Northern Ireland councils ship more of our waste around the world, figures show.
ore than a quarter of a million tonnes of rubbish was exported by various municipalities in 2020/21 — an increase of just over 10% compared to the previous year.
While some of our waste ends up in landfills here or for recycling, tens of thousands of tonnes each year are shipped overseas – including as far away as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
This is mainly due to a lack of waste infrastructure here.
This has led to claims that we are transferring our pollution problems to other parts of the world.
Latest figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph show that in the 12 months to April 2021, 260,132 tonnes of rubbish was shipped out of Northern Ireland.
This is an increase on the previous year’s figure of 235,783 tonnes – an increase of 10.3% on the previous year.
Over the past decade, the amount of waste we export has increased by 16%.
The majority of this waste goes elsewhere for either recycling or “energy recovery”, meaning incineration or “gasification”.
The latter is a process that converts waste into a combustible gas called syngas, which can be used directly for electricity production or refined into other products such as hydrogen.
However, in 2020/21 around 7,422 tonnes of our waste went to landfill in the UK.
In terms of waste transported outside of Northern Ireland for recycling, our largest export destination is India. Some 38,110 tonnes were sent there in 2020/21, followed by GB (27,372 tonnes) and Ireland (18,089).
Other destinations are Thailand (1,547 tons), Vietnam (187 tons), Saudi Arabia (148 tons) and Indonesia, where 622 tons were sent.
In terms of waste transported for energy recovery, Northern Ireland’s largest export destination is the Republic of Ireland, where we sent 86,497 tonnes in 2020/21. Next comes Sweden (22,474 tonnes) and Denmark (19,473).
A council-by-council breakdown shows Newry, Morne and Down exported the most waste in 2020/21 (51,631 tonnes), followed by Mid Ulster (45,576 tonnes) and Belfast City Council (37,970 tonnes).
Lisburn and Castlereagh council shipped the least amount of waste outside of Northern Ireland at 7,645 tonnes, followed by Ards and North Down (10,574 tonnes) and Mid and East Antrim (10,939 tonnes).
Alliance MLA John Blair said the figures show a “systemic failure” in waste management structures in Northern Ireland.
“EU rules allow materials to be exported for recycling only if they are handled and processed in the same way as they would be handled in Europe, in fact we are exporting to poorer countries with inadequate infrastructure,” he said.
“In 2020/21, Northern Ireland sent huge amounts of waste to India and Indonesia.
“In most Indian cities, there is no processing of waste and according to the Central Pollution Board, waste is simply burned in landfills or landfills, which is a constant health hazard.
“We have a moral and legal obligation not to transfer our pollution problems to other countries like India and Indonesia and expose communities to heavily polluted, toxic air.
“It’s time we end this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thinking and take responsibility for our waste”.
Blair called for a comprehensive review of the current waste management structures in Northern Ireland and reform of the waste export system.
SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said the increase in exported waste is “disappointing”, given the focus on the need to tackle the climate crisis over the past year.
She said this suggests current policy is “not fit for purpose” and requires immediate review.
“If we are ever to take proper ownership of this issue, the Nordics must start taking responsibility for their own waste, with a greater focus on reusing our waste in a positive way, rather than exporting it to other countries for disposal in a which is harmful to our environment, she says.
“These latest statistics should give our advice considerable thought.
“We need to see a proper commitment at all levels of government to the circular economy to reduce the amount of waste we export and to do everything we can to limit our contribution to the climate crisis.”
After Brexit, the UK remains part of the Basel Convention and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
This means that EU rules on the export of waste still apply.
But Stormont’s Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said: “As a result of EU withdrawal and the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, there may be changes to border controls which may have future impacts on the waste supply chain. However, protection of the environment and human health will remain paramount. “