Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
General Scheme of the Circular Economy Bill 2021: Discussion (Resumed)
I have received apologies from Deputies Christopher O'Sullivan and Bríd Smith. I welcome Ms Mindy O'Brien from Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment, VOICE Ireland, and Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer of the European Environmental Bureau, EEB, to the meeting and thank them both for coming before us. The purpose of this meeting is to continue with our pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the circular economy Bill.
I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses who are attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members, prior to making their contributions, to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.
I invite Ms O'Brien to make her opening statement.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to today's meeting. I am the chief executive of the environmental charity VOICE Ireland, one of the leading national environmental charities advocating for waste prevention through reuse, repair, repurpose and reimagining. We have many campaigns, including Conscious Cup, We Choose Reuse, Sick of Plastic, Return For Change and Picker Pals. We are also active in the development of policy at both national and EU level.
I would like to give the committee our impression of the heads of the circular economy Bill. While there are many good provisions, we would like more ambition to embrace new business models and ways of consumption, moving away from our current disposable economy. We can no longer rely on industry to do the right thing. Over the past three years we have seen our packaging waste exceed 1 million tonnes. This is increasing each year and is expected to be even higher due to Covid. We cannot recycle our way out of this mountain of waste and this Bill can provide the direction we need to change how we consume. As many members said at the latest committee session, producers must take responsibility for designing out waste in products and packaging. They must also invest in new service models. We cannot be content with supermarkets offering new compostable shopping bags or bags made from recycled plastic. This is just nibbling around the edges.
Some in industry tell us that they are only responding to what their customers want. Customers want convenience, which means more prepared meals and more packaging but which came first? Was it providing packaging for perfect produce or the supermarkets making us want that? Supermarkets have conditioned us to choose pre-packaged items in a predetermined amount. Shoppers often do not have the ability to select the quantity they need and are forced to buy bags of carrots that they may never use. If they are able to buy loose fruit or vegetables, it is normally much more expensive per kilo to have the privilege of buying only what they want. I was in Supervalu the other day and a bag of carrots was 50 cent per kilo while loose carrots were €1.50 per kilo. Are we not sick of seeing all our food wrapped in plastic?
Businesses will not change unless our politicians are brave enough to demand new systems.
I worked on Capitol Hill for several years in the 1990s and I cannot tell the committee how many times businesses told me the legislation we were proposing would put them out of business. Needless to say, they found a way to change their systems for the better and comply with the law. We need to build back better. Extracting resources and making and disposing of stuff takes up nearly 50% of our carbon budget and contributes to over 90% of our biodiversity loss.
My mantra, which I say all the time, is "buy the product, not the packaging". Consumers should have the choice when shopping to bring their own container or bag, rent or borrow one or pay for a disposable one. The last option will be achieved through the proposed levies. However, we need retail to change its infrastructure to offer reuse and refill opportunities and make it mainstream. This is being done in zero waste shops around the country, but as Senator Pauline O'Reilly mentioned last time, we should not have to go to many shops to reduce our waste. By making refill and reuse mainstream, we make it much easier for the consumer to shop more sustainably. France has mandated that all supermarkets larger than 400 sq. m must allocate 20% of floor space to reuse and refillables. Items that can be refilled include cleaning products, dry goods, oils, vinegars, nuts, spices, etc.
Catering also must do its part. The waste action plan calls for a ban on the unnecessary use of disposables in eat-in restaurants as well in closed-loop large-scale events, such as concerts and sports events. This mandate should be in the Bill or included in subsequent regulation. As of 2024, Portugal will require the use of reusables for in-house consumption in restaurants. I have witnessed first-hand a food hall containing about 25 restaurants in Lisbon where all the plates, cups, glasses and cutlery were reusable and collected to be washed and used again.
