“They had the finest wines, I’ll tell you that,” says Ian Davis, recalling how he picked through someone’s household waste, as it lay strewn across an otherwise pristine ravine in west Wicklow.
“The finest ales too. They had mussel shells, oyster shells, scallops. This person was definitely not strapped for cash.”
The person in question had been illegally dumping the contents of their household bins at a beauty spot in the wild uplands on a weekly basis.
Davis and a clutch of volunteers on the Pure Project, which has for the past decade been policing fly-tipping in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, removed 20 tonnes of rubbish from that spot alone.
After they did, the same repeat offender – who it later transpired lived less than 10 miles away – came back and continued to dump more.
But the endgame has arrived for the fine-wine quaffing fly-tipper and tens of thousands more like them, say authorities, who this week revealed that TV licence-style inspectors will soon knock on doors up and down the country seeking “documentary evidence” of how homes are disposing of their waste.
Under new by-laws being passed by local councils, an “intelligence gathering” database is being established, using the Eircodes of customers who pay licensed companies to collect their waste to pinpoint those who do not.
It is estimated that around 80,000 people – or five per cent of households – are disposing of their rubbish illegally, mostly through fly-tipping, burning (in outdoor fires or indoor stoves) and the use of unlicensed “rogue” collectors.
Who are the 80,000?
Footage from covert CCTV cameras positioned around the Dublin and Wicklow mountains shows “people in luxurious cars, old cars, elderly couples, couples in their 40s, everybody,” says Davis, whose team has just lifted 13 tonnes of illegally dumped waste in the aftermath of Christmas.
“A lot of people may perceive it to be a certain social class but it is not; it is across the board” he says.
“I don’t think you could pinpoint one aspect of society, one age group, male, female, financial bracket, whatever you want to call it. From what we’ve seen, it is all types, including the people who hand over their waste to rogue collectors, well-to-do people thinking ‘well, you know, he offered me €50, that was a really good price. I thought yeah, I knew it was dodgy but I did it anyway’.”
Typically, it costs between €300 and €450 a year for a bin collection service, with pay-as-you-go, weekly, monthly and quarterly payment options available from more than 70 registered collectors countrywide.
The cameras picked up a person driving a Mercedes, who took out two or three bags and flung them down a bank. They came back the next week and did the same thing
“I’ve seen people enjoying the view over Sally Gap, with their coffee and sandwich, who then reach into their boot and throw out a load of bags,” continues Davis. “They are there to enjoy the beautiful scenery, yet they dump their waste there. It really baffles me.”
In another case the cameras picked up a person driving a Mercedes, who opened up the boot of their car, took out two or three bags and flung them down a bank.
“They came back the next week and did the same thing. It was like they were on their way to work and this was an easy way of getting rid of their waste.
“It is like some people don’t perceive it to be dumping. They don’t see it as anything problematic, whereas I see it as environmental vandalism.”
Getting hard facts and figures about the true scale of Ireland’s illegal waste problem isn’t easy, as responsibility for it has traditionally been fragmented between central and local government as well as State agencies.
Publicly, officials will point to what little accurate data there is, but privately they will admit there is a deficit of detail.
The 80,000 householders who are “outside the system” is the “best guesstimate we have,” says one senior waste official, stressing that it is “not an arbitrary figure, it is informed” by figures gleaned from waste collection companies, civic amenity sites, the Central Statistics Office and surveys.
From this, they extrapolate that householders illegally dump 64,000 tonnes of waste every year. That equates to more than 60 20-tonne truckloads discarded around the country or being burnt at home every week.
To get a grip on the problem, Ireland was administratively divided into three waste regions just over three years ago. Co-ordinators have been charged with organising a joint clampdown among local councils in each region: Southern, Eastern-Midlands and Connacht-Ulster.
Kevin Swift, regional co-ordinator for Connacht-Ulster who is based in Mayo, agrees offenders come from a wide cross section of Irish society. But there are some patterns.
People living in major urban areas, including Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Cork, are much more likely to be using a licensed bin collection company – often more than nine in 10 of every household.
In the bigger rural counties, like in the west of Ireland, the proportion of those with refuse collection contracts is much less – as low as half in some counties.
“Partially, this is because some routes in rural counties are not viable for collectors because there are not enough people signing up on those routes,” says Swift.
“It is a bit of a chicken and egg, a virtual circle between viability and collectors responding, in fairness to the industry. But if we persuade more people to participate, then more routes become viable and one thing leads to another.”
