There is a recurring story in Don DeLillo’s masterful novel Underworld about a ship carrying toxic waste. This “ghost ship” sails the world in its desperate search for a destination but is doomed never to reach a port because of its noxious cargo.
“Consume or die. That’s the mandate of the culture. And it all ends up in the dump. We make stupendous amounts of garbage, then we react to it, not only technologically but in our hearts and minds. We let it shape us. We let it control our thinking,” one character declares.
Waste and how we dispose of it is now a major issue with the potential to unseat a government.
A generation ago the approach was simple but antediluvian. In urban areas, bins were collected by the local authority, which emptied their contents in local dumps, usually on the outskirts of big towns, and often home to enormous flocks of gulls. Out in the country, nothing was collected: waste was burnt. Simple as that.
The move towards a more complex system has been rapid. The amount of municipal waste going to landfill has fallen by more than 80 per cent in a decade, and the number of landfill sites in the State has fallen from dozens to six or seven.
For all that, the Republic of Ireland produces the sixth-highest amount of rubbish per head in the European Union: 586kg a year for each one of us in 2014, compared with an average of 475kg. A little more than a third of that goes to landfill, which is no great boast. But incineration, which brings landfill rates right down, has not really featured until now. The Covanta incinerator in Dublin Bay, at Poolbeg, will push landfill figures down, but its very existence is controversial.
Ireland's recovery rate for packaging waste is 88 per cent, which is fourth best in the EU. The State also performs well when recycling electrical waste
Ireland’s recovery rate for packaging waste – such as cardboard, paper, glass, plastic, steel, aluminium and wood – is 88 per cent, which is fourth best. The State also performs well when recycling electrical waste: 57 per cent of it is now recovered, compared with only 9 per cent a decade ago.
Nevertheless, 5 per cent of landfill waste is glass, 15 per plastics and 18 per cent paper or cardboard. More than a third of recycling and compost bins are contaminated. The Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy recently discovered that 92 shipments of recyclable material were returned to Ireland because of excessive contamination.
Ireland is good about going to the bottle bank or bring centres. But about 500,000 tonnes of recyclable material is exported for processing in Mexico, Bangladesh and China, among other countries. And 48 per cent of hazardous waste is also exported for treatment (those "ghost ships").
Under the European Union's waste framework directive the polluter pays. Landfill dumping is worst. People are encouraged by pay-by-weight charges to separate waste and so minimise what they send to landfill. If people are offered cheaper or free alternatives – green bins for recyclable material and brown bins for organic material – they will improve their habits.
Unusually, domestic-waste collection is almost completely private in Ireland. Private companies often began by cherry-picking middle-class urban areas. That left local authorities serving mainly low-income areas, where many households’ charges were waived.
There is some evidence that the pay-by-weight, or PBW, system does encourage householders to send less to landfill. But that evidence is inconsistent. Prof Ian Williams of the centre for environmental sciences at the University of Southampton says the jury is still out.
“Pay by weight can impact recycling rates either way. The global evidence in this space is thin, confusing and tells different stories. The success or otherwise of PBW depends on how it is planned, implemented, organised, managed, used and regulated and enforced, as well as on the quality of underpinning services and infrastructure.”
In the UK, for example, there are no direct charges for the collection of recyclables, and councils still control the services. "In reality," Williams points out, there is no such thing as a no-charge system for waste collection, treatment and disposal. There are just different ways of collecting the money. In the UK this is funded via council tax," he says, referring to the annual charge that local authorities require each property to pay. (The average in England for 2016-17 was £1,530, or about €1,750.) "Most UK authorities publish how much this service costs the taxpayer annually. It is often about £100 per year . . .
“There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all service. This is because you need a different service in a thinly populated rural area compared to a densely populated, highly built-up urban area with high-rise buildings. But some types of service are better than others.
Politicians, sadly, sometimes tell lots of lies about waste services to serve their own purposes, which muddies the waters
“Politicians, sadly, sometimes tell lots of lies about waste services to serve their own purposes, which muddies the waters. It is possible to use evidence to estimate what the best service might be for a particular type of area, but ‘best’ can be defined differently. In the EU it is generally agreed that the waste hierarchy should be used as the guiding principle for authorities.”
Ireland has had waste charges for nearly 20 years, but they comes in a mind-boggling variety: pay by weight in some places, flat charges in others, and pay per lift, or a hybrid of all three, in yet others. Sixty companies collect waste around the State.
Annual costs per household vary greatly. Brown bins, for compost, are not available in many areas, leaving people no choice but to use the more expensive black bins for their organic waste. The City Bin Co charges a flat fee of €206 a year in the Dublin City Council area. For Oxigen customers in Dowra, Cavan, the flat fee is €360. In Galway, Barna Recycling, which also collects black bins, charges €220 a year plus per-lift or per-weight fees, which can bring the total to more than €300. In Kerry, KWD's yearly charge starts at €328.
There was an outcry last year when a universal pay-by-weight system was due to be introduced, with suspicions that some companies would hike their prices. The new arrangements announced by Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten this year have not met the same opposition, by and large, even though it is essentially the same pay-by-weight system, with a few concessions for high-dependency residents.
Most TDs have no issue with their local arrangement, especially in rural areas.“We have a very respectable private operator,” says the Independent Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae. “Dublin TDs might be disparaging waste companies, but I left home at 5am last week to drive to Dublin, and there were only four other vehicles on the road. They were four lorries driven by KWD.”
It's the same with the Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy, who says that, although the service is relatively expensive in Co Roscommon, it is reliable and good.
No one believes in the Government line that it will result in savings. We see it as a green light for private companies to come in
In that regard there seems to be an urban-rural divide. The Solidarity TD Mick Barry, who represents Cork North-Central, says the new system will hit customers in the city, as much of Cork county is already pay by weight. "No one believes in the Government line that it will result in savings. We see it as a green light for private companies to come in."
What is agreed is that pay by weight has led to more fly-tipping. Barry says that there was a tenfold increase after bin charges were introduced, adding that the costs of removing rubbish and remediating land “are carried by the public purse and not paid by private companies who want to maximise their profits”.
Eugene Murphy agrees. “There’s a lot of illegal dumping,” he says. “It’s a very poor sight to see. It’s really upsetting, and I cannot tolerate the practice, which is antisocial.”
Seventy thousand tonnes of waste was illegally dumped in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "There are a number of areas where fly-tipping is a problem," it says. "If unattended, they can prove to be a magnet for others to dump, and the sites can become quite large." So far this year the agency has received 688 calls about illegal dumping.
The deal struck between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on the charging system seems solid politically. But parties like Sinn Féin and Solidarity-People Before Profit will not begin their full campaigns until the autumn; we will have to see if they achieve critical mass.
There needs to be a debate about reversing the privatisations. We also want a scrapping of bin charges
For Mick Barry the line is clear. “We are in favour of reintroducing a price freeze,” he says. “There needs to be a debate about reversing the privatisations. We have seen it in some EU countries, what is known as remunicipalisation. We also want a scrapping of bin charges.”
Is that realistic? Will his party’s supporters have the success with bin charges that they had with water? Probably not. Bin charges are already well embedded in society. And so far politicians believe there’s no appetite for a prolonged campaign. “It’s not going to be water charges mark two,” one TD says. “You will get campaigns, especially in working-class areas, but they won’t have the same impact as the water protests.”
As DeLillo describes it, “We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn’t discard, to reprocess what we couldn’t use. Garbage pushed back.”
So, too, in Ireland. The charges won’t be reversed. They’re here to stay.