Ireland risks missing EU recycling targets, warns EPA

Report identifies ‘worrying trends’ in waste generation and recycling

The EPA’s national waste report for 2020 identified 'a number of worrying trends' in waste production and recycling, Photograph: Alan Betson

Ireland is in danger of missing EU waste-recycling targets due to rising levels of plastics and municipal waste, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned.

The EPA’s national waste report for 2020 identified “a number of worrying trends” in waste production and recycling, with a failure to break the link between economic growth and waste production, and a continuing reliance on export markets for waste.

“Ireland is generating too much waste,” the EPA said. “But this is not just a waste management problem. There are wider climate and environmental impacts of increasing waste such as the land-use, resources, chemicals and the energy involved in the creation of products that become waste.”

The report shows municipal waste, which consists of waste from household and commercial sources, amounted to 3.2 million tonnes in 2020, up from 3.1 million tonnes in 2019.


Per capita municipal waste generation has increased by 11 per cent from 2016 to 2020.

Covid-19 pandemic restrictions impacted several waste streams in 2020, including household waste, which increased by 18 per cent, and bulky skip waste, which increased by 60,000 tonnes. The number of cars scrapped decreased by 21 per cent and construction waste decreased by 7 per cent, also due to the impact of Covid restrictions the EPA said.

The continuing increase in waste generation in line with economic growth indicated Ireland was not moving from the “linear” economic model of “take, make, use, and waste” to a “circular” reuse, repair and recycle model, Sharon Finegan, director of the EPA’s office of environmental sustainability, said.

“A circular economy is one that is based on less waste and more reuse of materials; these trends show Ireland is going in the wrong direction,” she said.

“Our rising levels of waste are unsustainable and immediate steps must be taken to address these trends. Systemic change is needed across all economic sectors to shift the focus to designing out and reducing waste and promoting reuse and recycling.”

The authority said EU targets for 2025 and beyond would be “extremely challenging” to meet, with a municipal waste recycling rate of 41 per cent in 2020, against a target of 55 per cent by 2025, while the plastic packaging recycling rate was 29 per cent in 2020, with a target of 50 per cent in 2025.

In a positive trend, disposal of waste to landfill has fallen sharply over the past decade. The municipal waste landfill rate in 2020 was 16 per cent, down from 58 per cent in 2010. The share of municipal waste sent for energy recovery increased from 4 per cent in 2010, to 42 per cent in 2020.

However, Ireland remains “heavily reliant on export for the treatment of a number of key waste streams,” the EPA said.

The report found 27 per cent of biodegradable waste, 39 per cent of municipal waste, 55 per cent of hazardous waste and 50 per cent of packaging waste was exported.

In addition, “almost all” waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was exported for the final treatment step indicating “some significant waste infrastructure deficits and missed opportunities to foster a circular economy,” the EPA said.

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times