Northern Ireland's Waste Management Strategy

23 June 2005

Northern Ireland's Waste Management Strategy

A report published today by John Dowdall CB, the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, examines the development and implementation of Northern Ireland’s Waste Management Strategy. The Department of the Environment (DOE) has responsibility for taking the lead in developing relevant measures and driving forward the Strategy’s implementation, through its Environment and Heritage Service (EHS). Total expenditure on waste management by DOE and Councils is estimated at between £90 million and £120 million annually. Domestic waste disposal costs alone come to £60 million, and this is expected to double by 2020, at current growth rates. Initial estimates for capital expenditure on major new infrastructure are around £270 million over the next 5 years.

Main Findings

Putting the waste legislative framework into place

  • NI has been slow to transpose European Union environmental Directives into domestic legislation, sometimes doing so years after the rest of the UK. The late introduction of legislation has contributed to disparities in control between NI and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) (paragraphs 1.3 and 1.4).
  • The problem of illegal dumping of waste emanating from both sides of the border has generated considerable public concern. No data is available relating to the amount of such waste emanating from within NI but, assuming that it is at least equivalent in volume to estimated waste imports from ROI, the report says that diverting it to legal dumps could have increased landfill tax revenue up to 2004 by at least £5.6 million (paragraph 1.6).

Developing the Waste Management Strategy

  • In 2000, the NI Executive gave a commitment to develop a Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS), but none has been finalised yet. In the absence of an SDS, there are currently no formal, local, indicators against which to measure progress (paragraph 2.3).
  • The 1975 EU Waste Framework Directive requires all member states to prepare waste management plans to ensure the development of an integral network of regional waste facilities, and progress towards sustainability. DOE launched the NI Waste Management Strategy in 2000, in response to the Directive and its 1991 update (paragraphs 2.8 to 2.10).
  • The Strategy targets mirror overall EU requirements and are geared towards compliance with the mandatory Directive targets, but they differ from those set for England insofar as they do not include specific recycling targets for Municipal Waste. Nevertheless, in view of NI’s lower starting point, and delay in implementing the necessary infrastructure, the targets are likely to prove challenging (paragraph 2.16).

Implementing the Waste Management Strategy

  • In Great Britain, in June 2004, the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committed Whitehall Departments to 5 per cent annual increases in the amount of waste they recycle or prepare for use as compost, with an ultimate target of 75 per cent. There are no similar targets or requirements for NI Departments (paragraph 3.6).
  • One of the most significant constraints on achieving sustainable waste management in NI is an inadequate market for reprocessed goods. In 2002, DOE negotiated an all-island contract for the disposal and recycling of domestic waste fridges and freezers. However, the successful bidder withdrew, in July 2003, just before the contract was due to be signed, and a re-tendered contract came into effect in March 2004. The Audit Office estimates that the delay in putting the contract in place cost the public purse at least £0.75 million (paragraphs 3.10 to 3.16).
  • The level of fines for waste offences bears no relation to the potential profits to be acquired by illegal carrying and dumping of waste. Conservative estimates by EHS staff in relation to one licensed site indicated that it had unlawfully received approximately 105,000 tonnes of waste which was likely to have generated in the region of £3.15 million for the operator. DOE referred this case for prosecution (paragraph 3.24 and Figure 9).

Reviewing progress and designing improvements for the future

  • The Waste Management Advisory Board was formed by DOE, in May 2001, as a forum for key stakeholders to advise on, and assist with, the implementation of the Strategy. The Board’s Strategy progress report (June 2004) found that success so far has been limited (paragraphs 4.1 to 4.3).
  • The Audit Office report says it is essential that any future Strategy is based on a reliable assessment of the current waste problem in terms of nature, source, volume and rate of growth of each waste stream (paragraph 4.4).
  • The report also recommends that consideration be given to alternative structures, such as EHS taking on the role of waste management authority for the whole of NI, relieving Councils of the responsibility for making strategic decisions and freeing them to concentrate on driving forward improvements in local service delivery (paragraph 4.8).