Sharp increase in dumping and ‘backyard burning’ during lockdown, says EPA
Increase in home improvements contributed to a rise in the volume of waste, report finds
There was increased illegal dumping and burning of waste during the Covid-19 lockdown. File photograph: The Irish Times
A sharp rise in household waste generated during the Covid-19 lockdown led to big increases in illegal dumping and “backyard burning”, according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report.
Enquiries to the EPA website increased four-fold during the lockdown period in relation to illegal backyard burning, according to the report on Covid-19’s impact on the Irish environment.
The scale of increased illegal dumping and burning of waste was such the EPA worked with local authorities and waste enforcement authorities “to make sure complaints were directed to the appropriate local authority and addressed”.
The issue “is likely attributable to the larger volumes of waste generated by households during lockdown, including from home improvement works”, it concluded.
There was a fall in commercial and retail waste, however, while the State retained adequate capacity to handle increased medical waste.
In April and May, 75 per cent more complaints were reported through the EPA’s “See It? Say It!” app compared with the same period in 2019.
Grocery sales rose by 25 per cent during the 12 weeks up to mid-May. Household waste increased by 21 per cent on average during lockdown with brown bin waste up by 26 per cent; residual waste was up by 19 per cent, and recycling waste was up by 8 per cent.
The presence of large quantities of unopened food in brown bins “was linked with panic buying in the early stage of the lockdown”. Waste recovery at compost and bio-stabilisation facilities increased by 25 per cent reflecting increases in brown bin and garden waste.
Suspension of construction activity resulted in a 70 per cent reduction in construction and demolition waste. Skip hire, by contrast, increased significantly and civic amenity facilities also saw an initial surge in activity with people involved in clear-outs and clean-ups.
“With people spending more time in their homes we observed a 38 per cent increase in queries from the public seeking clarification on neighbourhood noise and the relevant legislation on the right of redress to the district court,” it said.
Air quality improved in urban areas with a significant decrease of pollution from traffic, the EPA said, but there was no change in pollution from burning solid fuels in the home.
“New measures and policies are needed to reduce harmful emissions from residential solid fuel burning, especially in towns and cities, to improve the local air quality and reduce the consequential impact on people’s health,” it warned.
Although all data is not yet available, it appears a decrease in pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions from the transport and energy sectors has occurred, while agricultural emissions were largely unaffected.
There is an opportunity to build on benefits observed in transport choices in urban areas, the agency said, while “new measures and policies [are] needed to reduce harmful emissions from residential solid fuel burning”.
“The principal causes of poor air quality in Ireland are emissions of fine particulates from burning solid fuels in the home and emissions of nitrogen dioxide from fossil-fuelled vehicles,” the EPA added.
There was a decrease of up to 50 per cent in nitrogen dioxide levels at the EPA’s 80 monitoring stations adjacent to normally heavy urban traffic. However, levels of fine particulates did not show a similar decrease.
“Since the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, there has been an emerging trend of increasing air pollution at many of our monitoring stations, though concentrations of nitrogen dioxide are currently still below levels typical for this time of year,” the EPA pointed out.
“Improvements in air quality observed in our urban areas clearly demonstrate the impact that traffic levels have on the quality of the air we breathe. The improvements were rapid and significant as commuting levels dropped dramatically and more people switched to cycling and walking.”
While the EPA anticipated traffic would return to “normal” levels, it hoped proposed changes in cities and towns to increase space allocated to cyclists and pedestrians may help to retain some of the improvement.
“In addition, and adhering to safety protocols, a switch to more public transport may also help transform the air quality on our streets.”
The EPA will look at economy-wide emissions projections including lockdown impact later this year. For the year to end of May, petrol deliveries were down over 30 per cent and diesel deliveries down by a fifth – resulting in a reduction of one million tonnes of CO2 compared to 2019.
Traffic movements were down almost 60 per cent during lockdown compared to directly beforehand, though they have now rebounded. There was a 20 per cent reduction in electricity demand, cutting emissions by over 300,000 tonnes of CO2 . Gas demand reduced by 15 per cent and has remained relatively flat since due to prolonged good weather.
The EPA underlined the need for measures to reduce emissions and decouple them from economic growth. However, there were risk factors posing a threat to this. “As well as being likely to result in a swift rebound in emissions as the economic recovery gathers pace, there is a risk that low [fossil] fuel prices could reduce the appetite for electrification in transport and home heating.”
Due to the severe impact the current Covid-19 restrictions have had on household and national finances, the resources available for “green investment” could be constrained, it said.
It highlighted the possibility of delays in implementing greenhouse gas and air pollutant mitigation measures, given a call from industry and lobby groups to delay the introduction of new environmental measures “considered by some to be of secondary importance to the recovery of the economy”.
It added: “If economic recovery is pursued at all costs, following a business as usual approach, then there is a risk that not only will emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants return to pre-lockdown levels, but meeting our obligations under the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution will be set back a number of years.”