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.
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.
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 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 the EPA's state of environment report, Ireland's Environment: An Integrated Assessment 2020.
This is a pivotal time. A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy has been 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.