Runt of the Litter – Is Ireland’s Waste Management Strategy Working?

As the seventh largest producer of waste in the European Union, Ireland’s current system of privatised waste management appears to be failing as reports of littering and illegal dumping continue to rise.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a greater emphasis placed on the outdoors and with it, a debate as to how Ireland is managing its waste services. With more people spending time in their local parks as well as forests and mountain areas, incidences and issues surrounding littering and illegal dumping have returned to the national debate. With the government’s push for an outdoor summer and domestic holidaying, the longstanding issues surrounding Ireland’s relationship with waste and outdoor services has come in for scrutiny and criticism.

The following investigative report was conducted over the last three months and highlights issues within a number of areas

This includes:

  • How Ireland compares to other EU member states in the areas of waste management and green initiatives
  • How government policy, in particular privatisation, has contributed to incidences of littering and illegal dumping
  • An examination of the issues affecting urban areas with a particular focus on littering and street bins
  • The work done by volunteer groups to mitigate against the impact littering and dumping is having on the environment
  • The views of the general public in relation to how they feel local authorities are failing to provide adequate waste management services

Waste Production

With a population of almost 5 million, Ireland is in the bottom ten among EU states in terms of total population. Despite this, Ireland is among the top seven EU states in terms of domestic waste production. As of 2018, Ireland produces 551 kg of municipal waste per capita which is well above the EU average of 492kg per capita (per person).

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat

While production of municipal waste, household and business, has fallen continuously over the last 10 years, since 2017 there has been a steady increase, along with a marked decrease, in the percentage of waste being recycled, falling from 40% to 38%.

Under the EU Waste Framework Directive established in 2008, EU member states are required to meet specific targets in relation to waste management and recycling. A representative from Repak informed the investigation how in 2019, Ireland produced 302,875 tonnes of plastic of which only 106,006 was recycled representing just 35%. As a result, Ireland is still someway off reaching the targets set out by the initiative including targets for plastics recycling of 50% in 2025, and 55% in 2030.

Source EPA.ie

Waste Management Services

Historically, there was little regulation around waste disposal in Ireland and responsibility was largely given to local authorities with most simply choosing to bury waste in large landfills. As a result, Ireland was one of the worst countries in the EU for waste management and recycling. 

The Waste Management Act 1996 represented the first step as it introduced new regulations along with new powers for local authorities. Regional waste management plans were also started. There was an initial uptake in responsible waste management and recycling and further legislation in the form of The Protection of the Environment Act 2003 which introduced a number of important strategies to further enforce the provisions of the waste code.

Despite this, government policy on the issue has shifted to place more responsibility on the individual for their own waste management. The current private model requires households to individually subscribe to a waste disposal service with no service being offered to those who can’t afford to pay the charges.

Speaking on the issue, Dr Conor McCabe a research fellow at the UCD School of Social Justice, criticised the current private model highlighting how,

“We are only the only EU state persisting with ‘side by side’ competition for waste collection. The introduction of charges led to an increase in illegal dumping along with a deterioration in workers’ rights in waste collection.” – Dr. Conor McCabe

In contrast to Ireland, Denmark, a country with a similar population and high level of waste production, operate a publicly funded waste management model in which local governments are responsible for offering citizens waste removal and recycling services.

While expenditure on waste management has increased considerably under various government mandated schemes, Denmark consistently achieves a recycling rate of 50% of its municipal waste.

In 2019, over 1.4 billion bottles and cans were recycled via a deposit return scheme in Denmark. These schemes are part of a circular economy initiative which aims to reduce waste production while also increasing the use of natural energy sources while at the same time lowering emissions. 

Such is Denmark’s dedication to waste reduction, Danish authorities attempted to ban plastic bottles in the 1990’s but came under pressure from The World Trade Organisation and later as part of the EU Packaging Waste Directive the EU itself as it was felt that “one cannot ban a product based on its means of production” where prioritising sustainability goals would be to ignore other social goals while unnecessarily interfere in the free functioning of the market” 

Litter, Street Bins and Enforcement.

Government restrictions on indoor hospitality, coupled with improving weather has seen incidences of littering increase across the country. The issue is often raised online via social media drawing comments from both locals, and elected representatives with particular attention placed on the lack of bins in public areas.