We need to tackle takeaways and meal deliveries. Other countries have piloted reusable containers where the container has a deposit that is returned once the container is returned. The container is then washed and redistributed to the business to be used again. Standardised containers, pooling arrangements, reverse logistics and industrial washing facility infrastructure can be developed throughout the country. However, to achieve economies of scale and create a level playing field, all takeaways and delivery services must comply so we do not have any freeloaders. Developing such a system creates local jobs through delivery, washing and logistics instead of buying cheap packaging from abroad.
We agree with Deputy Bruton that sectoral roadmaps for packaging, textiles, food waste, electronic waste and other streams must be developed with strong reuse, repair and waste prevention targets. Additionally, there are further demands from the environmental community. First, make it mandatory for the Minister to set reuse and repair targets, set bans and impose levies instead of saying he or she "may" do so. Second, impose a tax on virgin plastic to boost viability and take-up of recycled plastic resins, as is done in Italy, Spain and the UK. On the other side of the coin, we call for zero VAT for repaired or reused items as VAT has already been paid when they were first sold. Third is truth in labelling. The statute must declare that containers that claim to be compostable or biodegradable must use one label, "compostable", that meets the EN 13432 standard, which means that the product breaks down to its original constituents within 12 weeks in an industrial composting facility. Right now there is a plethora of labels, which is confusing for the consumer.
Fourth, ban the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, which are forever chemicals, in food contact materials, including food packaging. In a report done by CHEM Trust in the UK, many plant fibre compostable food packagings contain PFAS to create a waterproof and greaseproof barrier. PFAS is the stuff used in Teflon. VOICE has just conducted a test of 11 brands of compostable or paper-based packaging commonly used in Ireland and all of them exceeded the limits for allowable PFAS amounts. The bowl I am holding, which I had a colleague of mine find in the Dáil canteen, was one of the highest rated for PFAS, at 12 times the allowable amount. The sad thing is that this bowl advertised that it is fully compostable and meets the EN 13432 standard. Not only is it touching the food we eat, but it goes to composting facilities, where it breaks down and remains in compost that is used on farmers’ fields. I would like our PFAS report to be admitted to the record. Denmark, last year, and California, just recently, have both banned PFAS in food contact material and we call for a similar ban in Ireland. It is interesting that in Denmark MacDonald's and other companies have been able to switch to non-PFAS materials.
Fifth, demand that supermarkets larger than 400 sq. m devote 20% of their shopping areas towards primary refill and reuse packaging. Sixth, demand that in-house consumption of food and drink as well as large closed-loop events provide reuseable cutlery, cups and delft. Seven, require takeaways and food delivery services to offer reuse options and, where it is not offered, the consumer can bring their own container or purchase a disposable one. Eighth, provide liability relief for repaired and reused items to encourage the repair and sharing economy. Some initiatives such as the repair café and ClonBike, a bike sharing scheme, have had to discontinue due to the inability to secure insurance. At least allow individuals to bring their own containers and if they do, create a personal acceptance of liability should they get sick from a reusable container they did not wash. Ninth, we call for the more frequent review of the food waste prevention roadmap to see if interventions are effective and for interim annual targets to ensure that we meet the 50% reduction target.
Tenth, we call on Government entities to ban the purchase and use of any disposable single-use cup, plate or cutlery. Reusable options must be provided. Thus the Government will lead by example and create the momentum for reuse infrastructure to be established. In the Dáil, Members have many disposable items. Some are compostable or recyclable. I do not know if they are being put in the right bin. Get rid of those, lead by example and use reuse options. These are some of our suggestions and I look forward to working with members as this Bill progresses. I am open to any questions members might have.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
Good evening, Chairman, Deputies and Senators, others making statements and the public audience. I thank the committee for this opportunity to participate in the development of the circular economy Bill.
I work as policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, EEB. The EEB is the EU’s largest federation of environmental NGOs. We support our 170-plus members in advocating for environmental protection and justice. We have eight members in Ireland, including Friends of the Irish Environment, Zero Waste Alliance Ireland, the Irish Environmental Network and VOICE, which is represented by Ms O'Brien who just made her excellent statement. I have familiarised myself with the committee's work in this area and consulted our members.
