Lack of investment in Northern Ireland’s waste infrastructure has left the industry emitting higher volumes of environmentally-damaging greenhouse gases, such as methane.

The latest Northern Ireland Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows that the waste management sector is the second-largest emitter of methane after agriculture, responsible for producing 0.7t of the gas in 2019.

Tim Walker chief executive of CIWM, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, said that as a result of lack of investment in new technology, waste from the region often needed to be transported overseas for processing.

Giving evidence on Climate Change Bill No.1 to the Stormont Agriculture Committee on Thursday (September 16), Walker also called for the introduction of “extended producer responsibility” — a proposed regulatory system where manufacturers would be obligated to pay waste disposal costs upfront for any packaging they produce to help meet net-zero targets.

“Our belief, in the waste management sector, is that there is no way you’ll be able to address climate change unless you start with changing the actual economic models of production; by developing the circular economy,” he said.

“International shipping may also need to be included within [net-zero] targets. And that’s of relevance because, in the absence of infrastructure to deal with waste in Northern Ireland, we’re in a position where we have to ship waste overseas.”

To further compound the issue, Walker said a recent report also showed that the world is “going into reverse” in terms of its recycling rates.

“The recent Circular Economy report, which was produced in 2021, shows on a global scale, the circular economy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39%,” he said.

“The first study produced in 2019 showed a recycling rate globally of 9.1%. When the exercise was rerun in 2021, we had fallen to the 8.6%.”

Extended producer responsibility

While Walker acknowledged public disinterest in waste was part of the problem, rubbish produced at household level appears to only be the tip of the iceberg.

A recently Scottish study showed that for every tonne of waste a household produced, there were 28t created upstream. No comparable figure has been calculated for Northern Ireland; however, CIWM have said it is likely at least 10t is generated pre-consumption.

Extended producer responsibility means those who produce packaging materials will be expected to pay for the waste recovery, either through recycling or through general waste disposal.

“It’s anticipated that this will generate £2-3 million/council/year. It’s due to go live at the back end of 2023,” Walker said.

“That whole production of waste, generates carbon, even before you get to buy the product,” Walker said.

“A lot of what we consider about the circular economy falls into the waste management space, because it seems like the most obvious place to place it, but ultimately, when you start looking at that circular economy piece, it filters all the way back up the supply chain.

“We’re finding 40-60% of the carbon emissions generated in waste management are actually upstream prior to consumption – that needs to be addressed. And then, once it comes to us, we need to consider how we can make best use of it.”

However, its introduction could have significant implications for the agri-food industry, which often uses harder to process materials like plastic to give products a longer shelflife.

“If food was a country, it would be the third-largest in the world, according to greenhouse gas emissions,” Walker said.

“If clothing was a country, it’d be the fourth largest emitter in the world based on greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have these profound embedded carbon footprints in our consumption patterns, which we as the wasters, pick up upon, and have to deal with,” he said.

“We’ve seen a vast lack of investment in the sector and in infrastructure, in critical areas across the UK – there’s a lack of recycling technology, there’s a lack of recovery technology, there’s a lack of advanced manufacturing technology – and that is no truer than in Northern Ireland, where there’s been a historic lack of investment.

“That means, here in Northern Ireland, we are less resilient. We have been left behind in terms of self-sufficiency reliant on overseas markets to deal with these materials; we’re missing an opportunity to valorize our waste to create jobs to create employment; to contribute to the economy in a way that is more robust and more meaningful.”

Achieving net-zero from NI’s waste

The waste processing industry’s central trade body, the Environmental Services Association, has recognised that it can go net-zero, Walker said.

“We’re gonna have to invest money in the commercial space – upwards of £10 billion will be needed, but we can achieve that by 2040 if we really put the foot to the, to the floor,” Walker said.

To achieve net-zero, Walker said landfill sites would need to be “much more tightly managed” with landfill gas also captured and used to generate electricity.

It was also suggested that meeting net-zero in Northern Ireland by 2045 could require ‘landfill mining’ – where old dumps are reopened and rubbish extracted and disposed of more effectively to reduce the gas produced and environmental impact of historical waste disposal.