Warning That Northern Ireland Drifting Towards A “Waste Crisis”

arc21 is warning that if Northern Ireland does not build new waste infrastructure it could precipitate a “waste crisis” with lost opportunities for the Circular Economy and negative consequences for public health, the environment and ratepayers.

According to its 2020-2024 Corporate Plan, arc21, which is made up of six local councils, believes that “existing arrangements will become not only unsustainable, but also increasingly expensive and will not meet the needs of a modern, 21st century economy”. The coronavirus pandemic has also reinforced the need for “urgent action” to ensure that the sector has the resilience to meet future shocks.

A key priority for arc21 is to reduce Northern Ireland’s over-reliance on landfilling or exporting almost 400,000 tonnes of household waste annually. With local landfill sites nearing capacity and concerns growing over the rising financial and environmental costs of exporting waste, arc21 is seeking to develop modern waste facilities instead. These would increase recycling rates and generate 18MW of electricity to support the Executive’s ‘green growth’ and clean energy strategies.

Artist’s impression of proposed new waste facilities at Hightown Quarry, Mallusk

The group submitted a planning application for new waste facilities at Hightown Quarry, Mallusk, outside Belfast in 2014. These include proposals for one of the largest recycling facilities on the island as part of an integrated suite of facilities unprecedented in Northern Ireland, including the first Energy from Waste plant able to process a wide range of processed and unprocessed waste. The facilities are aligned to the Circular Economy and the policy of displacing recyclable plastics from all waste streams.

The Chairman of arc21’s Joint Committee, Alderman Robert Gibson, said: “Key workers in the waste sector have kept essential services going under the most difficult of circumstances and they deserve our gratitude. The pandemic has reminded us that the primary reason for efficient waste collection and disposal is to protect public health, but it has also highlighted a lack of resilience in Northern Ireland’s waste infrastructure. We just don’t have enough facilities locally to manage our waste, including clinical waste, without relying on exporting the problem or by using our quickly diminishing landfill capacity.

“We need major transformative change and a revolution in attitudes if we are to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 and develop our circular economy. Other regions in Europe have already demonstrated how sustainability can be delivered. With the right policies and commitment, Northern Ireland can close the gap with these regions and join them as an exemplar of what can be achieved.

“This will only be possible with new infrastructure that supports key workers, reuses and recovers as many resources as possible, and helps hinder the criminality that has shamefully made us home to Europe’s largest illegal dump.”

Over the next four years arc21 wants to ensure that waste infrastructure has the resilience needed to safeguard public health and reduce financial risks to ratepayers. Waste services currently account for 15-20%[1] of total council expenditure. Developing modern infrastructure will also help improve recycling rates and provide materials for the circular economy.

arc21’s acting Chief Executive, Tim Walker, said: “Northern Ireland is drifting towards a waste crisis because we do not have enough local facilities to treat non-recyclable household waste, let alone our commercial and industrial waste. At present we rely on landfill and waste exports to solve the problem, but both options may be unavailable within the decade. Northern Ireland has already committed to a 10% cap on the amount of waste we send to landfill and several export markets have already closed or imposed punitive taxes on waste.

“The arc21 region produces the equivalent of 15million black bins’ worth of household waste every year. That’s 15million reasons to say yes to new facilities at Hightown that will give us breathing space to transition to a fully functioning Circular Economy whilst removing the potential risk of a systemic failure in household waste services.

“Located in a quarry near one of Northern Ireland’s largest logistics and industrial hubs at Mallusk, the site also offers excellent opportunities to utilise the energy generated to support new green businesses.

“Waste is the ‘Cinderella’ of Northern Ireland’s infrastructure, but it is critical that we invest in new facilities. There is chronic under-capacity in the sector to properly treat waste locally and failure to address this gap will precipitate a crisis with financial and environmental consequences.”