Friday, October 16, was a landmark date. For the Belfast region, this was the closing date for pre-qualification bids to build large capacity plants for mechanical biological treatment of waste MBT and a large energy from waste plant EfW.
Keen competition from potential international suppliers has been demonstrated.
The bids will be narrowed down to between three and six companies (or consortia) who will then be asked to amplify their bids and, ultimately, a preferred bidder will emerge.
The combined projects could mean a commitment of over £250m.
For the Minister for the Environment, Sammy Wilson, this is an important commitment.
The recycling processes for paper related products (in blue bins) and garden compostible waste (in brown bins) have already made progress.
For black bins, the inherited habits are now unacceptable, but not simply because some remote authority is imposing higher standards.
They are unacceptable because, first, rubbish dumps can become chemically dangerous and, second, approved suitable dumps are now harder to find.
A third argument is that the (so-called) rubbish, better described as waste materials, should be used, re-used, or processed in ways that combine respect for sustainability principles and seek economically helpful outcomes.
This calls for the introduction of new techniques and new waste management targets.
Northern Ireland is in danger of being unable to meet the statutory obligations imposed by European Directives.
Indeed, the targets have already been adjusted to allow Northern Ireland to catch up with the higher levels of waste management already operating in major EU countries.
Before this becomes another blame game, with political comments passing the blame to Eurocrats, there should be an acknowledgement that the EU Directives are simply measures of good-housekeeping for the overall safety of the public and were endorsed by the British and Irish Governments, even though they bring obligations along with the threat of fines for non-performance.
The three waste management agencies in Northern Ireland MUST ensure that landfill disposal comes down by about 80% by 2020 and, to do that, must find sustainable methods which minimise the cost or maximise the revenue from the new techniques. Northern Ireland’s district councils are in three groups working in co-operation for three areas: the north west, the south west, and ARC 21 for the 11 councils around Belfast.
ARC 21 has a waste management plan and the MBT and EfW plants are critical to meeting the targets. The plans for the other two regions have not yet been finalised.
The proposed contract to be allocated by ARC 21 should attract a broadly based public welcome. It is designed as a PPP (public private partnership) the logic of which is compelling for councils who would otherwise face borrowing and interest costs.
It is also designed to generate electricity from the waste, possibly equivalent to enough for over 20,000 homes.
The technology of EfW plants is now much in evidence across Europe. Northern Ireland professionals and Ministers have been briefed on, or visited, comparable plants in Sheffield, Paris and Barcelona.
The usual concern about noxious emissions has been efficiently addressed to the satisfaction of their authorities.
The MBT and EfW plants must be in operation for 2012 and 2014, respectively, if Northern Ireland is to avoid infringing the already amended EU obligations.
This puts a tight timetable on deciding the contract and then completing the physical building works.
If Northern Ireland is to catch up with international standards, this infrastructure programme is very important.