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Sending dirty nappies to China is wasting an awful lot of cash

WITH baby Liam's soiled nappy held at arm's length, Mrs Murphy sees that the black bin is full. She lifts the lid of the green bin instead and drops the smelly article inside.

Three weeks later the nappy has made it to China where, plastered to the side of a 23-tonne shipment of recycled Irish paper, it has caught the eye of a port official. He wrinkles his nose, shakes his head and points to sea.

Formerly worth €2,500, the entire shipment has now become a worthless liability, costing the Irish waste company which has paid to ship it here a wasted 20,000-mile round trip and the additional price of its fare home. It happens all the time.

Despite regular bad press, Ireland's waste and recycling operators have had to take a lot of crap of late -- increasingly to China and back.

Contamination in green bins (nappies are the most common offenders) has surged by 500pc in the last three years. Panda estimates current levels at 32pc compared with 6pc in 2009 -- forcing the waste sector to upgrade its systems to cope with the increased weeding.

"We recently got a dead dog from a domestic green bin," says John Dunne of Panda. "We've had two-litre milk containers filled with used cooking oil, the whole works. People are more financially strapped so they're more likely to use the free recycle bin to deliberately dispose of products illegally."

Since 2010 the waste industry has been hit with increased costs such as truck diesel, electricity, landfill rates and government red tape; while fees remain largely static and earning from recycled paper and plastic have fallen. This perfect storm has caused the sector's first big cleanout at the top.

Two of the country's best known waste companies -- Mr Binman and Greenstar, the country's largest operator -- have gone into receivership in the last 12 months and many in the sector believe at least one other key company is set to make it three.

Traditionally, oil and plastic prices hedged one another for an industry that spends on fuel for trucks but earns on recycled plastic. However, this year recycled plastic prices are down 10pc while diesel has risen by 40pc since 2009. Export difficulties are also looming.

Increasing impurities in European recyclables recently caused China, the world's largest paper millers -- and the destination for most of Ireland's paper waste -- to launch a massive clampdown across its ports from summer, sending hundreds of container loads of paper back to Europe. In the last year, the price of recycled paper -- formerly a big earner for Irish recycle companies -- has fallen in value by 50pc. Paper comprises 60pc of the average green bin content and must otherwise go into landfill.

Then there's the soaring cost of landfill, cited as key concerns by both Oxigen and the City Bin Co. These have doubled in a year sparked by EU and government policy via levies. The EPA levy has risen from €35 a tonne to €55 earlier this year, more recently to €65 and is set to go to €75.

Notorious

"Landfill tax has seen increases of 116pc in the last 13 months. While it is good news from an environmental point of view, it has also been a tipping point for the sector, says Niall Killilea of the Citybin Co.

The pace of technology and process improvement is another reason why the notorious and contentious giant incineration plant planned for Poolbeg is now out of date -- even before it has been built.

Most big players have welcomed the Department of Environment's summer U-turn which canned former stated government plans to give local authorities the power to award and control waste contracts individually. Now private companies will continue to compete cheek by jowl for every doorstep in a fragmented but competitive approach to Ireland's waste issues.

Improving technology to streamline processes will also help. Panda is now working on "speed camera" technology to photograph the spilling contents of each and every bin. If you throw a nappy in the green bin, you'll get a snapshot in the post and a bill for its proper disposable. Cheaper by far, then sailing it to China.

Indo Business