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Two significant reports published during the summer months highlight the opportunities and challenges which exist side by side in addressing the Irish waste policy and management approach. The long awaited waste policy from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government was published in July, and was followed shortly after by a critical evaluation from the European Commission underlining Ireland’s inadequacies in key areas of waste management.

The five year waste policy review in the Department of the Environment came to a head in July, when Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan TD launched the Government’s new waste management policy, entitled, A Resource Opportunity. The issue of service provision and competition in the waste market features highly in this waste policy, and was also flagged as a priority area in the Programme for Government. The fact that the issue of service provision and competition was highlighted is no doubt a result of the events which unfolded earlier in the year following the changeover in service provision in some Dublin areas from Dublin City Council to the private waste company Greyhound.

There is a clear emphasis on providing competition and consumer choice in the waste market, with the Department stating that: “the new regulations will allow waste collection companies to continue to compete for business but they will have to adhere to new standards of service, incentivise their customers to adopt more sustainable behaviors and be much more transparent about their changing structures”. Overall the new waste policy expounds some key measures at the heart of the Government’s approach: A move away from landfill; a brown bin roll-out; keeping consumer costs down; new service standards; placing responsibility on householders; establishing a team of Waste Enforcement Officers; reducing red tape for industry; conducting a review of producer responsibility; and making a significant reduction in planning regions.

EU examination of waste performance

As mentioned, following the publication of the waste policy from the Department of the Environment, a report of the European Commission examining the waste performance management of EU states through a screening process was published. The report directly singles Ireland out from its grouping within the “average” performing category, as only marginally scoring, along with Hungary, above the category for the Members States with the worst performance or “largest implementation gaps”.

Scoring poorly in areas such as collection coverage for municipal waste and the rate of biodegradable waste going to landfills, the report observes that Ireland has “particular problems with the fulfillment of the reduction targets for biodegradable waste going to landfills, insufficient collection coverage and decoupling”.  This is despite information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that there has been a decrease in municipal waste generated in Ireland since 2007. This decrease is attributed to the decreased personal consumption of goods and services as a result of the economic downturn.

On a point scale between 19 and 25, both Ireland and Hungary scored 19 points, putting them just one point ahead of the Czech Republic and Poland, some of the worst performing member states. The report shows that, in terms of waste management, both Ireland and Hungary show a particularly average performance when it comes to the usage of treatment options in line with the waste hierarchy. Ireland’s score is also reflected, as the report states, the high number of infringement procedures which have been pursued through the courts.

If we look at the group comprising the ten highest performing Member States, the report illustrates how key elements, which are essential to a good waste management system, are displayed. They include waste treatment, recycling of municipal waste, existence of restrictions or bans, and total typical charges for landfilling municipal waste.

Ireland’s waste policy

Were it not for such stark criticisms of Ireland’s ability to implement key EU waste targets in the areas of municipal waste going to landfill and the treatment of waste, the Government’s new waste policy makes for encouraging reading. The report reminds us, despite the ongoing challenges, just how new our policy and legislative framework in the area of waste management is. The “first modern waste policy” was published in 1998 when Ireland introduced what was considered to be a modern regulatory regime to govern waste management activities. Prior to this, as mentioned in the report, Ireland’s waste policy consisted basically of a “network of small landfills”.

While improvements have since occurred in areas such as waste prevention, the amount of municipal waste going to landfill remains a problem for Ireland. Municipal waste consists of household waste, commercial waste and cleansing waste. The EPA outlines how 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. anaerobic digestion, mechanical biological treatment, waste to energy) and for materials recovery/recycling”. It advocates the further implementation of the National Waste Prevention Programme in the coming years in assisting efforts to decouple waste generation in Ireland from any predicted growth in GNP.

At the heart of the Government’s policy is the Waste Hierarchy as set out in the EU Waste Framework Directive. The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government emphasises in its report the preferred order within the Waste Framework Directive with which waste should be managed. At the top of this priority list is waste prevention.  “Prevention encompasses many measures such as eliminating superfluous packaging, reuse of products and smart purchasing.” On the opposite end of this priority list is the disposal of waste, which in the Irish case signifies the majority of waste being sent to landfill. This is the most unsustainable approach and can result in groundwater contamination and emissions from methane gas as a result of decomposing biodegradable waste contributing to an overall increased level of greenhouse gas.

