Ireland ‘overreliant on incineration’ to manage waste

Environmental Protection Agency flags worrying trends – rising volumes and decline in recycling

Bales of recyclables at Ballymount Road, Dublin. The EPA report emphasises a necessity ‘to shift the focus to designing out waste and promoting reuse and recycling’. File photograph Moya Nolan

Bales of recyclables at Ballymount Road, Dublin. The EPA report emphasises a necessity ‘to shift the focus to designing out waste and promoting reuse and recycling’. File photograph Moya Nolan

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has highlighted “worrying trends” on Irish waste, with volumes increasing at the same time as a marked decline in recycling and an overreliance on incineration.

Its latest report on volumes, issued on Friday, confirms key waste streams are trending in the wrong direction, coinciding with sustained economic growth. This will make it difficult to adhere to demanding European Union requirements over the coming decade, warns the EPA.

Systemic change is needed across all economic sectors “to shift the focus to designing out waste and promoting reuse and recycling”, it adds.

The share of municipal waste sent for incineration – with some energy generation – is up from 4 per cent in 2009 to 46 per cent in 2019, the EPA confirms.

Ireland’s recycling rate for municipal waste fell from 41 per cent in 2016 to 37 per cent in 2019, while the recycling rate for packaging waste has declined from 70 per cent in 2013 to 62 per cent in 2019.

“The trends show that Ireland is facing a widening gap to meet ambitious new EU recycling targets from 2025 onwards,” warns the national waste statistics summary report for 2019.

Waste generation in Ireland increased significantly in 2019 with municipal waste up by 6 per cent to 3.1 million tonnes, packaging waste increased by 11 per cent to 1.1 million tonnes and hazardous waste rose by 10 per cent to 0.6 million tonnes.

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Director of the EPA’s office of environmental sustainability Sharon Finegan 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. Our rising levels of waste are unsustainable and need to stop.

“Systemic change is needed across all economic sectors to shift the focus to designing out waste and promoting reuse and recycling.”

Over the past decade in Ireland there have been dramatic changes in waste management. Only 15 per cent of municipal waste was landfilled in 2019 compared with 61 per cent a decade earlier. There has been a significant increase in the share of municipal waste sent for incineration with energy recovery over the same period, from 4 per cent in 2009 to 46 per cent in 2019.

Ireland’s recycling rates for municipal and packaging waste have been in gradual decline for several years, as efforts to improve recycling have been outstripped by the growth in waste being generated and the amount being sent for energy recovery.

Municipal waste

The share of plastic packaging waste sent for incineration with energy recovery increased from 64 per cent in 2018 to 69 per cent in 2019; 2½ times more plastic packaging waste was disposed of in this way than was recycled (221,000 tonnes versus 89,000 tonnes).

The recycling rate for municipal waste has fallen from 41 per cent in 2016 to 37 per cent in 2019, while the recycling rate for packaging waste has declined from 70 per cent in 2013 to 62 per cent in 2019. The trends show Ireland is facing a widening gap to meet ambitious new EU recycling targets from 2025 onwards.

EPA senior scientist Dr Tara Higgins said Ireland’s declining recycling rates were a significant cause for concern. But she acknowledged “measures needed to increase recycling and close the gap to new EU recycling targets” were introduced recently.

These include: allowing soft plastics such as films and wraps into recycling bins; continued expansion of brown bin services to households; new requirements for all packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2030; and a levy on waste recovery.

The EPA estimates Ireland generated 1.1 million tonnes of food waste in 2019; up from 1.05 million tonnes generated in 2018 – food waste is responsible for up to 10 per cent of human-induced carbon emissions.

About half of Ireland’s food waste is estimated to come from the processing and manufacturing sector, with the remainder arising from households (23 per cent) and the commercial sector including restaurants/food service and retail/distribution (32 per cent). This excludes food waste arising at the primary production stage, for which data is unavailable.

Ireland continues to have some significant waste infrastructure deficits and relies on export for several key waste streams, including municipal, packaging and hazardous waste, according to the EPA.

This points, it concludes, to the need for expansion of Ireland’s waste treatment and recycling capacity to extract maximum value from waste materials and reduce emissions associated with transporting waste over long distances.