Waste disposal has been a relatively basic process: take it to an approved landfill disposal site, drop it off and arrange for the site to be maintained in ways that are, at least, presentable or, at best, create space that could be developed as an amenity area.
No longer: landfill is now subject to limits. For environmental reasons, landfill is being increasingly restricted. Non-selective landfill poses risks and is becoming more expensive. Also, the potential to usefully recycle materials previously regarded as scrap is recognised.
The UK Government and the devolved administration at Stormont must meet targets to increase the amount of waste diverted from landfill. The targets are supported by the deterrent effect of charges for landfill: a landfill tax which is currently £56 p.ton and is increasing annually by a further £8 p.ton.
Northern Ireland has a timetable to reduce the proportion of biodegradable waste going to landfill from a 1995 baseline, by 25% by 2010 (now achieved), by 50% by 2013 (still slightly uncertain) and 65% by 2020. The 2020 target is assessed as tough.
Waste disposal methods are being made 'greener', backed by these fiscal penalties.
From that starting point, official policy is that specialist waste disposal firms should be invited to bid commercially for the business. That process has become protracted and is now proving to be contentious.
To put the options in a simplified form, they are either:
(a) To ask each of the three local government consortia, which were established some years ago, to offer a multi-year contract (setting agreed prices for the service and conditions for types of disposal) to a selected provider to deliver the service for that group of local authorities, or
(b) To allow individual local councils (or groups which choose to come together) to contract with diverse private sector suppliers to meet the needs and targets set for that area, within a co-ordinated framework.
In Northern Ireland, considerable work has been done by each of the three consortia and invitations to tender for long-term contracts have been issued. 'Preferred bidders' are being sought. If these bids are accepted, this will be in a form of PPP contract for about 25 years. In the final stages, each of the consortia must approve the bid as good value for money in terms of the price per ton paid by the local authority to the provider. In addition, the long-term contract would be submitted for approval by Government (DFP).
No explicit statement on the methodology to be used has been made. There is an expectation that a combination of MBT and EfW (microbiological treatment followed by acceptable techniques to get Energy from Waste) would emerge.
This decision-making process, even if there were no further complications by other forms of private sector bids - as in (b) above - means that the successful bidders would be committed to a significant investment in a modern processing plant, each of the councils in a consortium would commit to a multi-year contract, and Government (DFP) approval, through the Waste Infrastructure Prog-ramme Board, would be needed. A group of local private sector providers, which have come together as the NI Association of Independent Recyclers, believe the consortia proposals should be delayed and an updated audit of the technologies should be independently conducted.
The group questions whether the consortia proposals will give good value for money against a more flexible approach allowing the independent operators to bid for more flexible services to meet the EU-agreed targets. It suggests a change would make it easier for new techniques to emerge with a cheaper cost per ton charge on the councils.
The three local government consortia have critical decisions to make. In addition, the Government-led Waste Infrastructure Programme Board will be expected to offer reassurance that valid criteria have determined a justified outcome.