We’re not ready for new waste avalanche

Just as we seem less engaged than we were some years ago with changes an evolving climate will force on our world we seem to have taken our eye off the ball on how we will manage the growing quantities of waste our consumer society produces.

Unfortunately, we must also acknowledge that we have not been as focussed as we need to be on another vital issue — water. Though plans are advanced on some aspects of securing our water supply huge gaps remain and something around half of the water processed is still lost through leaks. The issue is so very critical that in some areas around Dublin development has been deferred until water supplies can be guaranteed.

Ominously, a new warning from the Environmental Protection Agency concentrates on waste disposal and how poorly we are prepared for an anticipated surge in the levels of waste we generate. For the first time in seven years homes, shops, and offices will produce more waste next year than they did in the previous year. Within a decade waste production will surpass the boom years’ record rates. This increase comes just as we are running out of old-fashioned landfill sites and still feel uneasy, even if that sentiment may be irrational, with the idea of waste incinerators and the energy they can generate. That position exacerbates a situation where investment in alternatives is not readily available and where regional waste management plans have not been revised in over a decade. Add to that unfortunate mix the fact that many private waste operators are opposed to greater controls being imposed on their industry and you have the potential for a real bottleneck in waste disposal. In other words we have not done our homework. Neither have we succeeded in changing cultural attitudes so we might take more personal responsibility for the quantities of waste each of us produces.

Government and some local authorities have made efforts to prepare for this waste surge but very often their proposals have been rejected by groups determined to protect their local environment against a perceived threat. It is hard to see how this can continue if we increase the quantities of waste we all produce.

It seems that there is a need for a new sense of urgency to confront the infrastructure deficits and to try to convince a sceptical public that modern, efficient and clean waste disposal can be achieved by using incineration, just as is the case in many European cities. The energy generated by these incinerators can make a contribution, one that might grow over time, to reducing our 90% dependence on imported energy.

This issue, along with climate change, water security and energy independence, present us with major, society-shaping challenges and it would be reassuring if we could believe that the passion and determination needed to at least confront if not resolve them existed at government level, especially in the Department of the Environment. It would, however, be even more reassuring if it was more obvious that we are all ready to accept our personal responsibilities around reducing waste and using water more responsibly. The reality is that Government can only do so much.


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