The Bill is welcome and I hope it is adopted. I will focus my statement on interesting practice from across the EU and developments in Brussels. Targets were raised in the last meeting. Knowing the extraction of natural resources causes more than 90% of biodiversity loss and at least 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, the most important thing the circular economy can achieve is to reduce our consumption of natural resources. Ireland does not report on material footprint in its national statistics and does not have detailed material flow accounts. Without this capacity it will be difficult to measure the circular economy in a holistic way. The European Commission will this autumn add material footprint to its monitoring framework, making reporting on this indicator mandatory. The Netherlands, who several Deputies already regarded as a leader for circular economy, have set a target to reduce their material footprint by 50% by 2030. Even if Ireland may not be ready for a target, why not establish the necessary statistical capacity and commit to political debate on consumption targets in the future?
As noted in Deputy Bruton’s very good report, Ireland has one of the highest levels of municipal waste in Europe. At above 600 kg per capita, it is almost a quarter above the European average. In Brussels, revised packaging legislation is expected to be proposed next spring. Policy options being discussed include reuse targets for products like drinks and takeaway food. Alongside a headline target on reducing consumption, I encourage members to consider targets on waste prevention and reuse, notably for food, packaging and municipal waste. We already have some of these in other EU countries.
Targets will not achieve themselves. The Bill seems very focused on waste and more could be said about the enabling factors of the circular economy.
As I said in the previous meeting, I would not rely too much on EU Single Market measures. I will give an example. While the recent eco-design provisions adopted for white goods may help to make washing machines technically repairable, they do not address the cost of repair or the need for making the repair market competitive, including for independent operators and repair cafes. The circular economy will require local labour to reuse, repair and refurbish. Sadly, hours of Irish labour are more expensive than the latest gadgets on Amazon. Ireland will need all the tools at its disposal to nudge the economy away from its linear model. On fiscal incentives, the EU has no competency, but you can introduce differential VAT rates, or a tax shift from labour to resource this practice. Belgium and Finland have included subsidies in their government programmes. A number of states, such as Germany and Austria, have also introduced repair bonuses, where up to 50% of the cost of repair is reimbursed to citizens, with a cap of €100. Italy and France have also been increasingly targeting multinationals that blatantly build obsolescence into their business models. Italian competition authorities fined a major printer manufacturer €10 million for blocking cartridge reuse, and France has made obsolescence and the destruction of unsold goods illegal.
Extended producer responsibility, EPR, can also be a more effective tool in financing the circular economy. Although I welcome that Ireland will introduce a modulation of EPR fees to support recycling, EPR should also enable reuse and repair. The French solidarity reuse fund earmarks 5% of EPR revenues for reuse and social economy actors. Ireland its own social economy initiatives, including good ones like Rediscover Fashion in Dublin. Such small-scale projects will always need support, as they cannot compete with fast fashion and goods bought online. One of our members has also raised concerns about the amount of recyclable waste covered by the EPR which is still being diverted to cement kilns and incinerators. I am also curious about how Ireland’s awaited deposit return scheme, DRS, will fit into the Bill. When is this system expected to be implemented? Will it also enable reuse?
I will conclude by making some challenging points to reflect on. The first is about mining. Part 5 of the Bill, which relates to natural resources, is welcome. As well as preventing the extraction of coal and shale, how can the Bill ensure the recovery of other resources is prioritised over virgin extraction? For example, the EPA estimates that there are 75 million tonnes of untapped secondary mineral resources in Ireland. Lastly, with a view to COP26, how can embedded initiative products better be accounted for in climate policy, such as throughput printing of products, or providing credits for waste prevention? I thank the committee for its time and I am happy to answer any questions members may have.
I will now invite members to indicate to ask questions. The meeting is confined to a maximum of three hours. I propose that each member, at least in the first round of questions, be given two minutes to address their questions to the witnesses. This is in order to ensure all members will get an opportunity to pose their questions. We can have a second round if there is time and indeed a third round if there is time and if it is necessary. Is that agreed? Agreed.
