Northern Ireland waste industry to see ‘big changes’

Proposed policy changes by the UK Government and devolved administrations will ‘dramatically’ change the waste industry in Northern Ireland over the next few years, says Managing Director of Re-Gen Waste Joseph Doherty.

Northern Ireland assembly chamberThe Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland is still analysing responses, including that of the consultation on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging.

According to Re-Gen Waste, it is expected that a central government-appointed administrator will take responsibility for obtaining fees from businesses affected by the policy. The administrator will then pay local authorities and waste collectors for the costs involved in the collection, transport and recycling of packaging waste from households and small businesses.

A deposit return scheme (DRS) could also be introduced to encourage the public to bring empty beverage containers to collection points in return for a small payment. Councils will be required to collect a more consistent range of recyclables, avoiding the current uncertainty over what can be placed in the household recycling bin.

Joseph Doherty believes that changes will be introduced in 2024 at the earliest but may be later, he says: “There are big changes in the pipeline for 2024 although there has been optimistic talk of a 2023 start date.

“It is hoped that the scheme will see an increase in recycling targets but perhaps more significantly, current estimates are that up to £2.7billion per year will be charged to companies that place packaged goods onto the UK market.

“Businesses will come under pressure to separate higher levels of materials for recycling. The anticipated new regulations will apply a far higher cost for packaging waste that under the current system has cost UK firms on average between £50-150 million per year.

“Those companies that use difficult to collect and recycle packaging, will pay a far higher cost than those whose packaging is easily collected and recycled, thus forcing businesses to place more sustainable packaging on the market.

“The goal is to reduce packaging and increase recycling levels, and it is clear that innovation will be required. Recently, there has been widespread concern over the level of plastic that ends up as litter and polluting oceans. Tensions between the main purpose of packaging and its end-of-life environmental impact will have to be finely judged.

“If more food is wasted through the use of easy-to-recycle packaging, we need to question if there is a risk that reducing packaging will lead to a shorter shelf life for food thus creating more waste food which is worse.”

Doherty claims that the potential costs of the deposit return scheme have led to ‘widespread industry concerns’, especially following the turmoil caused by Covid-19. UK Environment Minister Jo Churchill says it will be for businesses to decide if they will improve and reduce their packaging, notes Re-Gen Waste, the alternative being that ‘they may just pass on the cost to the consumer’.

In light of the changes ushered in by the UK Government’s Resource and Waste Strategy, Re-Gen Waste asserts that the waste industry is having to ‘up its game to meet the challenges ahead’. The company states that controls will ‘tighten’, with ‘extensive investment’ needed in the way that waste is processed once collected, to achieve greater separation and higher quality of output for the recycling industry.

Mr Doherty says, “There is no room for complacency and both householders and businesses will also have to play their part in correctly separating out recyclable waste from non-recyclates.

“We need to consider the unintended consequences of packaging changes and how that will coincide with carbon usage, and how the focus needs to be on a joined-up approach. It is essential to measure the cost of food and carbon usage against the cost of packaging and a full life-cycle analysis together.

“The long-term target is that the UK will develop the recycling infrastructure necessary to be self-sufficient in capacity and maximise the circular economy opportunities. Coupled with that target is the global movement towards an environmentally friendly, intelligent and workable way to handle waste in the future.

“The creation of clean, green innovative jobs in design, research, manufacturing, engineering and technology is a challenge for our entire economy beyond the next five, ten or 15 years.”