Denis Naughten warns of Irish waste sector restructuring

Minister says local communities will be critical in battle against illegal dumping

 Minister for the  Environment Denis Naughten believes  Europe has an opportunity to be a global environmental leader. Photograph: Julien Behal

Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten believes Europe has an opportunity to be a global environmental leader. Photograph: Julien Behal


Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten believes that problems surrounding recycling and the cost of recycling are rapidly becoming a global problem, but they will force, too, a restructuring of the Irish waste sector and require everyone in Ireland to face up to the consequences of our own behaviour.

The Chinese decision to close its doors to much of the world’s recycling materials, along with the European Union’s plastics directive, is forcing the pace of the debate, while a collapse in prices for plastic and paper has pulled the floor from the recyclates commodity market, leaving costs that will have to be passed on to households.

In spite of the upheaval, the Minister believes that it is also an opportunity for Europe to be a global environmental leader in the circular economy – the dream where as much material as possible is recycled or reused.

“But we must act with urgency, to protect our environment to benefit European consumers and to provide new opportunities for the European economy,” says Mr Naughten.

EU states are now having to find local solutions, rather than exporting its waste. Since January, Mr Naughten, officials and the waste industry have been intensively examining the consequences of the Chinese move for Ireland, and what needs to be done here to prepare for a new world.

World problem

Ireland, Mr Naughten underlines, fully embraces the new EU plastics strategy. Indeed, Ireland strives to go beyond its recommendations, Mr Naughten pledges. There is much to do, however, since Eurostat noted recently that Ireland is one of the largest per capita generators of plastics in the EU.

Given that the plastics crisis is now a world problem, Mr Naughten says the EU must target more difficult non-recyclable plastics – soft wrapping, film etc and single-use items such as coffee cups and cutlery. Public procurement rules across the EU should reward environmentally-friendly suppliers and punish those who are not, he argues.

“If markets cannot easily be established for such products, the EU should collectively consider banning such items coming on to the market and force industry to produce and use recyclable alternatives,” he told The Irish Times.

Currently, Mr Naughten is looking at the effects a levy would have on single-use plastics. So far, he is not convinced that a deposit and refund scheme for drinks containers would work, but he is ready to hear the thoughts of an Oireachtas committee investigating the issue.

Meanwhile, he points to work being done with environmental NGOs such as VOICE. Backed by Repak funding, it will oversee rollout of a recycling ambassadors programme and 650 workshops to educate communities about how to use recycling bins properly.

The publication of a national recycling list has helped to educate the public on what can be recycled, and what cannot. “Regardless of where you live in Ireland or who collects your bin are the same. This is a major step forward to educate consumers on what materials go in what bin,” says the Minister.

Dumping crackdown

Local communities will critical in the battle against illegal dumping.

“Our communities are standing as one to say enough. Our riverways, mountainsides, towns and villages are to be used no longer as the dumping grounds by those who have no respect for our environment, our laws or their neighbours.”

This year, Mr Naughten is spending €2 million to target fly-tipping, repeating his views that such behaviour is an act of sabotage that threatens tourism and local communities’ hopes to develop. High-profile convictions last year have given him confidence that the battle can be won, but it is tough work.

State officials from different branches are now working closely together, while 25 regional officers act across county boundaries. This year will see a focus on the bigger picture, the large-scale operators still deliberately dumping, or the “man in the white van” who profits from picking up items and dumping them in quiet areas.

He points to the progress that can be made when local communities come together, such as the Pure scheme in the Wicklow/Dublin uplands where neighbours have banded together to keep short stretches of roads clean.

“Unauthorised and bogus waste collectors advertising online or through leaflet drops will also be targeted. We’ll be encouraging householders to always ask to see a permit before engaging with any bulky waste disposal operators,” says Mr Naughten, who is looking at the fines that can be imposed.

Building boom

The return of the building boom has led to more builders’ waste, so the National Waste Enforcement Steering Committee has been examining sites to ensure that construction and demolition waste is properly handled, rather than being dumped in long-abandoned quarries, or elsewhere.

“Covert surveillance and smart technology including aerial imagery from drones and satellites as well as the installation of CCTV cameras and better enforcement and prosecution actions will form a central part of this year’s crackdown,” he confirms.

“Last year, 2,800 tonnes of waste was removed from public and private lands, beaches, walking routes and residential areas, while 230 black spots were cleaned up and measures put in place to protect against a return of illegal dumping in these areas,” he adds.