The Stormont administration in Northern Ireland is struggling to deal with millions of tonnes of illegally dumped waste, thousands of incidents of fly-tipping, and the burning of hundreds of thousands of tyres at recycling plants.
Belfast-based investigative project Detail Data used Freedom of Information legislation, questions to Government departments and information from official reports to get a comprehensive picture of the collection and disposal of waste in the North.
The investigation found:
– More than two million tonnes of waste has been found in illegal or unauthorised dumps in the last decade
– Councils in Northern Ireland spend £165 million (€185m) a year collecting and disposing of a million tonnes of waste. The amount generated from industry, commerce and construction is “greater again”
– Nearly 6,000 incidents of fly-tipping were recorded in 2014/15
– Thousands of tonnes of waste is exported from Northern Ireland for recycling or incineration to countries including China, Latvia, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Norway and The Netherlands
– Nearly 400,000 tyres burned in fires at recycling facilities between 2009 and 2015
– While 177 people were convicted of waste offences between 2012 and 2015, just four were imprisoned
Despite more than a decade of initiatives encouraging business and the public to reduce the waste, it is not falling. This has prompted calls for greater Government investment in the local recycling industry.
A total of 66 dumps, which contain nearly 725,000 tonnes of waste, have already been deemed illegal in the courts, while more than 30 others are still being investigated. Among those under investigation are the Mobuoy Road super-dump in Derry, thought to contain around 1.5 million tonnes of waste.
The cost of dealing with these sites, both in terms of properly disposing of the waste and avoided landfill tax, is likely to run to hundreds of millions of pounds.
Friends of the Earth director for Northern Ireland James Orr believes the scale of illegal dumping, coupled with the prospect of Brexit and the potential future loss of European Union environmental safeguards has brought Government to a crossroads.
“To clean up these [illegal] sites could potentially bankrupt Northern Ireland, but not cleaning up these sites leaves a toxic legacy and we cannot pass on this toxic legacy to future generations,” he said.
Environmentalists and academics urge Stormont to deliver on a public inquiry into illegal dumping that was agreed by the Assembly in 2014 but never opened. They also call for a rethink on the creation of an independent environmental protection agency, which was rejected by First Minister Arlene Foster when she was minister for the environment in 2008.
Campaigners contend that current structures are not fit for purpose with penalties deemed too low to be effective deterrents.
Mr Orr says “major structural reform” is needed. The Stormont administration needs to consider the potential for job creation, environmental risk, the cost to the taxpayer, a public inquiry on illegal waste and a shake-up of enforcement, he says.
The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) said considerable progress has been made.
“Policies such as increased landfill tax mean that we have reduced the amount of municipal waste going to landfill from 66 per cent to just over 40 per cent since 2010,” a spokesperson said.
“Over the last decade the amount of waste recycled by local authorities has doubled and now accounts for over 40 per cent of municipal waste.”
The spokesperson said the Environmental Crime Unit has an annual budget of £1.6 million while “in the most serious cases investigations may also result in associated financial investigations using powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act to confiscate criminal gains: 32 successful confiscation orders totalling £2.43 million have so far been secured.”
Detail Data is a BIG Lottery NI funded partnership between The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) and TheDetail.tv investigative journalism website.