IRELAND could be hit with fines of up to half-a-million euro every day by the EU unless we stop sending household and biodegradable waste to landfill.
A 2010 deadline looms for the country to reduce the amount of waste it dumps, but we are unlikely to reach ambitious targets unless we make inroads into recycling more rubbish.
An independent report commissioned for waste operator Greenstar says that unless we reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, Ireland could face fines of €180-270m per year for failing to comply with the EU Landfill Directive.
The report -- by consultants Eunomia, who are also carrying out a review of Ireland's waste policy on behalf of the Department of the Environment -- warns that the fines will be "non-trivial" and that urgent action is needed to meet the 2010 deadline.
Under the directive, Ireland is only allowed to landfill 970,000 tonnes of biodegradable waste -- food and garden waste, paper, wood and textiles -- by 2010. By 2013, the figure reduces to 645,000 tonnes, and falls to 450,000 tonnes by 2016.
But of the 1.77m tonnes of waste produced in 2006 -- the last year for which figures are available -- less than 400,000 tonnes were recycled. The amount of waste sent to landfill was 1.4 million tonnes -- almost half-a-million tonnes above the 2010 limit. If the targets are not met, Ireland faces potential fines of up to €500,000 a day.
"The largest sub-stream that remains relatively poorly targeted is organic wastes," the report says. "It is quite clear that targeted collection of organic wastes would have a role to play in meeting landfill directive targets, given the estimated magnitude of the stream and the low capture rate at present.
"There has been a strategic blind spot where the landfill directive has been concerned," the report adds, saying it is "somewhat surprising" that not until 2004 does government policy take into account the EU rule.
The Environmental Protection Agency has previously warned that the target will be missed unless efforts are ramped up, while the comptroller and auditor general noted in his 2005 annual report that there was a "significant risk" that Ireland would not meet the targets.
Environment Minister John Gormley has said he will increase landfill levies and introduce a levy on incineration to encourage recycling.
Private operators Greenstar said yesterday that almost 400,000 tonnes of waste could be diverted from landfill using MBT, or mechanical and biological treatment.
The process uses processing lines to remove waste that can be recycled, and produces methane from the biodegradable elements which can be used to provide power to heat homes and produce electricity.
Mr Gormley has previously said he favours using this form of disposal, but there is no large-scale plants operating here.
"We're looking at incentives to do it, but you can't build a business on the back of subsidies," said spokesman Jerry Dempsey.
Employers group IBEC said that if Ireland was seen to be making progress on meeting the directive, it might get reduced fines.
"When we had the Celtic Tiger, we generated vast quantities of waste," IBEC's Donal Buckley said. "There's undoubtedly a fiscal penalty that could arise for Ireland, but if we show form, we might get reduced fines."