The recent decision taken by Chinese authorities to restrict the intake of certain waste streams from abroad has had worldwide ramifications. Most important, it has resulted in the closure of the worlds largest recycling market and one to which a major proportion of Irish waste recycling ended up. Ireland is not alone, other countries are impacted also. Whether or not the Chinese reverse their decision in the future is unknown, but what is known is their decision has sent a shot across the bow of how we must all think about waste in the future, including how we manage it along every step of the journey, from purchase to leaving our homes.
The Price Monitoring Group was established in September 2017 by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action & Environment, Mr. Denis Naughten, T.D., to monitor the on-going cost of residential waste collection to homeowners across Ireland as the 'flat-rate structure' was being phased out. It monitors the ongoing cost of household waste collection which companies charge, including the cost of recycling or 'green bin' collection.
19 waste collection companies are mystery shopped each month. Companies charge for waste collection differently, there is no uniform price in place but the Group identifies all of the key price variables, including annual or monthly service charges, waste lift charges, recycling lift charges, organic lift charges, excess per KG waste charges and so on. The mystery shopping exercise verifies prices waste collection companies charge by talking to a representative at the company and also by checking their website; this is a two-step process to ensure accuracy of price information is recorded.
To date, what the Group has discovered is homeowners face a wide mix of price options. Overall, there are 9 different pricing models on offer which range from a relatively simple Annual Service Charge plus Charge Per-Lift-Per Bin to more complex Service Charge (including weight allowance) plus per KG charge for excess weight above allowance. And, although being phased out, some even still quote for flat-rate charges, however, the number of waste collection companies that quote for flat-rate services has fallen from nine to three over the last two months.
The purpose of the group is to gain a broad understanding of whether or not prices are fluctuating and if they are, by how much. The Price Monitoring Group was not established to provide a price comparison service to monitor prices being charged by every collector in the country, accordingly, the outcomes are published on an anonymised basis. For example, a family in rural Galway might find it interesting what a family in Dublin pays for the collection of their household waste but if that Galway family is not serviced by that company, it will have little or no direct impact on what they pay. However, the analysis does help inform the direction, generally that prices are taking and this is something policy-makers can use as they see appropriate.
Many of the 19 companies offer several different collection services. This means that across the companies that are monitored monthly, there are over 40 different service offers. So the job of the Price Monitoring Group is to ensure it tracks any changes in the prices being quoted across all of the 40-plus services that are tracked currently, this is to ensure the Group is comparing like-for-like each month.
Since recording began, the prices that waste collection services have quoted has, in the vast majority of cases, remained stable. However, that said, there have been some minor price increases nonetheless. Those rises impacted the residual or so-called black bin collection services, but not recycling charges to date.
The Group also identified some small number of cases where some waste collection companies were quoting for the collection of recycling or green bin services. In the latest published data, this happened in about 8 of the 40+ different service offers across the companies that are being monitored.
What homeowners may or may not be aware of is that companies manage their costs of collecting recycling has been through a form of subsidy and even cross-subsidy. And with the Chinese decision, there is now a major market disruption at play that is likely to have some impact. For starters, a major source of market subsidy has been removed and very directly, this will impact the overall calculus, especially the cost to waste collection companies and ultimately, those that present waste for collection; householders.
For householders, given that the Chinese decision is likely to be a permanent arrangement, it will mean that we must give greater consideration to the amount of waste we create, including recycling. This is important for a number of reasons; the environment and our household budgets. I have no doubt that the vast majority of people are keen to balance both well. China's jolt to the market should be used as a wake-up call to the long term approach to how we manage waste locally.
In the meantime, for homeowners that are keen to keep their waste and recycling volumes low, there are a number of Government-led initiatives that provide education on how to reduce, reuse and recycle waste generally. Those can be found at:
Recycling Ambassador Programme: http://voiceireland.org/rap/
Frank Conway is Chair of the Price Monitoring Group which monitors the cost of household waste collection.