A race against time is under way to prevent a waste management crisis, with rubbish volumes set to increase after six years of decline.
Experts say the amount of rubbish from homes, shops, and offices will grow next year for the first time since 2007. Within a decade it will exceed the record levels of the boom years.
But the country is running out of landfill space, investment in alternatives is lacking, crucial regional waste management plans were last updated in 2002, and private waste operators are opposed to greater demands on the industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency has flagged concerns about the looming rise in waste, spurred by improvement in the economy and population increase.
“We should remember, that’s only the growth model for municipal waste which is only around 12% of the total waste generated in the State,” said EPA senior officer Jonathan Derham.
Hugh Coughlan of the national steering group which is set to begin work on new regional waste management plans said growth in waste would create difficulties.
“The objective has been to decouple waste generation from economics but it has not succeeded so far. As soon as the economy improves, you will begin to notice that waste problems will start to creep up.”
He said municipal waste growth was only part of the problem. “Construction demolition waste fell off a cliff in the last number of years so that took some pressure off, but the construction industry is growing again.”
Municipal waste has fallen 17% since the peak of the boom but the EPA and ESRI say it will grow almost 25% by 2023 — the same year landfill runs out.
The Department of the Environment has set out an ambitious programme of work to try to counter the problem but many of its proposals are contentious.
Within six months, every town of more than 10,000 people is to have a brown-bin scheme to try to eliminate the food waste that makes up 25% of household rubbish, with the national rollout to follow by mid-2016.
The voluntary take-up rate in some areas has been disappointing and enforcement is tricky.
Mandatory pay-by-weight waste collection services are also to be pushed, but there are fears it will lead to more illegal dumping.
“There is a lot of illegal activity so we need to get enforcement right,” said Mr Coughlan. He said the controversial issue of incineration would have to be addressed. “We are exporting a lot of our waste so we’re just exporting the problem.”
Mr Derham said the “free-for-all” in waste collection should end and a tendering regime put in place to force operators to use more hi-tech — and more costly — waste recovery and recycling methods. Mr Derham said public attitudes were crucial in tackling the waste problem.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved