Waste comes from the production and use of resources, goods and services. The quantity of waste generated in Ireland is closely linked with economic activity, income levels and consumption patterns.
The quantity of waste generated, the type of waste, and how and where it is treated all cause environmental pressures, affecting where we live and work and our recreational spaces. Land, air and water quality and our health and wellbeing can be affected by poor waste management practices
Ireland’s waste management practices, infrastructure and regulation have matured significantly over the last 20 years. This change has been driven by EU legislation which in turn has shaped national policy and economic instruments.
We are at a pivotal point in Ireland’s waste policy, legislation and planning. A new national waste policy A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy was published in September 2020. This pivot point provides opportunity for change. The ambition for Ireland is a circular economy in which waste is prevented, consumption of single-use items is reduced, reuse and repair initiatives are incentivised, recycling is maximised, and residual waste that cannot be recycled is used as an energy source to replace fossil fuels.
Ireland generated approximately 14 million (M) tonnes of waste in 2018, corresponding to 2.9 tonnes per person.
The makeup of Ireland’s municipal waste has changed considerably over the last ten years. Plastics now makeup one-fifth of the waste in household recycling and residual waste bins.
More residual waste is now used as a fuel (energy recovery) than disposed to landfill in Ireland. In 2020, Ireland had three landfills accepting municipal waste for disposal in Ireland and two municipal waste incinerators accepting municipal waste for energy recovery while three cement kilns are authorised to accept solid recovered fuel (SRF) for co-incineration as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Ireland is still heavily reliant on export markets, particularly for the treatment of recyclable and hazardous wastes.
Ireland’s latest national waste statistics can be found here.
Municipal waste consists of household waste and commercial and other waste that is similar in nature to household waste. It is one of the largest waste streams and a key area of policy focus.
Over 2.9 million tonnes of municipal waste was generated in Ireland in 2018. This amounted to 600 kg of municipal waste per person, an increase from 577 kg per person in 2017. Municipal waste generation in Ireland continues to be closely linked with economic activity, income levels and consumption patterns.
Of the municipal waste generated in Ireland in 2018, 38% was recycled, 43% was used in energy recovery and 14% was landfilled.
The last two decades have seen significant changes in how Ireland manages its municipal waste. Disposal to landfill has fallen sharply from over 80% in 2001 to 14% in 2018, with the landfill levy a key policy driver in this. Most of the municipal waste diverted from landfill has gone to energy recovery. The share of municipal waste sent for energy recovery increased from 0% in 2007 to 43% in 2018. Recycling, by contrast, has largely plateaued since 2010 and rates have now in fact started to slip, with a decrease from 40% to 38% in between 2017 and 2018.
While 2018 data puts Ireland just in compliance with the Waste Framework Directive’s municipal recycling target of 50% (due in 2020), the current recycling trends indicate that Ireland faces significant challenges to meet the future EU recycling targets for 2025 (55%) to 2035 (65%).
Further information on municipal waste can be found here.
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.
Approximately 70,000 tonnes of street cleaning wastes and fly tipped wastes were collected in 2018. The EPA estimates that 47,000 tonnes of household waste went unmanaged in 2018, reflecting a minority of citizens illegally dumping or burning their waste.
The Waste Enforcement Regional Lead Authorities (WERLAs) coordinates an Anti-Illegal Dumping Initiative with local authorities and community groups to develop enforcement actions and clean-up operations in illegal dumping black spots around the country. In 2019, €2.9 million in funding was provided for 302 projects that managed to clean up 1638 tonnes of waste. A further €1 million of funding was ring-fenced in April 2020, to allow local authorities to respond to incidents of illegal dumping during the Covid-19 crisis.
The EPA's smartphone app See-It Say-It helps people to report environmental pollution such as fly-tipping, littering and backyard burning. In 2020, the EPA commenced a study into the nature and extent of waste crime in Ireland, which will report on the scale, costs and impact of waste crime and assess the extent of illegal dumping over the last 10 years.
Industry is the largest generator of hazardous wastes such as hazardous solvents, sludges, oils and chemicals in Ireland. Other sectors including businesses, construction, healthcare, farms and households also produce hazardous wastes such as paints, batteries, electrical equipment, healthcare waste, asbestos and contaminated soil.
A total of 0.58 million tonnes of hazardous waste was generated in Ireland in 2019. The quantity of hazardous waste generated in Ireland has increased by 68% since 2015, generally due to increased quantities of incinerator ash and contaminated soils.
