GERARD HOWLIN: As happy as pigs we sit in our own squalor, stubborn as mules to change

On waste collection, our choice as a country is to sit in our own squalor or change. Every time we put out the bin, we are doing the equivalent of peeing in the public swimming pool.

The difference is all our neighbours have just done the same thing as well.

Yet, remarkably, bin collection charges based on pay-by-weight for those not already doing so, threatens to be the next water charges debacle.

Perhaps, peeing in the swimming pool is not an apt simile. On the issue of water, it seems we are happy to gulp sewage when we swim, rather than pay-by-use to invest in an urgently needed upgrade of water treatment infrastructure.

Given the precarious politics of the Dáil, and in a best-case scenario it has 18 months to run, I am fairly sure the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten could exit, without taking this on.

It’s only manners, after all, to leave something for your successor to do. There could be a culchie thing as well of course. First Phil Hogan and now Naughten represent rural constituencies where, mainly, people pay for their water, and pay for their waste by weight or by lift.

So their political sense is accustomed to consider as normal, what is obviously reasonable. But if you haven’t been paying, and measure your political testosterone in terms of determination not to, it’s different. That’s especially true in Dublin.

That’s why the wittily named Solidarity, as well as People Before Profit and Sinn Féin, are caught in a crush to be the first to the top of the barricade.

Fianna Fáil is wilier, for now, hedging its bets and calling for a regulator. But on water, they eventually gulped the sewage. So let’s wait and see. Naughten will have to be a very clever politician to keep them in the ring on this.

On the environment, Fianna Fáil is no longer the party of Noel Dempsey. He had advised his former colleagues to support a water charge. But they paid no heed.

His foresight in bringing in a tax on plastic bags, and restricting the size of out-of-town retail developments, were a one-off and only a temporary respite respectively.

By the Noughties, when it was time to move on to a tax on chewing gum, as promised in a manifesto, he wrote that the ardour had waned.

On retail square footage out-of-town, the cap was lifted and enormous supermarkets built to complement sprawling estates. It did lasting damage to rural towns.

The environment and politics aren’t well matched. A cynical wit of my acquaintance aptly described the Greens as the muesli-eating wing of Fine Gael.

He meant it was a middle-class thing. If you are hard up and worried about the basics, you won’t be too concerned about saving the Earth.

Anyway, compared to the specificity of your bin, the environment is so nebulous as to be pointless. Hence, politics based on class assumptions, the poorer you are, the happier you will be to continue swimming among the sewage.

It’s not solidarity. It’s a doubling down of contempt and self-fulfilling prophecy of a very cynical sort.

Waste is different from water in politically critical respects, however, and this gives Naughten a chance to defy accepted logic. Everyone is paying something already.

Yes, you can put it all into the black bin for a fixed fee and feck the consequences, but you are paying something. So there isn’t the splash of cold water, of an absolutely new charge.

Secondly, there isn’t the need to invest in a large physical infrastructure of water meters.

And on the matter of waste, there is a chance to affect your charge, by changing what you do now, at home. More than half of households will not be affected by the flat fee phase out. But those that will are concentrated in urban areas, and Dublin especially.

That’s the kernel of the politics of this: it’s a dirty business.

From September, and over the following year as flat fee waste contracts expire, an option to pay-by-weight or pay-by-lift will be introduced. The possibility of an all-in flat fee for your black bin will end. With it, in theory, will go a way of life where you can produce as much waste as you like, without any extra charge.

There is an extra charge of course. It’s in landfill which is invariably in a rural location. It is an environmental cost, borne by all. It will likely soon be in fines levied by the EU for non-compliance with obligations we have freely signed up to.

Ireland has an obligation under the Waste Framework Directive to recycle 50% of household waste by 2020. We currently achieve 45% but nearly half of what we recycle is contaminated. That underlines the importance of separating waste.

We are fastidious in separating what we put into our bin, from what we put into our fridge. But we have an ingrained habit of putting just about anything into our bin. It’s the peeing in the swimming pool thing again.

Waste collectors will now be required to offer food/organic or “brown” bins to communities with more than 500 people. This diverts and separates organic waste away from all-in black bins. It also tackles food waste.

Naughten estimates an average family generates €700 in food waste annually. It is not an Irish phenomenon. Globally, if food waste were a country, it would rank behind only the US and China for greenhouse gas emissions.

In a country with famine memorials, it is an astonishing turnaround. As a basis for a campaign for hard-pressed communities, it is the politics of gluttony.

The immediate pending crisis is landfill. It is likely that new EU targets currently being negotiated will limit landfill to 10% of municipal waste by 2030.

As we know from Brexit, the EU comes with freely negotiated obligations, as well as essential opportunities. But 2030 isn’t our problem, yet. It is getting to 2020, without a major crisis.

On two occasions last year, we were within hours of a situation where no bins would be collected as there was no landfill to bring it to. We need to sharply reduce the amount we waste, how we separate it and then dispose of it.

This is about empowering people, not oppression of the powerless. Campaigns against user charges or essential services based on flat fees is a world view that depends on exploiting powerlessness to succeed.

It is the new opium of the people. Effective action on the environment is particularly undermined by precisely that powerlessness which a particular sort of politics must feed on to survive.

It is all too big and too much to matter what anyone of us does. But it’s precisely by acting as a community, that we can make astonishing positive change quickly.

The responsible thing to do is avoid, reduce, separate and then pay for what we do waste. On waste, community action is the summary of individual responsibility.

By acting as a community, we can make astonishing positive change quickly. The responsible thing to do is avoid, reduce, separate and then pay for what we do waste.


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