Higher landfill costs could curb Ireland’s waste exports

Ireland needs more recycling facilities if it is to curb the steady flow of recyclable glass, paper and plastics abroad - and for that to happen landfill costs need to rise - according to experts at the Irish Water Waste Environment (IWWE) show this week.

Most (80%) of Ireland’s waste is recycled abroad, mainly in China, as the country ships out around 1.5m tonnes of recyclable goods each year. This flow of material is fuelled by a lack of recycling infrastructure due to low landfill costs and disjointed government policy, according to Erik O’Donovan, director of the Irish Waste Management Association.

“Other countries have strong indigenous infrastructure. Ireland is still in the process of building this up” Erik O’Donovan said, taking part in a panel debate at the IWWE.

“We are trying to grow our composting and recycling capacities. This growth has so far been driven by high landfill costs. The problem now is that landfill costs have actually fallen over the last years,” he said.

But with waste increasingly seen as a tradable commodity, this is not necessarily a bad thing, he added – waste needs to be dealt with using a suite of measures that include everything from local recycling and composting to incineration.

Exporting rubbish for recycling is now undeniably among those measures, but many do not see this as an environmentally sound solution. Low environmental standards in developing countries and the carbon emissions from transporting waste to the other side of the world are among the arguments against waste exports.

The debate over exporting recycling is also fought on economic terms. As fossil fuel costs rise a waste management system relying on exports will be rendered unsustainable. Countries like Ireland could also be losing money by exporting their recyclables.

But the environmental and social arguments for treating waste closer to home dominated the IWWE debate. “Waste is a commodity that must be traced,” said Ciaran Cuffe of Ireland’s Green Party, backed by voices from the audience. Ireland cannot continue exporting its pollution and environmental damage to the other side of the world, he argued.

While Irish waste managers cannot be blamed for low Chinese environmental standards, exporting European waste to be dealt with cheaply – but not necessarily safely – by the Chinese is akin to exporting our pollution, he said.

But this is likely to continue uninhibited until landfill costs rise and recycling facilities improve.

Goska Romanowicz

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