Picture 4, the percentages for 2018 are in grey text and these can be compared to the 2008 results, which are presented in red text.
Picture 4: Content of general waste bins from households.
Household recyclable waste
Over a quarter of the material in the recycling bin does not belong there. Glass metal, wood, textiles, food and garden waste and hazardous waste all should be in other bins or brought to a separate collection. In Picture 5, the percentages for 2018 are in light green text and these can be compared to the 2008 results, which are presented in red text.
Picture 5: Content of recyclable waste bins from households.
Household organic waste
Picture 6 shows that the brown bin is the one with the least amount of contamination, however there were still some materials that don’t belong there such as textiles metals and glass. The percentages for 2018 are in light brown text and these can be compared to the 2008 results, which are presented in red text.
Picture 6: Content of organic waste bins from households.
Figure 5: Household Bin Usage
The study illustrated the amounts and types of waste (by weight) contained in the general waste (Picture 7), recycling (Picture 8) and compost (Picture 9) bins collected from non-household premises. There were changes in the amounts and types of waste in the bins in 2018 in comparison to 2008 (red text in Pictures 7 and 8 refer to 2008). Improved separation of waste into the correct bins is also necessary in the six largest sectors contributing to non-household municipal waste (Figure 6). Hotels, restaurants, general retail, food retail, offices and wholesale could divert nearly half a million tonnes of waste from landfill by using bins correctly. Recycling could be increased by 50% and there could be a four fold increase in food and garden waste sent for composting.
Picture 7: Content of general waste bins from non-household premises.
Picture 8: Content of recyclable waste bins from non-household premises.
Picture 9: Content of recyclable waste bins from non-household premises.
Figure 6: Non-Household Bin Usage
The good news story that came from the 2018 municipal waste composition analysis (see above) is that we collect a lot more biowaste in separate organic wastebins than we did in 2008. When collected separately, this biowaste can be recycled, and our data on composting and anaerobic digestion show that this is exactly what happened: the tonnage of biowaste accepted for composting and anaerobic digestion more than doubled between 2008 and 2016.
As already alluded to in the section on municipal waste, producer responsibility initiatives make producers responsible for their goods when these become waste. In Ireland, producer responsibility schemes are in place for packaging, electrical and electronic equipment, batteries, cars, farm plastics and tyres. The European Union has set collection targets for waste electrical and electronic equipment and waste batteries; and recycling and other recovery targets for all but waste tyres and waste farm plastics.
The packaging producer responsibility scheme is the oldest such initiative in Ireland. Most Irish packaging producers are members of the packaging compliance scheme Repak. Producer compliance schemes are organisations that help producers to meet their obligations as a group rather than as individuals. Repak and the packaging initiative have been very successful. Ireland has always achieved the European recycling and recovery targets. In 2017 it recycled 66% of packaging waste generated.
The producer compliance schemes WEEE Ireland and European Recycling Platform (ERP) Ireland organise and finance the majority of the waste electrical and electronic equipment and waste portable battery collection and treatment for Ireland. Even though the collection, recycling and recovery targets set for these waste streams by Europe increased considerably over the last few years, Ireland has always achieved them. An even higher collection target of 65% of the waste electrical and electronic equipment generated is set for 2019. Achieving this target is a challenge.
In connection with end-of-life vehicles, Ireland’s recycling and recovery record is patchy. We only reached the targets set for 2006 in 2012. Higher targets were introduced for 2015, and in 2016 we had not yet recovered enough materials from end-of-life vehicles to achieve the new recovery target. To address weaknesses in this sector, the producer compliance scheme ELV Environmental Services (ELVES) was established in 2017. ELVES works with end-of-life vehicle treatment facilities and shredders to improve Ireland’s recycling and recovery performance.
Some wastes need to be handled and treated with special care because they pose a threat to human health and the environment. Such wastes are called ‘hazardous’. Most of the hazardous waste in Ireland is produced by industry, but all economic sectors and also households contributed to the approximately 436,000 tonnes of hazardous waste generated in Ireland in 2017.
Figure 7 show that the generation of hazardous waste rose considerably in 2016 and 2017. This change was driven by increased tonnages of contaminated soils from construction and demolition sites and of ash from municipal waste incinerators. By reducing the amount of hazardous waste we produce, we can protect our environment and our health. The national hazardous waste management plan describes how hazardous waste is managed in Ireland, it suggests how we can improve this and how we can enhance data on hazardous waste generation.
Figure 7: Hazardous Waste Generation and Treatment
Demolishing and constructing buildings and roads leads to huge amounts of mixed and single material waste streams. The tonnage of soil and stones that is moved from construction sites to soil recovery facilities and landfills (74% of total) dwarfs all other construction and demolition waste. Next in size are mineral (concrete, bricks and gypsum) waste and metal waste.
As a result of the fluctuations in construction activities, the tonnages of construction and demolition waste generated are very variable. This is particularly challenging for the Irish waste industry and infrastructure, because the tonnages involved when the construction sector is booming are massive.
To prioritise the recovery of materials from construction and demolition waste, the EU asks member states to achieve 70% of construction and demolition waste (excluding hazardous and soil and stones) material recovery by 2020.
Collecting and reporting good waste data takes a lot of time. The many data checks and the data processing we carry out are essential for accurate waste reporting. However, they delay our data reports and Irish policy makers and administrators, the waste industry and the general public also need up-to-date information on waste. The waste statistics team therefore pin-pointed data that, even though not fully validated, offer an early indication of trends in the waste sector. These data are published on the ‘first look’ tab of our website. At this time, the tab shows annual information on waste accepted at Irish landfills, and quarterly figures on municipal waste accepted at Irish landfills and treated at Irish waste incinerators and cement kilns. We will develop our ‘first look’ tab and add more early waste indicators.
At the same time, the European Union is looking for more detailed very high quality waste data. In its quest to curb the wastefulness of our societies, the Circular Economy legislation has not only set very ambitious recycling targets but it also demands that member states track where in the world their waste is recycled or otherwise treated, and that they capture non-waste activities such as the reuse of products. To demonstrate that member states fulfill all these obligations, they will have to submit a lot of reliable waste data from 2020 data on.
To allow us to do this, the waste statistics team works closely with other teams and organisations. We co-operate on data collection and validation and work towards integrating various data sources and systems. This will make us more efficient and it will ensure that waste operators will no longer need to report the same data to different organisations.