First, I thank both our speakers for their contributions. The first question is to Ms O'Brien. I would like to get an understanding of how prescriptive legislation should seek to be in some of these areas. Should we consider giving the Minister enabling powers so that in the future as opportunities evolve, measures can be introduced with regard to virgin plastic, requirements regarding supermarket space, or packaging alternatives etc.? How far can we go in initiating legislation now? I wonder if there are models of legislation around the labeling issue. When one raises labeling, one is generally told that Ireland cannot have its own labeling regime. I wonder if we were to try to designate what defines "compostable", in the way that Ms O'Brien is suggesting, would we run into difficulties with European law? Would we be better off setting non-legislative ambition in these areas as a way of prodding sectoral change?
My second question is to Mr. Schweitzer. I would be interested to hear how France outlawed obsolescence. It strikes me as a difficult concept to catch and to create a legal structure around. I would be interested to know how that was done. He also raised the concept of a rebate funded by the sector for repair. Again, how was that done? Is that within existing producer responsibility schemes? Was that done in some other fashion? My questions are on the “how to” of some of Mr. Schweitzer's points and whether they have evolved through law and regulation leading in this way. Does one set out detailed law, or does one do these sorts of things through negotiation with the sector and by leading an evolution in that way?
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I thank the Deputy. I would love to see all sorts of targets in there, but I do not know if that would be feasible here. I know from my experience in the US Congress that one should never legislate for the current government; instead, one should future-proof legislation. I would like to see language such as the Minister “shall” put in place targets and levies, rather than a “may”. That needs to be researched a little bit more. We would love to see high targets for reuse. If we do not set high targets for reuse, it will not happen. I also do not want to see a reuse target of 2% or waste prevention target of 2%. If one does not put a target on specific sectors or businesses, it is not going to be done.
In the last six years, the waste management plans had a waste reduction target of 2% but we increased waste over that timeframe. If one does not mandate certain entities to do it, they will not do it. I will leave it up to the legislators to decide whether the best approach is by statutory instrument or in primary legislation. I am not sure, but I have read through the Waste Management Act. I have seen many powers that the Minister “can” do but has not done. When I was working in the US Congress, they were reviewing something from the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. It gave the US EPA a lot of discretion to do things. However, what happened was that the US EPA did none of it. Therefore, in the legislation, they changed all the instances of “may” to “shall”. I would like it to be mandatory that these things will be done.
On the compostablity standard, there is no real definition of “compostable”. The main criteria is the standard EN 13432. At the moment, some forks and some cutlery are labelled “degradable”. Some of them say “biodegradable”. I am biodegradable. Anything is biodegradable. However, the standard EN 13432 means that the product has to break down within 12 weeks in a composting facility. Many manufacturers are taking advantage and consumers are confused. Consumers see the “biodegradable” label and think it means they can put it into the compost bin. However, it is a term of art. We need one standard and one terminology for the Irish way.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
Yes. In other countries they have different terminologies. I think it is Belgium where they use “biodegradable”. That is their term of art. We have gone towards “compostable”. The Composting and Anaerobic Digestion Association of Ireland, which is known as Cré, has come up with a standard as well. Regardless of whether it is the EN 13432 standard or the Cré standard, we should have one standard so that people are not confused and composting facilities know what is coming in.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I do not know if they have the same type of problem over there. I have not researched it in terms of whether they have three different standards. I just know I have seen oxo-degradable here. This is now banned under single-use plastic directive. I have seen these green forks that say degradable on them. They are no more degradable than the computer monitor.
