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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
The Waste Interview: Martin Doherty Waste Manager, Belfast City Council.
by Ruth Graham
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RG: Can you tell me about your job?
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MD: I'm the Waste Manager in charge of promotion, education and marketing for Belfast City Council. I also design, as part of a team, plans for collecting waste from households and the marketplace. I'm basically responsible for getting the psychology of responsible waste disposal into people's heads.
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RG: Do you promote recycling as a form of responsible waste disposal?
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MD: We would go one step before that and say that if you don't create waste in the first place you have no need to recycle it. If you do create waste we would rather that you reused or recycled it instead of throwing it into a Landfill Site.
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Changing public awareness is a gradual process. The public have cottoned on to recycling so we'll stick with that for now because it's better than Landfilling. Over time, we will hopefully get them to realise that if they didn't bring home the cardboard from the Weetabix packet, they wouldn't have to recycle it. There's the mentality that it's the council's waste, but I don't do your shopping for you. At the end of the day you are paying for waste disposal through rates and there's no magic pot of money. We're going to have to be a lot more self-sufficient in the future.
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RG: What was the thinking behind starting with the bins for paper instead of going for all kinds of recycling at once?
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MD: There's a multitude of legislation to comply with and we also have to find markets. I have a huge pile of paper and a huge pile of cans and I have to find someone to take them. We pay £40 a ton for everything that goes into a landfill site. By collecting the paper this way we get paid £28 a ton, which is a net £68 improvement. If we start out with paper, it's easier to add materials in the future. We have designed our Blue Bins with electronic chips so that we know how often everyone is using them. This allows us then to target our resources and make more effective plans for the future.
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RG: What about plans for plastic?
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MD: I could ask what type of plastic are you referring to? Polyurethane? Polyvinylchloride? Polypropylene? There's a multitude of plastics and that makes it difficult to collect and find the right markets.
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The main targets we have to hit are in relation to biodegradable materials. They are rotting uncontrolled in our landfill sites and in most instances they produce methane which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. This is where a lot of current legislation is coming in. We have been taken over by a tidal wave called the NI Landfill Allowance Scheme basically Europe saying 'Oi! Cut your emissions of Greenhouse gasses right now!'
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I'm constantly asked 'Why can't we be more like Sweden?' It's partly because Sweden isn't full of Northern Ireland people. They deal with their waste in ways which would probably be anathema to people here. They rely heavily on incineration from which they get energy. There are reports of dioxins and suchlike but that's poppycock. Before the introduction of oil-fired central heating and gas, people burnt their own waste at home. The fears originate around 'waste to energy' from old technologies, which weren't too good. Things are better now. You get more dioxins from eating a barbequed chicken than if you sat with your pipe over the Malmo Waste Incinerator. I'm not advocating that we go down the incineration route, we should always look to maximise resources more than once, but if we fail to meet the targets it will be an option that needs to be considered.
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We would never have allowed ourselves to get into this state if people were particularly concerned about the environment in the first place. People say, 'I don't want this Blue Bin' and we have no powers to force anyone to do so; in time this may change. Perhaps if we could charge or reward for poor or good behaviour things would be easier.
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In the past, we had 12 Civic Amenity Sites for people to dispose of bulky items. They became antiquated as people became more affluent and began to accumulate more waste there is always a tie between affluence and waste generation. Now we are closing these sites and introducing state-of-the-art Household Recycling Centres. There will be less of them but they will provide a more comprehensive service.
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RG: Not everybody has a car would there be provision for collecting items for recycling?
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MD: We are aware that the biggest factors preventing people from participating are socio-economic and a significant factor is transport. We have taken that on board and we will be reviewing our bulky waste collection service. We intend to change it to a recycling bulky collection.
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RG: What about the bars you see bottles mixed with other waste outside pubs?
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MD: Instead of saying to businesses 'you can help save the planet' it usually works better to say 'you can save yourselves a bucketload of money'. The lazy low technology methods of waste disposal will be suitably taxed.
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RG: When I see statistics on waste they tend to concentrate on waste generated by individuals. It would be good to see the business figures highlighted as well.
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MD: For every ton of packaging that you see on the shelves apparently there's another 11 tons there in the first place. Commerce and industry are governed by packaging regulations which put an economic pincer on them. If it makes economic sense for them to recycle their waste then they will because at the end of the day, if you'renot in business to make money, then you're not in business. The more aware that people become about the environment, the more carefully they will choose the products they buy. I buy Inversoft Toilet Roll because it is the major user of recycled paper. However, I'm in a privileged position and can afford to do this. Somebody who is on the dole may not be in a position to make that choice.
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RG: Does Belfast have a long way to go in terms of attitudes to waste disposal?
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MD: I've visited a number of major European cities recently and certain city centres are no worse and no better than Belfast. We have problems but they tend to reflect the socio-economic situation. The sense of despondency that can manifest itself in poorer areas graffiti, burnt-out cars, litter is changing markedly and full credit to the communities who have made the effort.
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RG: The German Government have responded to public concerns, with an act requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for everything they produce, throughout its life cycle. Can you see this legislation coming into force here?
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MD: We're moving that way and producer responsibility will come eventually. German people have had a longer period of enlightenment than the people of NI but I believe we are getting better. If people want us to change then the next time there's an election they will have to bring this up as a serious issue. But they must start with themselves by Reducing, Re-Using and Recycling each day.
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