Unless councils here sharpen up their act on recycling, there could be hefty fines on the way from Europe – and taxpayers will have to foot the bill. So what’s to be done? Our Environment Correspondent Linda McKee reportsEU targets for landfill reduction are unlikely to be met
Northern Ireland is unlikely to meet EU recycling targets set for 2010 — raising the risk that we could be hit with daily infraction fines from Europe.
That’s the warning from Friends of the Earth, which says that ratepayers could end up footing the bill for neighbours who can’t be bothered.
“The EU targets are for the diversion from landfill of biodegradable waste of 25% of the 1995 levels by 2010, 50% by 2014 and 65% by 2020. Northern Ireland is unlikely to meet the first target,” FoE waste campaigner Declan Allison warned.
“If we miss that target fines would come from Europe to the UK and will be passed down to the relevant authorities, to local authorities which are the competent authority for waste collection.
“There are hefty fines coming and they will be passed on to the ratepayers who ultimately will have to pay for it.
“You might be recycling everything you can, but if your neighbours are not you are actively paying for the sins of your neighbours.
“The councils could look at targeting particular individuals but that would be an administrative nightmare, so I don’t know what they will do.”
The most recent figures for recycling across Northern Ireland’s council areas (2007/8) reveal that Antrim Borough Council and Banbridge District Council are head of the class, recycling 48.73% and 45.70% of household waste respectively.
Trailing in at the end of the scale are Belfast City Council with 23.24% and Strabane District Council at 23%.
Both the latter councils are taking strong action to try and push their rates up. Belfast City Council was the first local authority in Northern Ireland to impose fines on households for putting out excess waste, while Strabane District Council has adopted a policy of inspecting householders’ black bins after a survey revealed that nearly 30% of residents are not using their blue bin properly.
The latter’s council chairman Jarlath McNulty said an ongoing education and awareness-raising campaign about how to recycle had been put in place after the blue bins were introduced five years ago, but some householders just couldn’t be bothered, placing more of a cost burden on their neighbours.
He warned that if blue bin waste was consistently found in black bins these wouldn’t be lifted until the householder started to segregate their waste properly.
Meanwhile, Belfast City Council warned that if black bags are left out in areas that have three bins — a black bin, a blue recycling bin and a brown bin for garden waste — they won’t be lifted and the householders could face fines.
Recent changes in the way councils organise bin collections have sparked frustration.
Householders complain of confusion over what items can be placed in the blue bin and what items can’t, while the fortnightly black bin collection has sparked fears of overflowing bins, smells and pest infestations.
People with larger families are critical of the policy, saying their black bins are already full after one week and aren’t capable of holding two weeks’ worth of rubbish.
One householder in west Belfast angered by the prospect of fines for black bags described it as a crazy and short-sighted policy.
“I have a family of seven and to be faced with a fine for leaving out a bag of rubbish is way over the top and will inevitably lead to widespread fly-tipping,” he said.
Even TV presenter Eamonn Holmes has joined the fray.
“Local government bean counters expect neighbourhoods to live with rotting chicken carcasses and mountains of stinking nappies for two weeks,” he commented. “Seeing a binman once a week is a minimum requirement of a modern society.”
Meanwhile, Alliance chief whip Kieran McCarthy MLA said households in the Ards area already have three bins and the council is planning to provide another small container for food waste.
“The main problem for some is that three bins take up quite a considerable amount of space and this can be difficult for flat owners and people who live in terrace housing,” he said.
“Some people have found it difficult at the start to adapt to the changes, but people have changed their habits and there appear to be few problems in my area on bin collections.
“People generally realise that recycling is the right thing to do and most have no problem doing so.”
And charitable organisation Bryson Recycling says fortnightly collections can push up recycling levels by 20% or more due to space restrictions.
Urban areas tend to have lower recycling rates generally, Bryson Recycling director Eric Randall said.
“Where you have social deprivation or a transitory population, such as in inner cities, it tends to be more challenging,” he said.
“One, because they are less inclined to recycle as they have other priorities in life, and also in their purchasing there is likely to be fewer recyclable materials,” Mr Randall added.
And the answer to the worst of the bin problems could be the next step in recycling — the food waste collections which are due to be rolled out across a number of council areas.
Some will be collected in new food boxes while others will make use of the brown bins already in place, but if used properly the system should cut down on the levels of black bin waste and smell.