Why are some Dublin City Council (DCC) politicians claiming they know how to clean up the capital’s “dirty old town” image?
Because more than a decade since DCC handed over its bin service to private companies, public representatives say it’s time to take back control. A council subgroup, chaired by Sinn Féin’s Daithí Doolan, is examining how DCC could start running waste collections again as a single operation with its own trucks.
The Government is not keen on this idea, while a new Institute of Public Administration (IPA) report warns there could be major legal difficulties. Doolan, however, argues that Dublin is becoming like “the Wild West of Europe” over waste management and change has to come.
“We now have 11 different companies driving up and down streets collecting people’s rubbish,” the Ballyfermot-Drimnagh councillor said last week. “It’s fragmented, it’s out of control and it’s not doing any service for the consumer.”
Haven’t Dublin bin charges been a sensitive political issue in the past?
Yes. Until the mid-1990s, all collections were done by local authorities and paid for by central government. Then a new waste management law allowed private operators to enter the market.
DCC introduced household bin charges in the early 2000s, a move that sparked a number of street protests. In 2003, Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins and future MEP Clare Daly were jailed for a month after they defied a High Court injunction stopping them from obstructing refuse trucks.
“I cannot abandon my people,” Higgins declared in an emotional speech from the dock. “I have to stand with them.”
How did DCC end up losing control of bin collections?
By falling foul of Ireland’s competition laws. When private companies began offering lower charges, Dublin’s four local authorities amended their waste management plan so only they or contractors appointed by them could collect rubbish.
In 2009, the companies Panda and Greenstar took a legal case against this. The court ruled in their favour, saying DCC’s policy was anti-competitive and a breach of its dominant position.
As a result, councils all over Ireland decided to leave the pitch altogether and private operators took over Dublin bin collections completely in 2012.
But now DCC councillors want to reverse that move?
Yes. They complain that privatising the system has been a bad deal for Dubliners, particularly since companies can tout for individual customers rather than entire areas.
The result, critics say, is increased traffic congestion, household bills and illegal dumping. In 2019, councillors passed a cross-party motion calling for Dublin’s waste collection to be “re-municipalised”.
This has been backed by a trade union campaign, with Siptu, Connect and Forsa uniting under the slogan More Power to You.
How would a new DCC bin service actually work?
This is where it gets messy. DCC’s environment committee commissioned an IPA study of the issue, which has now come up with two basic options. One is that DCC starts collecting bins again “either on the basis of excluding private operators or in competition with them”.
The problem is that apart from re-awakening old legal battles in Ireland, this plan could also fall foul of European law. The EU has a “polluter pays” principle and dictates that waste collection models must be cost-neutral for local authorities.
The IPA’s second option is that DCC puts its bin service out for tender and awards contracts to one or more companies. As the report points out, “this scenario is typical in European cities”.
Either way, the IPA says, one thing is clear – a new DCC-controlled waste collection regime would require legislation to make sure it doesn’t lead to more expensive days out at the Four Courts.
Isn’t the biggest problem with Dublin’s bin service that too many people don’t bother to use it?
Yes. DCC has to spend almost €1m every year cleaning up illegal dumping, which reached a record high of 4,430 tonnes in 2019.
Less than half of the fines issued are being paid, while plans to catch offenders with CCTV have been delayed by complications over GDPR laws.
Illegal dumping is particularly bad in parts of Dublin where residents have no front garden storage for wheelie bins and rely on bag collections instead. Old clothes, furniture and mattresses, meanwhile, tend to be the items most commonly abandoned on green sites.
At one black spot in Darndale’s Belcamp Park, there have been recent reports of rats, asbestos and council officials threatened and intimidated by vandals.
“People are in the depths of depression over illegal dumping,” independent councillor Noeleen Reilly told Dublin Live in January.
“[They] wake up every morning, go outside their door and someone has dumped black bin bags all around the place. A small group is destroying the community.”
But would a change of bin provider really make fly-tippers clean up their act?
That’s the great unknown. Councillors argue that if you have to pay waste charges directly through social housing rent or Local Property Tax, there’s less incentive to dump.
This is strongly disputed by the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA), which represents private companies. As it points out, this island’s biggest rubbish tip is in Derry where a UK council-run service did not prevent one million tonnes piling up on the outskirts of the city.
“Illegal dumping has nothing to do with who collects the waste,” Conor Walsh, Secretary of the IWMA, told Newstalk radio last Tuesday. “It’s to do with anti-social behaviour and criminal activity.”
Finally, how likely is that DCC will become the sheriff of this ‘wild west’ situation again?
As councillors admit, they have their work cut out for them. The Government’s flagship Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy has plenty to say about regulating and enforcing the current bin collection model. It clearly has no interest in going back to the old council-led system.
Even so, councillors insist they will soon begin a vigorous lobbying campaign to persuade their colleagues in Government Buildings.
“I think some people read part of the [IPA] report and thought, ‘Ah sure, that’s the death knell for this attempt to re-municipalise the waste’,” Daithí Doolan told a recent meeting of DCC’s environment committee.
“[But] we knew we’d require legislation. This report actually says… this is how it can be done if we choose to do it.”
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