The new waste management policy envisages a challenging path to replace our reliance on landfill and diversion of biodegradable waste away from landfill through the development of a robust recycling and recovery infrastructure, and the technology to support this provision. Some estimates state that at current rates Ireland has 12 years left in its landfill capacity. However, as stated by the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government recently, despite any estimates of landfill capacity, “the Waste Framework Directive and a sustainable approach to the management of waste require that Ireland must end its over-dependence on landfill”.

What do European citizens think?

In a Eurobarometer survey carried out in April and May of 2011, examining “Attitudes of European Citizens towards the environment”, the Irish respondents scored higher than the EU27 average in their agreement with the view that the efficient use of the natural resources and the protection of the environment can boost economic growth in the EU. However, the Irish and EU27 publics agreed at 72 percent that National Governments were not doing enough to use natural resources efficiently. More so than their European counterparts, Irish respondents placed ‘Growing Waste’ as among one of the five main environmental issues they are concerned about.

Concerned as the Irish public may be about increased levels of waste, a connection was not made between our consumption habits and growing waste levels. In fact “consumption habits” did not feature highly among the Irish public with only 19 percent of respondents expressing concern in this area, matching exactly the levels of concern among the other EU27. While many respondents were in favour of the use of heavier fines as a means of tackling environmental problems, it appears, looking at our waste management framework that a number of key measures could allow for full realisation of some of the policy objectives within the new waste policy document.

Decoupling: Examining our consumption levels

Our poor performance on managing waste separation from consumption, or ‘decoupling’, is particularly pertinent when one considers the findings of the European Commission report in relation to Greece, the worst performing of all the Member States. The report notes that “points could be achieved only for the decoupling of waste generation”, which, it states, could be attributed to the current economic crisis.

It is illustrated in Ireland’s Environment 2012, the recent EPA Report, that: “domestic material consumption (DMC) – peaked in 2007 at over 50t per person in Ireland compared to an EU average of 16t per person”. It argues that while this data may reflect the building boom at the time, even disregarding this “Ireland has a considerable distance to go in relation to ensuring sustainable production and consumption patterns”. These findings suggest a natural relationship between consumption and waste generation, and this is an area which the EU is increasingly focused on. The issues around economic growth and waste generation bring into focus the issue of sustainable development, and as a result show how consumption can become sustainable. 

The EPA report states that there is a strong connection between disposable income and household waste generation, rather than population changes. In terms of ‘drivers’ of waste generation, the report argues that because consumer decisions are made on a daily basis around the consumption of products and services, household consumption is a key factor in examining the sustainability of waste patterns. Resource efficiency, as set out in the EPA report, comprises five key elements, of which waste prevention features prominently. In this regard “changing production and consumption activities and behaviours in our homes and in the workplace”, is essential.

Going forward

While encouraging consumers and businesses to be sustainable in their consumption habits in a time of economic prosperity is a considerable challenge, there are opportunities for the necessary strides to be made in times of economic downturn, as effective and efficient waste management and reduction means costs savings for consumers and the wider economy. This must then be translated into planning for the prospect of future economic growth. 

The European Commission will be increasingly look to direct EU structural funds to the fulfillment of EU waste policy. It estimates that by fully implementing provisions of EU waste legislation, €72bn would be saved in a year, the annual turnover of the EU waste management and recycling sector would be increased by €42bn, and 400,000 jobs would be created by 2020. 

In the context of daily debates on the very premises of theories on which climate change policy is founded the issue of effective and efficient waste management is a solid ‘win-win’ for both Government and householders alike. Changing consumer attitudes is essential in this regard. Economic incentives form part of the foundation for measures to prevent waste generation, but both decoupling of economic growth along with increased consumption and waste are significant issues to be tackled in terms of long-term sustainability.

Aoife King is a public affairs research executive.