Crisis for council waste collection

THE real possibility of more local authorities pulling out of waste collection has serious implications and could lead to an increase in indiscriminate dumping which continues to blight the country.

At the same time, attitudes have progressed, as is evidenced by the huge increase in recycling – a shift from the notion that waste is something that has be buried to something that can be used productively and create jobs.

Nearly every household is now engaged in some form of recycling and the Government has set a 70% recycling target, to be reached by 2016. The advent of recycling in Ireland has brought a host of private operators into the waste management field, creating thousands of jobs. The days when the council or corporation dump lorry automatically came around and picked up a bin containing all household rubbish are long gone. At least one council no longer provides the service and others, including Cork County Council, are thinking of withdrawing from waste collection.

The writing has been on the wall for years as private operators offering more competitive prices have eaten into the collection market. Other councils, including Kerry, are redoubling their efforts to stay in waste collection amid warnings they may not be able to remain in the business for long more.

In May, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council decided to discontinue its collection service because of “unsustainable losses”. There was a predictable backlash, but the council felt it had no option and advertised a tender for the service. Only 18,500 customers were availing of its service, down from 64,000 in 2006, and the cost of maintaining it was estimated at €3.5 million for the current year. The council also said the “unfavourable outcome” of a recent High Court case, which supported unrestricted competition in the waste market in Dublin, influenced its decision.

Another important issue was that too many people were not prepared to pay the council for the service, with arrears from households amounting to almost €27 million. Staff employed in waste collection in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown are now being redeployed to other council services.

Customers countrywide are availing of cheaper prices offered by private collectors, but there is a downside. Will private collectors, for instance, continue to ‘cherry pick’ the most profitable routes and ignore areas which are off the track, so to speak, and simply do not yield a profit? And, of course, there are people availing of local authority waivers which give them free, or reduced charge, collection. What’s going to happen their domestic rubbish if they can’t afford to pay for a service? Then, there’s the distinct possibility that private operators will increase their prices once they get a grip on the market.

In event of more councils abandoning the service we are likely to see a lot of additional houses and areas with no collection, leading to the risk of more people dumping indiscriminately.

This issue was raised recently by the former mayor of Kerry, Bobby O’Connell, who claimed that some people who did not have waste collection were dumping in the countryside. He called for an audit of all households to find out how they were getting rid of their rubbish.

“Everyone should be made accountable and should be able to prove how they are disposing of their household rubbish,” he said.

Meanwhile, Environment Minister John Gormley has put a new draft statement of waste policy out for public consultation. The plan is to protect the environment and reduce costs for householders and businesses, while at the same time promoting job creation and innovation in the waste industry.

The aim is to move away from landfilling and, significantly, incineration. Previous waste management plans included incineration but, clearly, Mr Gormley’s Green party is dictating a move away from that policy without entirely ruling out some incineration. The hope is that waste that could otherwise be disposed of should not be incinerated.

Leading waste management company Greenstar welcomed the new targets which would increase recycling by about a million tonnes per annum by 2016, creating 1,000 new jobs in the recycling sector and thousands more indirect jobs.

“This policy to increase recycling and move away from landfill and mass burn incineration is good for the environment and good for the global fight against climate change,” said Greenstar chief executive Neil Parkinson.

Greenstar has invested over €320m in waste management infrastructure and is adding to that investment with the opening of two advanced recovery plants.

A new mechanical bio-treatment (MBT) plant with a processing capacity of 100,000 tonnes is currently being installed in Cork and the company is also commissioning an 80,000-tonne facility at Millennium Park, Dublin.

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