NI “stuck in a waste management time warp” arc21, the umbrella waste management group made up of six councils in the east of Northern Ireland, has warned that 18-years of work by the councils and ratepayers could be undone by a potential “waste crisis".
The stark warning was made as arc21 marks the 18th anniversary of its formation, and 21 years since the idea of councils pooling resources to improve waste management services was first considered. In that time, recycling rates have improved five-fold and arc21 has helped manage 5.4m tonnes of rubbish and contracts worth over £400m on behalf of its councils. Ald. David Drysdale, the new Chair of arc21’s Joint Committee, has also raised concerns that should arc21’s proposals to develop modern waste facilities at Hightown Quarry, Mallusk fail, the environment will be damaged, ratepayers will face higher bills and both Government and councils’ reputation for successfully delivering waste services could be undermined. arc21 submitted a planning application to build new facilities over seven years ago, including an Energy from Waste (EfW) plant to manage household waste which can’t be recycled. Despite already being approved by three sets of professional planners, including the independent Planning Appeals Commission, a final Ministerial decision is still outstanding. Ald. David Drysdale said: “Given the global focus on climate change at COP26, it’s clear that we need to start taking decisions that deliver practical benefit. Until people stop producing so much rubbish, one of those areas is to find a better alternative to landfilling or exporting our waste overseas. “arc21’s proposal for new facilities at Mallusk was developed specifically to meet the needs of local councils – they’ll reduce the impact waste has on the environment, provide financial certainty for ratepayers and bring us into line with the rest of Europe where c.500 EfWs have a tried and tested record of success. “If we can’t progress this project, which supports the Executive’s commitment to ‘green growth’, I’m concerned that ratepayers will be exposed to the unpredictability of international waste trade markets and we will have to start looking at extending existing landfill sites or opening new ones.” Based on statistics from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland currently landfills or exports around 400,000 tonnes of waste annually. The Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent advisor on tackling climate change, has already recommended a ban on biodegradable waste sent to landfill by 2025 and a halt to waste exports by 2030. arc21’s Waste Management Plan, which has been approved by its councils and the relevant Stormont Department, has proposed a two-stage alternative involving one of the island’s largest recycling facilities, plus EfW (a power plant which burns non-recyclable rubbish instead of oil or gas). These facilities will increase recycling rates by 5%-10%, generate enough electricity to power 30,000 homes, reduce greenhouse gases by 57,000 tonnes (compared to landfill), support c.300 jobs and generate c.£25m Gross Value Added for the NI economy each year. Tim Walker, arc21’s acting CEO, said: “It’s almost two decades since councils had the foresight to work together to manage household waste and the results have been impressive. Since the first joint contract was awarded by arc21 in 2006, we’ve dealt with 5.4m tonnes of rubbish, managed contracts worth over £400m and worked with our councils to push recycling rates up five-fold to around 50%. “Together we’ve introduced contracts to compost garden and food waste for the first time, and introduced new services for textiles, glass, cans and paper waste streams. Unfortunately, the missing piece in the jigsaw is the provision of new infrastructure for non-recyclable waste. Without these facilities, all the hard work of the past 18-years could be undone as we knowingly drift into a waste crisis caused by a lack of reliable options to manage our ever-replenishing rubbish mountain. “The arc21 region produces 15m wheelie bins’ worth of rubbish every year that can’t be recycled and according to the latest quarterly NI waste statistics, tonnages sent to landfill rose by 22.5%. Although the long-term recycling trend is upwards, the amount of rubbish NI councils collect is also growing, up almost 10% since 2012/13. “Unlike the rest of Europe, we’re stuck in a waste management time-warp, reliant on landfilling our rubbish or exporting it overseas for someone else to deal with. Time is running out on these antiquated practices, but we have no suitable alternatives in place. arc21 has a credible, ‘oven-ready’ solution that will help safeguard council services, but it will take time to commission. To move on from our current precarious position we just need the planning system and Ministers to make an evidence-based decision.”