The warning comes from Environment Minister Alan Kelly in a strongly worded criticism of the household waste industry, the level of service it provides to customers, and its compliance with environmental standards.
Mr Kelly warned the industry it was in the “last chance saloon” in terms of cleaning up its act. If it didn’t comply with the new regulatory regime, he said he would withdraw free market privileges and impose a state tendering system instead.
“We have moved in a relatively short space of time from a system in which municipal waste authorities had full control over the waste market, but were over-stretched and under-resourced, to a situation in which we have handed over responsibility to the private sector, without giving the State adequate levers with which to regulate how services are provided. This is the worst of both worlds in my view. And it has to change.”
Among the practices the minister wants to stamp out is below-cost selling. He described it as a “race to the bottom” that had a destabilising effect on the market and hindered badly needed investment in waste treatment.
He did not explicitly mention the protracted dispute between workers and management at Greyhound Waste but said he was in favour of a statutory wage-setting mechanism.
Another issue was poor customer service with some waste collectors “merely ticking boxes when it comes to their customer charters“.
Mr Kelly said he was concerned at the large number of enforcement actions having to be taken by local authorities and the EPA against waste collection companies.
“I am also very concerned that some operators appear to be ignoring some of their statutory obligations in certain areas by, for example, failing to roll out brown bin collections despite the requirement to do so under the 2012 Household Food Waste Regulations.”
Under the new regulatory powers taking effect in July 2015, all collectors and all customers will have to use a pay-by-weight system of calculating bin collection charges.
A ban on below-cost selling will be introduced and companies will have to sign up to detailed service standards and statutory customer charters.
“The failure to adhere to agreed service levels will automatically result in a permit review,” he said.
“This will create a challenge for waste collectors but to put it simply, something must be done.”
Mr Kelly was speaking at the annual Environment Ireland conference organised by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Environment.
Kieran Mullins, chairman of the Irish Waste Management Association, said the new regulatory regime would present difficulties for its 32 member companies which collect around 73% of all household waste.
He said the costs of installing weighing equipment in bin lorries and micro-chipping all bins would pose challenges for smaller companies in particular.
Mr Mullins said compliance with the new regulations would depend partly on households themselves. Green bin and brown bin contamination was a major problem, he said, with green bin contamination now running at 20%-35% with dirty nappies, bottles, polystyrene and general waste commonly discarded.
“We’ll be looking at fines for householders; putting stickers on their bins to embarrass them; and ultimately refusing to collect them. There has to be a strong awareness and education campaign,” he said.