The proposed reform of waste collection is a step in the right direction. Incineration is needed to meet our EU obligations. A few waste companies will lose money, but other companies and households will be better off.
The Department of the Environment is now moving to change the regulation of waste collection from “competition in the market” to “competition for the market”. Competition in the market does little for lower fees as few households shop around for the cheapest waste collector. Economies of density is another other reason to welcome this move. In my street, we have three bins (black, green, brown) and four companies collecting bins. Every fourth Monday, no less than 12 waste trucks drive up our road to the delight of the children and the annoyance of drivers. Three trucks (one company) could do the same work for a fraction of the cost, as they would spend less time driving and more time collecting waste.
That company would have a local monopoly. Monopolies charge more than competitive companies, but there would be cost savings for households too. Monopoly power is easily checked in this case. Waste collection concessions should be tendered, and granted to the company that guarantees the lowest fees for households. Such concessions should be renewed regularly, say every two years, to keep up competitive pressure.
The proposed change in regulation is a change for the good, therefore. It follows the recommendations in a number of reports, including the International Review of Waste Management Policy, commissioned by the previous Minister, and the Gorecki report of the ESRI.
A level-headed change in waste management is welcome in itself. The previous Minister openly campaigned against government waste policy, but did not change it. This was a source of much confusion and agitation. Investment and renewal in the waste sector ground to a halt. It can now start again.
The most urgent problem is that the European Union has put a cap on the amount of waste that can be landfilled. That cap has been in force for over a year now, but the government has yet to formulate a coherent plan on how to meet the target.
Incineration will be part of the solution. The proposed change in the rules for waste collection has been interpreted as a move to favour incineration. That is nonsense. The markets for waste collection and waste disposal are separate. Some people seem to think that waste collection and disposal must be done by the same company, but there is neither a legal nor an economic reason for this.
A number of Irish waste collectors have diversified into waste disposal, focusing on methods that curried political favour before the last election. Returns in waste collection are not great. Waste disposal looked more lucrative with the EU cap on landfill. That changed with the prospect of a large incinerator in Poolbeg. Incineration is, after landfill, the cheapest way to (legally) dispose of waste. Irish waste disposal companies have complained loudly about incineration – because they know they cannot compete. Waste collectors would be fools not to send their waste for incineration.
The Poolbeg incinerator is not without its faults. There would be few environmental or health concerns if it is properly run, but it is not sure that the Environmental Protection Agency has sharp enough teeth to stand up to a large, multinational company. The incinerator is financed through a mechanism that is, as far as I know, unique to Ireland. If the incinerator turns a profit, the spoils go to the shareholders. If it turns a loss, the taxpayer makes good the difference. The Poolbeg incinerator shares this peculiar model of privatizing gains and socializing losses with, among others, toll roads, renewable energy, and of course banks.
This does mean that the incinerator can charge lower fees if it needs to increase its market share. The Minister decided not to impose a levy on incineration. As there are small external costs from incineration, this is an implicit subsidy. The incinerator will therefore be a fierce competitor in the waste disposal market. Irish waste companies are right to be worried.
At the same time, the reform of waste collection is good news for them. Profit margins should be better if local monopolies are sold through a competitive tendering process.
The tender process should be well organized. That would be a task for the county councils. A number of county councils still run their own waste collection business. It is hard to see that tenders of private companies would get a fair hearing. The tendering should therefore be outsourced to an independent body or the public waste collection businesses should be privatized. The Commission for Utilities Regulation should oversee the tendering.
[UPDATE: See new CEPR paper; h/t Constantin Gurdgiev]
But if the new regulations are properly implemented, households and small companies should benefit. The government is working to reduce the costs of waste collection and waste disposal. Many things can still go wrong, but there is movement in the right direction.