The waste hierarchy in Ireland is skewed towards landfill and incineration, rather than prevention, recycling and energy recovery, leading environmental consultant Jack O’Sullivan tells Meadhbh Monahan.
“The logic of how we do things in Ireland beats me,” O’Sullivan begins. Although things have gotten better since the regulation of landfill sites began in the 1970s and the overall rise in awareness of ‘green’ issues, Ireland’s waste policy is dictated by private waste companies.
“We’ve let that get to the stage where big waste companies are dominating the policies. They are strong enough now that they can frustrate the policies of the state,” the environmental consultant says.
He cites the ongoing row over the Poolbeg incinerator as an example.
“Didn’t Dublin City Council go ahead and sign the contract with Dong energy, RPS and Covanta energy in the expectation that Dublin Corporation could dictate to Dublin waste firms that they had to bring waste to the incinerator?”
Because a High Court Judge ruled that the council has no authority to dictate where companies should bring their waste, and the contract is a ‘put or pay’, the council are under pressure to supply 360,000 tonnes to the incinerator or the tax payer will have to make up for the loss.
“Meanwhile we have a government policy which states ‘let us recycle as much as we can’,” O’Sullivan adds.
A similar discrepancy occurred during the debate over the construction of the Mutton island sewage plant on an island in Galway Bay in 2004.
“Who made the decision to go ahead with that, despite all the evidence and despite the decision by the EU not to give grant aid, knowing that the burden would fall on the tax payer? And in 2009 I was told that the sewage plant is now overloaded due to Galway increasing in size and the plant can’t be expanded, whereas it could have been expanded had it been built on the mainland,” he states.
“Ireland’s recycling statistics show that we ‘recycle’ quite significant levels of paper and plastic. We actually don’t do that.”
According to O’Sullivan, the statistics are “a misnomer” and in fact, the recycling material is sent abroad.
“A recent OECD report said: ‘Ireland relies almost exclusively on overseas infrastructure to achieve its recycling targets’,” he quotes.
In addition, ‘recycling centres’ are actually buildings where waste is separated and the paper and plastic is sent to China and India, and mixed waste to landfill.
“People who live beside one of these centres don’t want to live beside a development where 20,000 tonnes per year of mixed waste is sorted,” O’Sullivan adds.
He claims that the transportation of this waste to Asia adds significantly to Ireland’s carbon footprint and that when it gets to its destination, electronic equipment is broken up, with wires set on fire to burn away the PVC in order to access the metal wires.
Although attitudes have changed since the Greens have entered government,
O’Sullivan still recalls the reaction of the former Environment Minister Dick Roche, who laughed off RTÉ Prime Time’s finding that eight waste companies shipping mixed waste to other countries, despite the fact it was against EU regulations.
“The environmental community are now being taken a little bit more seriously by government. At least they are not openly laughing at us,” he notes.
Waste to energy
Incinerators are beneficial if they provide energy, O’Sullivan concedes. He cites countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Finland as examples which use energy from their incinerators to heat schools, houses and factories.
O’Sullivan believes that more should be done regarding the monitoring of any incinerator plant.
The EPA is “getting its head around the idea that they may force the holder of a waste license to supply the agency with real time data.”
This would mean that a probe would be placed in the chimney of an incinerator to measure the temperature, sulphur dioxide, and other contaminants coming out.
O’Sullivan believes this would be a better regulatory measure than relying on the current “self-monitoring” policy operated by incinerator operators.
The legacy of landfills and illegal dumping is still causing problems in Ireland, according to the environmentalist.
He checked a landfill in County Roscommon recently where the smell “would choke you.” However, the strict regulations on landfills have made the situation better in most areas. They are now required to separate waste into cells and when each cell is full it must be covered by an impermeable liner. Technicians, chemists and other scientists must monitor the site, meaning that it is “a costly operation”. However, landfill is still cheaper than incineration or recycling.
For that reason, a landfill tax is required, O’Sullivan insists.
Charging for household waste and allowing local communities to decide how waste can be utilised as a resource should be at the top of the Government’s agenda, he suggests. Charging one euro per kilo of mixed waste a household produces and rewarding them with 10 cent per kilo of clean recyclable products such as newspapers, glass and tin, would provide the right incentives for recycling, O’Sullivan argues.
And, homes should have five separate bins for paper, glass, tin, plastic and compost.
He says: “In nature there is no waste. Everything that is not wanted by one organism is food for another. Anything that is not wanted by the planet is put away carefully. If it has too much carbon, it is turned into coal. If there is too much carbon dioxide, calcium carbonate is created.
“If we mirror that kind of system in our technosphere, we could so easily design systems where everything is designed so that, when it comes to the end of its life, it can be taken up by another industry, taken apart and re-used, recycled or re-fabricated.”
An example of this in practice is in Flanders in Belgium, where a number of towns clubbed together to form a charity which employs people to pick rubbish from the dump, clean it, repair it and sell it on in shops.
And in Curitiba, Brazil, for every raw material given back to the community, they receive a bus ticket.
“This is a double-winner because it encourages the use of public transport,” O’Sullivan points out.
He states: “All the stuff people don’t want should not become a commodity, simply to be handled by big waste companies. Let the city and town councils delegate the job of collection to waste companies, under license to the local authority. But it should remain the substance belonging to the community.”
Legislation is “going in the right direction”, according to O’Sullivan but decent incentives are needed to encourage householders and others to “segregate at source”, and to “re-use, repair and recycle so that people can make a living doing it.”
Date posted: Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 at 4:35 pm