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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 20:15 GMT 21:15 UK
Recycling attitudes 'must change'
Mike McKimm
BBC NI environment correspondent

With a media fanfare, Belfast City Council launched the first stage of its kerbside paper recycling scheme.

New blue 'wheelie' bins have been distributed to 18,000 households who are being encouraged to put their waste paper into them.

NI is still emptying the vast majority of its waste at landfill sites
They are not allowed cardboard or even envelopes with those little clear windows - just paper.

It is a move towards increasing recycling from the paltry figure of 6% for all of Northern Ireland.

With 26 local councils, some of them tiny, charged with much of our environmental future, it is a bit messy.

To prevent 26 very different and individual waste management plans being drawn up, the Department of Environment has encouraged them to work in three groups, each with its own scheme.

One or two progressive councils are tugging at the proverbial bit and have already launched small pilot schemes.

These have notched up recycling targets as high as 50%.

However, most councils have their eye on a somewhat lower figure of 25% by the end of next year but they almost certainly will not reach it.

Not by a long way.

The problem is that no alternatives have been planned.

There are no waste incinerators in Northern Ireland.

But there are also few ready markets for the recycled materials.

Much of the glass can find a use locally but aluminium, tin, paper and plastics all have to be shipped to Scotland or England for processing.

The problem is the way many councils are tackling the problem.

Waste stream

Behind closed doors some will admit that they have to go for sheer bulk.

This means waste paper with other more valuable materials are being dumped.

Belfast City Council hopes to have completed its waste paper recycling roll-out by 2006 but they don't recycle a single plastic bottle in any of its utility sites.

As a council they are not alone in this. The net result is literally tons of plastics being dumped in landfill.

To try to shake up the way the problems were being approached, some councils sent officials to visit the city of Freiburg in southwest Germany.

There they have managed to remove more than 62% of their rubbish from the waste stream.

But it is a figure councils can only dream about in Northern Ireland.

Shoppers at a market in Freiburg, Germany
German shoppers are happy to reuse their plastic shopping bags

In Freiburg they are not doing anything that is very unusual and much of the technology is tried and tested.

But they are doing it as an integrated operation with all the departments concerned working together.

In a city with a population two thirds the size of Belfast, they are achieving enormous success and they have been at it for more than 20 years.

In their daily shopping, the good burghers of Freiburg are happy to reuse plastic bags again and again.

Customers hand over well-used egg cartons to be filled at the local store, or unscrew the lid of their olive jar, washed and ready to receive the next lot.

In Northern Ireland few would be seen even carrying a second-hand plastic bag. The very idea of reusing egg boxes or olive jars would be considered appalling.

There is a massive cultural attitude to be overcome.

By collecting the waste carefully and segregating it out, often by hand, Freiburg's recycling industry can find a use for most things.

Even complex plastic packages are separated into their different plastic types and then sold off to a suitable customer who will reuse the material.

Kitchen scraps and garden material are taken to biogas plants where it is used to generate methane and electricity in turn.

What is left over is sold on to gardeners for compost.

Brave decision

Much of the secret of successful recycling is finding the markets to sell to.

Huge recycling yards in Freiburg sort scrap wood into four grades.

The top grade is sold to Italy for furniture making.

The rest goes into chipboard manufacture, paper making or is used to generate more electricity.

But every scrap is reused in some way.

Sadly, Northern Ireland can only stand and stare.

A local charity has persuaded several councils to run door-to-door collections, picking up plastic, glass, cans and paper. It has been very successful but already at least one council is opting for just the paper and abandoning the rest.

Freiburg has taken the brave decision to abandon the last of their landfill and incinerate what can't be recycled.

Using a waste-to-energy system, they generate electricity and heat houses from the incinerator's output.

Their management of waste creates thousands of jobs and a turnover of more than 1.6 billion euro.

It is more than 6% of the city's total output.

Northern Ireland's activities cost the province tens of millions of pounds each year with no real prospect of a major improvement this decade.

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