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Passing legislation to put Dublin City Council back in control of collecting people’s bins is not on the government’s agenda, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications says.
Councillors voted in July 2019 that the council should reclaim control over bin collection, which it once provided, from the private operators that now deliver the service.
Those in favour back then talked about multiple trucks clamouring down the same streets, challenges with illegal dumping, bins not being collected, and work practices, among other problems.
The coalition of parties that came together after the May 2019 local elections to run the current 63-member council – Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats – included taking back control of this service in its list of aspirations for the council’s five-year term.
A subcommittee, led by Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, in September 2021 commissioned a report on the issue from the Institute of Public Administration (IPA), which it released in January 2023.
Among the report’s conclusions: if the council is going to get control of waste-management in the city again – and either 1) pick up the bins itself, or 2) tender for a company or companies to do that – the Oireachtas will have to pass legislation to allow that to happen, legally.
The councillors working on the issue are “fully aware” that either of those two options would require new legislation, Doolan said at a recent meeting of the council’s environment committee.
“So we’re indeed, we’re gonna engage with the unions on this, we’re gonna engage with the public, the Dáil committee and the minister, to see: is there an appetite for introducing legislation? If not why not? If so, when will they do it?” he said.
“And to try to get a commitment to introduce legislation to allow Dublin City Council to recommence the collection of the waste, or at a minimum to tender for the waste collection itself,” he said.
But the government already has another plan for waste-collection services. In its “A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy”, the national waste policy for 2020–2025, it envisions keeping the system of private companies competing in the market, while stepping up regulation and enforcement.
Central government policy is silent on the ideas of the council picking up bins itself again, or tendering for an operator to do that – the two options that Doolan said he’d be pushing for. The spokesperson for the department said, “The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future makes no reference to this issue.”
How We Got Here
Before 2000, Dublin City Council collected bins, but households didn’t pay a separate charge for that. When the council brought in bin charges, there were protests and loads of people refused to pay them.
Meanwhile, government policy allowed private operators to begin collecting waste alongside local authorities, in many cases offering lower charges to attract customers, the IPA report says.
Councils would give waivers so low-income households didn’t have to pay, the report says. As more households moved to private operators, the council was left with a reduced share of paying customers, the report says.
So in 2008, the four Dublin local authorities got together and made an amendment to the waste management plan for the Dublin region, meant “to ensure that waste could only be collected by councils or contractors appointed by them”, the report says.
Panda Waste Services took the four councils to court, which found that what the councils were doing was contrary to the Competition Act 2002.
Now that the councils were charging households, they were “undertakings” operating in a market – and what they were doing was anti-competitive, the IPA report says.
“Following on from this decision, local authorities around the country began the process of exiting domestic waste collection entirely, leaving it to operators in the private sector,” the report says.
Dublin City Council left the household waste collection market in 2012, according to a report by the council on the prospect of re-entering it. Leading up to this it was operating at an annual loss in the region of €10 million.
Today, any company that gets a waste collection permit from the National Waste Collection Permit Office (NWCPO) can come to Dublin and offer their service to households.
The council does not have control over the waste-collection companies, or how they operate in the city.
As part of its brief, the council asked the IPA to compare this system to waste-collection approaches in four other European cities. It says it chose cities of comparable size to Dublin, with “progressive approaches to waste management”, mentioning Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Salzburg.
“Dublin is the only one of the five cities surveyed with a fully privatised system of waste collection,” the report says.
“In all other cities there is a strong element of public involvement, with waste either collected by the municipality directly by publicly owned companies, or with publicly owned companies managing the service but tendering among private operators for kerbside waste collection,” it says.
Discussing the IPA report at the 22 February meeting of the council’s environment committee, Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor, said, “We are definitely seen as, to coin a phrase, the Wild West of waste management service.”
With councillors pushing for the council to get back into that business, they had asked the IPA for possible scenarios – and its report laid out three.
Scenarios 1 and 2
The first scenario the IPA report examined was the council going back to collecting bins, “either on the basis of excluding private operators or in competition with them”.
The council still charges for bin collection, and eliminating those charges would go against the EU’s polluter-pays principle.
With bin charges in place, the courts have already ruled that the council trying to exclude private operators is anti-competitive, and the IPA report suggests it could expect a similar outcome if the issue went back to court.
