EPA calls for urgent action to address Ireland’s Municipal Waste Recycling

  • Waste generation in Ireland continued to increase in 2020.  Our rising levels of waste make it difficult to maintain or increase recycling rates.  
  • Ireland is in danger of missing future (2025) EU municipal waste and plastic packaging recycling targets. 
  • Ireland remains reliant on export markets for the treatment of specific waste streams including residual municipal wastes, hazardous waste, packaging waste and more recently biowastes.
  • Immediate targeted actions are needed in 2023 to drive improvements in our municipal and plastic packaging recycling.

The EPA’s National Waste Statistics Summary Report for 2020 published today reports on the most recent official data on waste generation and management in Ireland. The report reveals a number of worrying trends.
Ireland is generating too much waste, but this is not just a waste management problem.  There are wider climate and environmental impacts of increasing waste such as the land-use, resources, chemicals and the energy involved in the creation of products that become waste. In 2020 key waste streams were also impacted by Covid restrictions: 

  • Municipal waste increased from 3.1 million in 2019 to 3.2 million.  
  • Packaging waste remained high at 1.1 million tonnes, the fourth year in a row that total packaging waste generated exceed 1 million tonnes.
  • Construction waste decreased by 600,000 tonnes to 8.2 million tonnes
  • Overall waste generation increased  to 16.2 million tonnes, up from and 12.7 million tonnes in 2012.

Ireland’s waste generation continues to increase in line with economic growth, indicating that we have not succeeded in moving from the linear economic model of “take, make, use, and waste”.  A recent OECD study found that Ireland has a circular material use rate of 1.8 per cent, relative to an EU average of 12.8% .  We need to move to circular economy where resources are re-used, repaired or recycled as much as possible, and the generation of waste is minimised.
Sharon Finegan, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Sustainability noted,
“A circular economy is one that is based on less waste and more reuse of materials; these trends show Ireland is going in the wrong direction. Our rising levels of waste are unsustainable and immediate steps must be taken to address these trends. Systemic change is needed across all economic sectors to shift the focus to designing out and reducing waste and promoting reuse and recycling.”
Ireland is continuing to meet many of its current EU targets. However, targets for 2025 and beyond are extremely challenging.  Our increasing levels of waste are undoing our efforts to recycle more, and our rate of recycling has stagnated.  For example:

  • Municipal waste recycling rate was 41 per cent in 2020, however it must reach 55 per cent by 2025.
  • Plastic packaging recycling rate was 29 per cent in 2020, however it must reach 50 per cent in 2025.  

Disposal to landfill has fallen sharply in Ireland over the past decade; a welcome development since this is the least desirable option in the waste management hierarchy.  The municipal waste landfill rate in 2020 was 16 per cent, down from 58 per cent in 2010. The share of municipal waste sent for energy recovery increased from four per cent in 2010, to 42 per cent in 2020. Ireland remains heavily reliant on export for the treatment of a number of key waste streams, pointing to some significant waste infrastructure deficits and missed opportunities to foster a circular economy.  Exported waste for treatment in 2020 included:  

  • 27 per cent of biodegradable waste; 
  • 39 per cent of municipal waste;
  • 55 per cent of hazardous waste; 
  • 50 per cent of packaging waste; and
  • almost all WEEE was exported for the final treatment step.

Commenting on the recycling trends Warren Phelan, Programme Manager of the EPA’s Circular Economy Programme said:“Our rising levels of waste are unsustainable and are threatening Ireland’s achievement of EU recycling targets.  We urgently need mandatory incentivised charging  for the collection of non-household (commercial) municipal  waste.  We need to increase the rollout of brown bins, collect more food waste separately and increase the capture of plastic packaging for recycling at collection and processing stages.”

The EPA compiles official statistics on waste generation and treatment in Ireland. These are used for reporting on Ireland’s performance in meeting its legal obligations, for policy and waste management planning purposes and to inform the general public. Data are compiled through surveys of waste operators and administrative data sources, in cooperation with other public authorities.  This is a complex system with changing reporting methodologies which impact on the delivery of the data.  The EPA recognises the need for timely data and continues to strive to reduce the time between collection of the data and reporting on it.The National Waste Statistics Summary Report for 2020 is available on the EPA website.National waste statistics for individual waste streams are published on the EPA website
Key data:

  • Municipal waste, which consists of waste from household and commercial sources, amounted to 3.2 million tonnes in 2020, up from 3.1 million tonnes in 2019. Per capita municipal waste generation has increased by 11 per cent from 2016 to 2020. 
  • In 2020 Covid restrictions impacted several waste streams including household waste which  increased by 18 per cent, bulky skip waste which increased by 60,000 tonnes, the number of cars scrapped decreased by 21 per cent  and construction waste which decreased by seven per cent. 
  • Hazardous waste generated in Ireland decreased from almost 581,000 tonnes in 2019 to just over 557,000 tonnes in 2020.  This is a decrease of four per cent and the first decrease since 2015. The reduction in hazardous waste generation was driven by the EPA’s approval of reclassification following testing of incinerator bottom ash, which was then changed from hazardous to non-hazardous waste.  This caused a reduction of over 67,000 tonnes.
  • Construction and demolition waste decreased to 8.2 million tonnes from 8.8 million tonnes, correlating with decreased construction activity nationally. With a material recovery rate for Construction & Demolition waste of 78 per cent in 2020, Ireland met the 2020 recovery target of 70 per cent. 
  • 16 per cent of municipal waste was disposed to landfill in 2020.
  • 64 per cent of Irish households had access brown bin in 2020. The quantity of municipal biowaste treated by either composting or anaerobic digestion increased slight by to 302,000 tonnes.
  • Ireland continued to meet all reuse and recycling rate targets for end-of-life vehicles in 2020.
  • Recycling means any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations.
  • Challenging Recycling Targets

Targets for 2025 and beyond will be challenging for Ireland to meet.

  • Municipal waste recycling rate was 41 per cent in 2020, the same level as 2016, however the recycling rate target must reach 55 per cent by 2025.
  • Plastic packaging recycling rates remain worryingly low at 29 per cent (up marginally from 28 per cent in 2019), however this increases to 50 percent in 2025.  
  • The overall packaging recycling rate remained unchanged at 62 per cent, surpassing the current target of 55 per cent, however this increases to 65 per cent in 2025.
  • WEEE collection rate was 60 per cent in 2020, missing the new collection target of 65 per cent.
  • Recovery means any operation the principal result of which is waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil that function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function, in the plant or in the wider economy. Annex II of the Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) sets out a non-exhaustive list of recovery operations, which include material recovery (i.e. recycling), energy recovery (i.e. use a fuel other than in direct incineration, or other means to generate energy) and biological recovery (e.g. composting).
  • Circular economy: A circular economy is one where materials, including packaging, are recirculated and used again and again, and waste is minimised. To facilitate the move to a more circular economy, the European Commission put forward a Circular Economy Package in December 2015, which includes revised legislative proposals on waste, as well as a comprehensive Action Plan. The Irish Government published a new national waste policy, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, in September 2021.
  • Waste Characterisation Study: In 2018 the EPA completed a characterisation study of municipal waste, providing an updated view of what is in our household and commercial recycling and general waste bins. The outputs of this study were used in compiling the 2020 packaging waste statistics presented here. The study outputs can be found on the EPA website

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