There has been an increase in the treatment of hazardous waste in Ireland, however the majority (65%) of Ireland’s hazardous waste was still exported to other European countries for treatment in 2019.
The current National Hazardous Waste Management Plan (NHWMP) 2014-2020 sets out the priority actions to improve the management of hazardous waste in Ireland. A new plan will be published in 2021.
A progress report on the NHWMP plan was published in October 2018 and found that, while many recommended actions had been advanced, further work is needed to ensure that: hazardous waste prevention remains a priority; there is continued development of hazardous waste collection infrastructure for households and small businesses; and Ireland’s self-sufficiency goals for hazardous waste treatment and management are promoted.
Further information on hazardous waste can be found here.
Ireland generates approximately 1.05 million tonnes of food waste annually, of which 53 % is generated by commercial and household sectors and 47% by the manufacturing sector.
An Irish household throws out approximately 150 kg of food waste each year at a cost of around €700, and food waste is estimated to cost Irish businesses over €2 billion each year.
Composting and anaerobic digestion are the main biological treatment processes for biodegradable wastes (food waste, garden and park waste, sludges).
In 2018, approximately 436,000 tonnes of biodegradable waste was accepted at composting and anaerobic digestion facilities for treatment.
The Food Waste Regulations and the associated brown bin roll out have led to large increases in the quantity of municipal biowaste composted anaerobic digested, from less than 50,000 tonnes in 2005 to 245,000 tonnes in 2018.
Despite these improvements, over 60% of household organic waste is still being disposed of in the residual or recycling bin (either because residents don’t have a brown bin or they are not using it correctly).
In 2018, only 43% of Irish households had a brown bin. However, in line with EU requirements for the separate collection of biowaste from end-2023, Ireland’s new national waste policy provides for the mandatory provision of an organic waste bin as part of the household waste collection service.
Further information on composting and anaerobic digestion can be found here.
Economic Activity, Consumption and Waste Generation
The quantity of household waste generated in Ireland correlates closely with Central Statistics Office data on personal use of goods and services, both of which have shown a predominantly upward trend since 2012. These trends indicate that household waste generation is closely linked to consumption patterns. Similar trends are evident in the quantity of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collected and recovered in Ireland which fell during the economic recession and have increased markedly since 2012 with the recovering economy. The generation of construction and demolition (C&D) waste also correlates with an increase in C&D activity during the same period. These trends show that Ireland has not yet succeeded in breaking the link between economic growth, consumption levels and waste generation.
Population growth is likely to drive further waste generation. Ireland’s population is forecast to be up to 6.7 million by 2051, which will put further demands on waste infrastructure. Based on 2018 waste generation figures, a population of 6.7 million would generate 3.9 million tonnes of municipal waste (compared with the 2.9 million tonnes generated in 2018) and a potential 19.3 million tonnes of overall waste (compared with 14 million tonnes currently).
How consumers behave affects the quantity and types of waste generated and how these wastes are managed. Examining the waste collected provides important insights into the amounts and types of waste presented, whether the waste was deposited in the correct bin and the extent of contamination of the recyclables. The latest national municipal waste characterisation study found that 11% of material in household bins should not have been there at all (WEEE, batteries, textiles, paint) and that the recycling bin had higher levels of contamination and non-target materials than 10 years previously. Even more starkly, 70% of waste presented in the commercial residual bin was potentially recyclable. Two-thirds of the plastic waste deposited was soft plastics (films, bags and wrappers), which are not currently accepted in the kerbside recyclables bin. These findings highlight the need for improvements in segregation behaviour by householders and businesses, and the need for a broadening of the scope of what can be recycled by Irish homes and businesses, to help improve Ireland’s recycling performance.
What's Being Done
Waste Policy and Planning
European Union (EU) legislation, the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Green Deal and UN Sustainable Development Goals are the primary drivers of change in relation to waste management policy in Ireland.
Ireland’s national waste policy was reviewed in 2020 to strengthen the focus on the circular economy and A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy was published in September 2020.
There are three waste management planning regions in Ireland: Connacht-Ulster, Eastern-Midlands and Southern. The three Regional Waste Management Offices prepare cyclical statutory Regional Waste Management Plans, which set objectives and targets for the prevention and management of waste within each region, in line with national policy.