The number of public bins in Dublin city fell from 5,000 in 2008 to 3,300 in 2015, according to the council’s litter management plans. The authority says there are currently 3,200 public bins in its administrative area. With a population of just under 550,000, only 13 litter wardens are employed by the council.

Litter and illegal dumping have become an eyesore in the city. Photo by Cormac Breen

Data obtained under an Access to Information on the Environment request showed that over the course of two years from 2019 to 2020, nearly 1750 litter fines were issued by Dublin City Council for littering offences with only one third being paid.

The councils draft litter management report for 2020 indicated that over 40% of complaints in relation to waste management were with respect to illegal dumping.

The issue is not only contained within the city centre. A request under the Access to Information on the Environment Act showed that in the Dun Laoghaire – Rathdown area, 2,536 fines were issued for littering in 2019, rising to 2,758 in 2020. Six litter wardens are employed by the council. According to the Litter Management Plan for 2021 to 2023 for the DLR area, the council feel it is “unrealistic” to provide bins in all open spaces as diverting staff to empty them is not possible. The council stated that as open spaces are used by residents, “it is not unrealistic to expect residents to take litter home”

While the council indicates that a diversion of resources to increasing the amount of bins is unrealistic, the budget for street cleaning services, including bin maintenance, has increased since 2019 from € 4,503,200, to €5,052,500 in 2021. The Litter Management Plan states that the yearly cost of bin maintenance is €1,350 with the cost often subsidised by advertising displayed on the bins

“In order to combat illegal dumping, councils have been withdrawing public bins – again tied to the rising cost of domestic litter collection fees and people using public bins as a way around it. But instead of tackling domestic charges (as the city councillors want), the city managers withdraw public bins, and by doing so are adding to the spiral” – Dr Conor McCabe

Environmental Impact

Ireland’s waste management policy is also having an effect on the local environment.

Pure Mile, a community backed initiative encouraging communities and groups living in rural areas to work together in keeping their local area litter and rubbish free, are reporting a visible increase in litter in Wicklow and the surrounding areas.

Illegal dumping has blighted the Irish countryside. Photo by Puremile

Speaking on the issue of illegal dumping, Pure Mile founder Ian Davis outlined how in March 2021 alone, the group collected over 20 tonnes of litter from the Dublin/Wicklow uplands. While reporting on the issue has increased, Mr. Davis doesn’t believe the issue is any worse than it has ever been. More time spent outdoors as a result of government restrictions on indoor socialising has led to more people taking note of the condition of their local country side, which in turn has led to increased media attention.

While Mr. Davis welcomes the attention being brought to the issue, he would like to see more government involvement in assisting local communities who wish to help clean their local areas by giving them better access to resources and facilities.

Littering and dumping has also had an impact on Ireland’s waterways. Dodder Action Group, a volunteer group based in county Dublin, organise weekly litter pick ups to combat littering and dumping along the River Dodder. Plastic bottles, drink cans, take-away containers along with larger domestic items and electronics are routinely removed from the river by the group.

The group are calling for better enforcement of waste dumping laws. Photo by Cormac Breen

There has also been an increase in the number of PPE material such as masks discarded in the river.

Group member and local resident Wladek Gaj states how local councils are very “reactive” when dealing with waste management and invest more in capital projects rather than in employing staff to monitor the areas and enforce litter prevention laws. He also outlines how anti-litter signage and bins are now non-existent in Dodder Valley Park as they have been removed to prevent illegal dumping.

Public Opinion

As part of researching this report, a survey of 50 residents in the Dublin South area indicated that public opinion is critical of waste management in Ireland

While the majority felt their local area was generally clean, 90% had seen a marked increase in litter in the last 12 months. Items such as plastic containers, coffee cups, face masks, and dog dropping bags were all mentioned.

In response to a question with respect to street bins, 96% felt there were not enough public bins which was seen as contributing to the problem of litter in their area. It was felt that rather than carry their rubbish until they found a bin, or take their waste home, people were happy to dump it. Suggestions for improving the situation ranged from better enforcement of rules to schemes such as deposit return schemes on single use plastic and containers. 


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