Backyard burning of waste also tends to be more of a rural phenomenon, probably for obvious reasons of space and privacy.
“Culturally, I think we have to make people aware of the impact of either back-yard burning or internal burning in households, in terms of the by-products and pollutants,” says Swift.
“I don’t want to paint a picture that it is very widespread but it clearly happens.”
Then there are the rogue collectors, more prevalent in cities and towns. The once-common man-in-a-van scenario, who would even have advertised in local newspapers, is less visible these days, after a clampdown in recent years. Now, it is more the likes of handymen who agree to take waste away as part of the job, says Swift.
There are other methods: reports include people driving systematically between street litter bins to dump their rubbish, and using other people’s skips. In some cases people have put locks on their wheelie bins to deter neighbours from using them.
Householders who can't satisfactorily explain how they dispose of their waste face €75 fixed-penalty notices
“All of these things happen,” says Swift. “And clearly they are all illegal activities in the same way that fly-tipping is illegal. There probably are many other inventive ways.”
The ramped-up powers of local authorities is partly motivated by Ireland’s desperate dash to meet a target for next year of 50 per cent rubbish recycled, under the EU Waste Framework Directive. It lays out new targets every five years, rising to 65 per cent by 2035.
Nationally, just 42 per cent of domestic waste is recycled at the moment.
Householders who can’t satisfactorily explain how they dispose of their waste face €75 fixed-penalty notices, with 21 days to pay to avoid a prosecution, while repeat offenders can be hit with fines of up to €2,500 if brought before the courts. Persistent contravention is threatened with penalties of €500 for every day of the continued breach after conviction.
One “big challenge” in the crackdown – a headache for some counties more than others – is holiday homes. Typically, holiday home users would have bought marked plastic waste bags from licensed operators; these would be left at an agreed collection point.
But that system, blamed for causing litter and other problems, is being phased out.
Regional waste authorities are adamant though that holiday homes, which are not thought to account for a significant proportion of the 80,0000, will have to come within the same system as everyone else.
“Because a property is infrequently occupied it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be registered as a producer of waste in the normal way,” says Swift. “They will be treated the same way, and will have to demonstrate they manage their waste in an appropriate manner.”
It is a matter for the bin collection industry to come up with “imaginative ways” to serve these homes, he adds, suggesting possibly lower fees or structured pricing.
The Border and apartments
There is also a “Border issue”. Since the peace process, large numbers of people living in urban areas in the North moved to small villages just across the Border. Many continue to work, shop and dump their rubbish in civic amenity sites in the North, where they pay or once paid taxes, if no longer their local council rates.
Swift says if they are resident in the Republic, they will have to produce receipts from Northern amenity sites – just as will be expected of people using amenity sites in the Republic.
Another problem is apartment blocks. The bylaws also give local authorities the power to ensure apartments have access to facilities that allow them to separate their waste into recycling, food and residual rather than one large communal bin.
Officials acknowledge they have a “challenge getting in behind” management companies or commercial waste contracts dealing with large scale residential complexes to ensure those facilities exist.
As the holiday home issue applies more to some counties, so does the apartment issue to others, including large cities and towns.
The Sligo solution
One county blazing a trail for the rest of the country is Sligo. It started a pilot project using the new bylaws and the Eircode system last March. Authorities elsewhere are looking to it as a litmus test.
Under the banner of Green Aware Sligo, it has been telling people about the new powers in weekly editorials in local newspapers, on radio stations and via a social media campaign. A national campaign is planned for later this year.
Alongside that, inspectors have begun calling to houses that don’t have contracts with authorised waste collectors.
Sean Scott, regional waste enforcement co-ordinator for Connacht-Ulster, is reticent about providing hard figures ahead of its initial findings being published later this year, but says there has been “a significant bounce in terms of people doing the right thing”.
After knocking on hundreds of doors, fines have been issued, and a number of prosecutions are being taken over the coming months – the first people to be brought before the courts under the bylaws for not being able to prove how they manage their waste.
“Or not even trying to,” says Scott. “They’ve had every chance. They just would not comply.
“We just want people to do the right thing. We don’t want to have to prosecute people. But if they just continue not to do the right thing, then we have no choice.”
Initial findings show a seven per cent increase in people using recognised operators or recycling centres in the county five months into the pilot. “It is producing good outcomes,” adds Scott.