The EPA is responsible for preparing the National Hazardous Waste Management Plan (NHWMP). The current Plan covers the period of 2014 – 2020 and sets out the priority actions that should be undertaken in relation to: the prevention of hazardous waste; improved collection
rates of hazardous waste; steps to improve Ireland’s self-sufficiency in hazardous waste management and the continued identification and regulation of legacy issues. A new plan will be published in 2021.
The EPA, the National TransFrontier Shipments Office (NTFSO), the National Waste Collection Permit Office (NWCPO) and local authorities are responsible for regulating the largely-privatised waste industry in Ireland.
There was just over 4,000 waste authorisations in place in 2018, spanning the collection, transport, storage and treatment of waste. The number of authorised waste collectors has fallen from over 3,000 in 2010 to 2,104 in 2018, indicating significant consolidation has taken place in Ireland’s privatised waste collection sector. Across the whole range of sectors licensed by EPA, waste transfer stations ranked second highest for the number of non-compliances in 2018 and 2017 (after the Food & Drink sector). Of the 15 sites on the EPA’s National priority list in 2018, 5 were in the waste sector.
Local authorities are responsible for regulating permitted waste facilities and collectors: in 2018, they carried out approximately 38,000 waste-related inspections, handled over 40,000 waste-related complaints (plus over 30,000 litter complaints), undertook almost 17,000 enforcement actions and over 600 prosecutions relating to waste.
Producer Responsibility Initiatives
Producer Responsibility Initiatives (PRIs) have been developed for several waste streams, based on the producer pays principle. In Ireland, PRIs are in place for packaging, electrical and electronic equipment, batteries, end-of-life vehicles, farm plastics and tyres. The European Union has set collection targets for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and waste batteries; recycling and other recovery targets are
also in place for packaging, WEEE, batteries and end-of-life vehicles. The 2018 Circular Economy legislative package strengthens the producer responsibility concept in European legislation and extends the requirements for producer responsibility schemes.
Progress to Waste Targets
Ireland must meet a range of EU targets for recycling and recovery of different waste streams, including municipal waste, construction and demolition waste, packaging waste, waste electrical and electronic equipment, waste batteries and end-of-life vehicles.
Ireland is currently meeting all statutory waste targets. Notwithstanding this positive performance, various targets are set to become far more challenging over the next number of years, following recent updates to EU Regulations and Directives arising from the Circular Economy Action Plan.
Further information on Ireland’s progress to targets is available here.
Ireland has a well-established National Waste Prevention Programme which is recognised by the European Commission as an example of best practice in the EU.
The work of the programme is delivered by the EPA and its vision is to prevent waste and drive the circular economy in Ireland through national-level, strategic programmes with high visibility and influence. The programme provides tools and information to businesses, households and the public sector to influence behavioural change and support sustainable choices.
The NWPP underwent an independent strategic review in 2018 and the reframed programme is focussing on six priority areas: food waste, construction and demolition, plastics, agriculture, resources and raw materials and local waste prevention. Some examples of NWPP initiatives are Stop Food Waste, the Local Authority Prevention Network and Smart Farming.
Waste Management and Infrastructure
The structure of Ireland’s household waste collection market differs to most other EU members states as it is privatised. Local authorities have a key role in waste collection with the provision and management of civic amenity sites and bring bank infrastructure.
The most significant change in recent years has been the shift away from disposing of residual waste to landfill to its use in energy recovery. Ireland now has three landfills accepting municipal waste, in comparison with 28 in 2010 and two municipal waste incinerators. Three cement kilns are accepting solid recovered fuel (SRF) for co-incineration as an alternative to fossil fuels.
In early 2016, landfill capacity was identified as critically low and additional capacity was authorised to prevent environmental impacts, such as stockpiling of wastes or illegal activity. To avoid such a situation reoccurring, municipal and non-inert C&D waste treatment capacity is now monitored quarterly by the regional waste management planning offices to ensure continuity of collection and processing capacity. There is no contingent landfill capacity currently in place, although some suitable sites have been identified, and the process of assigning contingency capacity is underway.
EPA Research Programme
Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in the Waste area under its Sustainability Pillar Theme Resource Efficiency.
In a world with growing pressures on resources and the environment, Ireland has no choice but to transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy. Irish and EU policy is driving this transition. This challenge presents us with many opportunities. Increasing resource efficiency is key to securing growth and jobs for Ireland as well as reducing our carbon footprint, limiting the environmental impact of resource use and increasing our sustainability.
