Waste from Northern Ireland falls into sea off US coast

By Conor Macauley
BBC NI Agriculture & Environment Correspondent

Published
Image source, Ethan Andrews/The Free Press

A clean-up is under way on the east coast of America after several tonnes of Northern Ireland household waste ended up in the sea there.

It had been part of a much larger shipment sent to fuel a US waste incinerator by County Down-based company Re-Gen.

Two large cubes of shredded waste fell as they were being off-loaded at the docks in a storm.

Re-Gen said it was a "one-off, extremely unfortunate occurrence".

One of the cubes of waste - containing about a tonne of material - could not be recovered.

Large quantities of the waste later washed up in the area.

Image source, Murray Carpenter
Image caption,
Waste is picked up on a beach

Northern Ireland recycles just over half its household waste and sends a further 24% to landfill.

The remaining 22% is used for so-called energy from waste, burned in incinerators to generate power.

Much of that is exported to countries like Sweden, Denmark, Cyprus, Latvia and the Republic of Ireland.

The United States appears to be a relatively new market.

Image source, Ethan Andrews/The Free Press

'Unacceptable and entirely preventable'

The County Down company had sent 8,000 bales of shredded household waste to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company based in Orrington in Maine.

It appeared to be having trouble securing and storing sufficient waste to keep its plant going.

Re-Gen has contracts with councils in the UK and Ireland to collect and dispose of black bin waste.

Any recyclables are removed and the remaining non-recyclable waste is dried and shredded for use as a fuel.

In a statement, the company said it had been distressed to learn that one of the bales had dispersed into the sea.

"This was an unacceptable occurrence and entirely preventable," it said.

An environmental clean-up company was deployed and there have been a number of other sweeps of the coast.

Cubes damaged in transit

The terminal operator, which off-loaded the shipment, said the cubes had become damaged in transit.

It said it only became aware of this when they were placed on the dockside and two fell into the harbour.

It said if there were to be future shipments they would insist on airbags between the columns of waste cubes.

Re-Gen said it was the first time in years of exporting waste that there had been a problem.

"For the last seven years, Re-Gen Waste has shipped 80,000-100,000 tonnes of WTE (waste to energy) materials per annum, into Europe and across the world and this is the first time an inbound port authority has experienced an offloading incident," it said.

It described it as a "one-off, extremely unfortunate occurrence", which it had worked with other companies in the supply chain to mitigate.