ARMAGH City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough councillors are divided on the issue of reopening recycling centres.
The decision to reopen these facilities was given to local councils by Department for Agricultural, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister, Edwin Poots MLA.
The Minister has sent local councils a set of principles to allow them to decide if it is safe to reopen recycling centres.
Speaking about the decision, the Minister Poots said: “I recognise the vital importance that the waste sector plays in safeguarding public health, protecting the environment and servicing the economy.
“Waste and recycling centres services are critical public services and should be maintained as far as possible in order to protect the health of the Northern Ireland public.
“With this in mind, I have now written to the councils, NILGA and Arc21, with a set of principles that they can apply when considering if it is safe to reopen their household recycling facilities.”
When asked about the issue, a spokesperson for the council said: “In respect of the Minister’s advice, issued on Monday (27 April) evening, we are currently reviewing the implications.”
However, the decision is proving to be a controversial topic amongst ABC councillors.
Explaining the party’s stance on the issue, DUP group leader Mark Baxter said recycling centres are an essential service.
“As a party we have been calling for amenity centres to be opened,” said Councillor Baxter.
“We disagreed with their closure in the first place as we view it as an essential service. With a real spike in fly-tipping and indeed people burning their waste, we feel there is real need practically and environmentally for some sort of relaxation of the restrictions.
“It was only the DUP and the SDLP that recognised the serious problem within the community and advocated for a return of this essential service.
“While the safety of staff and residents is paramount, it is our belief that this can be done safely and the government advice, in terms of social distancing can be easily adhered to.”
The SDLP’s Thomas O’Hanlon also said his party were in favour of opening recycling centres.
“We are fully supportive of efforts to have our recycling centre opened as soon as possible,” said Councillor O’Hanlon.
“During the weekly Party Leaders' Forum Meetings we have consistently raised this issue and led the calls for their reopening.
“We are of the firm belief that they can and should be opened on public health grounds. We don’t believe the gathering of additional black bags or green waste at peoples’ home is in any way helpful and this has been our rationale in seeking to have the centres opened."
He continued: “We know it is not just as simple as opening the gates and has to be done in partnership with our contractors who must be available to take away any waste collected at the site.
“Council management have been tasked with engaging all the relevant stakeholders, including the Department, to chart a path for the managed and phased reopening. We hope this is as soon as possible.”
However, Sinn Fein Councillor Paul Duffy says now is not the time to reopen amenity sites.
“On Tuesday (28 April) 20 people sadly lost their lives to Covid-19. To date on the island of Ireland 1,488 people have lost their lives and their families are grieving,” said the Portadown representative.
“Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons.
“It is clear from the figures over the last few days that we are in the peak of this crisis. We have not eliminated the virus, it is not beaten. Now is therefore not the time to discuss relaxing measures.
“Any talk of doing so is irresponsible and a distraction. Our main focus must be on stopping the spread of this virus to protect our NHS and save lives. Any shift in focus will result in the otherwise preventable loss of life.”
The Alliance Party’s Eoin Tennyson said it is difficult to argue that a trip to the recycling centre is essential.
“The core public health message remains to stay at home where possible. Given that context, and the fact that regular bin collections are being maintained, it is difficult to argue that travelling to a recycling centre is essential,” said Councillor Tennyson.
“With a rising death toll, now is simply not the right time to relax measures and encourage additional journeys. The last thing we want to do is inadvertently encourage complacency or send a message that we’re out of the woods.
“I understand this is an inconvenience but our priority remains our staff and the general public.”
The Ulster Unionist Party Councillor Julie Flaherty has said the new guidance needs to be carefully considered.
“This council decision was always under continual review and now that we have this additional guidance from Stormont, we will of course have to take all of this into consideration,” said Councillor Julie Flaherty.
“Our council officers have already been very proactive on this issue and they continue to work with the unions, council staff and the end processing companies on a strategy that will allow us to open these centres in a safe and effective way for both our staff and our constituents.
“As a group we would like to put on record our praise and thanks for the fantastic job that has been done by waste workers in keeping the vast majority of waste and recycling collections going throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.”