The overall goal for this thematic area is to support research that will deliver solutions for more efficient use of resources, water and materials. In line with the Waste Framework Directive waste treatment hierarchy, prevention and minimisation should be prioritised. Where waste arises, research will be supported into approaches and technologies that recover the value in waste to yield raw materials for other processes and/or energy.
Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.
Since 2014, in this area:
Waste Management in Ireland
Ireland’s waste management landscape changed radically with the implementation of the Waste Management Act in 1996. From a low base, our country made great strides in reducing disposal to landfill, providing an infrastructure for the collection of recyclables and developing expertise in waste management, regulation, research and innovation. Ireland showed innovation by being the first country to introduce a plastic bag tax and to launch a National Waste Prevention Programme.
However, Ireland has reached a plateau in relation to waste management; to further deliver the necessary waste prevention and circular economy ambitions will be a challenge.
The latest waste statistics indicate that waste generation is increasing in many waste streams. Ireland has not yet succeeded in breaking the link between economic growth, consumption levels and waste generation and is missing valuable opportunities to maximise the beneficial and efficient use of waste materials.
The latest data underscore the need for Ireland to do far more to prevent waste, improve recycling, increase self-sufficiency and move towards a more integrated approach to waste management, as part of our implementation of the new national waste policy, the EU Circular Economy Package and the European Green Deal.
National municipal landfills and waste-to-energy facilities are operating at capacity and Ireland has some significant waste infrastructure deficits, as evidenced by its high dependence on export markets for treating municipal and hazardous wastes.
There is a risk to the State in the event of export markets closing at short notice and the planned contingency landfill capacity needs to be secured without delay.
Treating waste as close to its source as possible (the proximity principle) is one of the core pillars of EU waste policy. Waste exports are also represent lost resources; some wastes can be repaired for reuse, others recycled and others used as fuel.
Developing new recycling industries and markets in Ireland would build self-sufficiency, while recognising that viability may be an issue given the volumes produced here. Civic amenity sites and bring banks serve an important function in Ireland’s waste management infrastructure, and there is potential to increase their number, aligned with population density, and for the role of civic amenity sites to be expanded to include opportunities for reuse and repair activities.
Municipal Waste Recycling
Another challenge is whether we can become a recycling society.
Incineration capacity in Ireland has expanded significantly in recent years, in tandem with the shift away from landfill. Energy recovery is undoubtedly a preferable waste management option to disposal, however there is a risk it may disincentivise the maximum extraction of recyclables from residual waste.
Ireland’s packaging recycling rates have shown a gradual decline since 2012. In its latest Environmental Implementation Review of Ireland, the European Commission cautioned that the increased use of incineration must not prevent Ireland from meeting post-2020 recycling targets.
Significant improvement in national recycling rates could be achieved through improved segregation of waste and use of the correct bin, and residual waste could be reduced by half.
Developing new recycling industries and markets in Ireland would help drive our management of waste further up the waste hierarchy, ensuring we extract the maximum value from waste materials in line with the circular economy principles and improve recycling rates. It would also build up self-sufficiency and promote an end-to-end approach to waste management in Ireland with lower transport-related greenhouse gas emissions, aligning with national policies on climate action and sustainability.
A Circular Economy
Prevention of waste and reuse must also remain central to Ireland’s waste management policy.
The latest data show that plastic waste generation, particularly packaging, has become much more significant and requires measures to address it, including through the promotion of reusable over single-use packaging.
Ireland has pioneered economic initiatives that have changed consumer behaviour and prevented waste, such as 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.
Ireland’s newly published National Waste Policy 2020-2025, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, sets out a roadmap that aims to ensure that Ireland not only meets our legal targets but also takes full advantage of the opportunities of the new economy. The full and early implementation of these policy measures will be needed to address the challenges highlighted in this report.
Waste Policy and Planning
This is a pivotal time, as A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy is published by government, circular economy legislation is being transposed into national law and national waste management and prevention plans are in a review phase. Ireland has the opportunity to introduce systemic change in waste management through policy and planning to drive circular economy and climate action in Ireland. While plans and programmes provide important frameworks, statutory obligations and targets are needed to drive change, as well as effective enforcement and penalties to deter illegal behaviours. We have shown our capacity in the past to be innovative, creative and open to change in terms of waste prevention and management. We have the potential through this next phase of change to positively impact not only our terrestrial and marine environments but also our health and wellbeing.