So, legislation would be required. “However, even with this legislative change it is very likely, if tested, that DCC’s re-entry into domestic waste collection and the exclusion of private operators would be deemed anti-competitive by the Courts,” the report found.
If, instead, Dublin City Council re-entered the market in competition with private operators, it would likely still end up in legal trouble, the report says. The courts are likely to see its dual role as both a regulator and an operator as “a conflict of interest and therefore anti-competitive”, it says.
Furthermore, last time it was in the bin business, it was losing millions a year. If the same thing happened again, and it made up those losses with state resources, it could run into trouble with the EU, according to the IPA report, citing an examination of the issue by the council’s “in-house legal services” in 2019.
“It [the council] concluded that the provision of a household waste collection service through State resources may constitute State aid, thereby requiring approval from the EU Commission which may not be forthcoming on account of the potential effect on trade,” the IPA report says.
And this doesn’t even consider whether the council re-entering the market in competition with private operators would solve the problems that councillors speak about when arguing for the need for “re-municipalisation” of waste collection.
These usually include tackling illegal dumping, and reducing the noise, pollution and carbon emissions of multiple bin trucks serving the same street.
The second scenario the IPA looked at is the council tendering for waste collection services, awarding contracts to one or more operators to collect bins in all or part of the city, a system known as “competition for the market”.
“This scenario is typical in European cities,” the IPA report says.
If the council were awarding contracts to waste-collection companies, “conditions regarding adherence to environmental, social and/or labour standards might also be incorporated into the tendering process”, the report says.
Scenario 2 would also require legislation, the IPA report says, but it does not flag such high risks of (successful) court challenges as it does when discussing option 1.
It was either option 1 or option 2 that Doolan said he’d like to see Dublin City Council push for.
At the environment committee meeting on 22 November, he said his read of the report is that it says making a change is possible.
“I think some people read part of the report and thought, ‘Ah sure, that’s the death knell for this attempt to re-municipalise the waste, it doesn’t say you can do it,’ Doolan said.
“We knew we’d require legislation,” he said. “This report says actually says, we can do it, it can be done, this is how it can be done if we choose to do it.”
The third scenario is “continuing the status quo but encompassing current government policy”.
The programme for government includes “Completing and implementing a major Waste and Circular Economy Action Plan”.
That plan says “Current market structures may have advantages in terms of value for money and flexibility”, but “other systems may offer greater control for regulators in terms of achieving guaranteed performance levels”.
It notes that there are some gaps in the current system as there’s “no statutory body undertaking whole of market monitoring for waste collection performance or charges”, and “no dedicated, statutory customer complaints procedure exists”.
So it proposes expanding the role of the NWCPO to become “a [waste] collection market oversight body”. It would oversee bin charge pricing, service provision, and consumer complaints, the plan says.
In this scenario, the council still would not have control over bin collection in the city.
At the recent environment committee meeting, independent Councillor John Lyons said he’d like to see the council “re-enter and recommence” waste collection. “This is something that we did do, and we should do once again.”
“We want to re-empower local government, I think, is what we are aiming to do,” he said. “It’s shrivelled over the last number of years, because of the neoliberal direction that unfortunately the world, and we, have taken.”
Labour Councillor Joe Costello also spoke in favour of the council taking back bin collection. “My ideal solution would be that we go back to the way we were, even though that wasn’t totally successful either.”
Fine Gael Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí said a council return to waste collection just wasn’t realistic.
“The only possibility for the city council to be involved in this again is in competition for the market”, he said, where new legislation would allow the council to take control of awarding contracts for waste collection and setting their terms.
If the council were to pursue this option, scenario 2, asked Social Democrats Councillor Karl Stanley, “it doesn’t necessarily have to be a single contractor for the whole city, right?”
“The report talks about how in Stockholm, I think, they split it up into 11 different districts? That’s kind of what we’re thinking about here, we might carve the city up into pieces?” he asked.
“Absolutely, the option is up to us if we’re given the authority to do so,” Doolan said.
Green Party Councillor Michael Pidgeon said he thought “the idea of either tendering for the market, or establishing some sort of … publicly owned company might well be the way,” he said, referencing the roles of housing charities and the Land Development Agency in the housing market.
So what happens next? Councillors plan to meet with people in the central government about the prospect of bringing in legislation to make option 1 or option 2 possible, and make a presentation to them. And then the ball will be in their court, said Doolan.