In regard to one EU member state doing something different in labelling and the Single Market, we might not have other countries with that problem but we have had other countries which addressed labelling issues. The process is you notify the European Commission that you are doing it, that it is on either health or environmental reasons, you run a trial for a set period and then you review it. That is how you go about circumventing the Single Market rules. For example, Britain brought in the traffic light labelling system and France brought in a different scheme around food labelling. You can do it and that is the mechanism. You must do it on health and safety and environmental grounds and notify the European Commission.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I thank Deputy Bruton for his questions. On the first one regarding the French waste law, I understand prohibition of obsolescence was introduced into French waste law. There have been some difficulties with implementing this law because it is something that is quite difficult to define. According to our members in France, the definition of obsolescence is quite important and in France they define obsolescence based on two points. First is the deliberate effort of the manufacturer to shorten the life of the product, and second is they do so deliberately in search of profit. Recent attempts to prosecute companies - there have been some attempts already to apply the law - have been unsuccessful because it has been very difficult to prove these two points. The definition of obsolescence is very difficult. That is the feedback we have had. Nonetheless it gives potential, and even if it is something very difficult to do, it can be quite an important symbolic legal action.
On the Deputy's question on the rebate, I have to double-check this but I know that, both in Austria and Germany, it has been done at the regional level, the state level. In Austria it is managed by the state but I need to check where the revenues from it come and I am happy to submit some evidence from that later on.
On compostability, I am sorry, this is not my area of expertise but I am sure one of my colleagues will be able to help the Deputy on this to identify the practices in other member states. I can confirm what Senator Boylan said about the possibility of having labelling which differs from other member states on the basis she described. France has also recently introduced the repairability label for a few product groups, including smartphones, laptops, lawnmowers and I am forgetting one but they have done something similar on labelling there where they have something different from other EU member states. I can confirm that is possible to do.
In European experience has a provision such as comply or explain ever been used in these areas, where a general obligation can be created but for a number of years there is an option of not complying but offering an explanation as to why it has not been possible? It avoids regulations being so rigid that they become unenforceable but it changes the obligation towards better practice.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I cannot think of an example off the top of my head but I know that in the draft proposal for the batteries regulation, when they were discussing whether it should be mandatory that batteries are removable from products, there were some possibilities for exemption, such as making provision that if the battery is non-removable, there should be an information requirement on the product to say this product includes a non-removable battery and this could reduce the life of the product. That is one example to show how you can make provision where the regulation will follow. It is not law yet, it is a proposal, but I will try to think of other examples.
I thank our witnesses. The information they have given so far is incredibly valuable and very practical. I also thank Deputy Bruton for making suggestions in regard to witnesses.
Several years ago when I was starting to get into zero waste in a big way, there was one shop in Ireland I could think of which was zero waste. That has changed and now there are many places throughout Ireland doing that. It is still a lifestyle that people choose, for environmental reasons mostly, and that is what we need to change. I met a young woman with no children who said she was spending every waking moment trying to make decisions about the types of choices she had, such as how to feed herself and so forth. We cannot operate like that. This Bill is a good step along the way.
I agree with some of the comments around changing the language from "may" to "shall", and the officials took that on board last time. As I said in regard to the climate action Bill, we made some changes to the language because of our recommendations as a committee, and we want to ensure future governments are obligated to hit targets.
That point made by Ms O'Brien about targets is an important one because you will miss targets unless you deal with some of the underlying issues that make it impossible to reach them. One of those is the finance around it. Having repair cafés is quite difficult with insurance and so on. It is practically impossible as a layperson who is not involved in an industry to run repair cafés. Could I have the witnesses' thoughts around the financial things we need to put in place? Zero VAT is very important. An Mheitheal Rothar in Galway raised this as an issue, that it is not viable as a business and therefore relies on grants to be able to run its operation as a social enterprise.
One of the main issues with compostability is that while people may sell things that are compostable, quite apart from the labelling and the different types of products that are used, the lack of compost facilities close to where people purchase the compostable items is a major issue. It means dumping in inappropriate facilities. Is there something we can put in policy that means you cannot sell these items unless you also have some facility to ensure people compost?
The last point is on incineration. Do the witnesses think that language needs to be changed in the Bill to ensure there is no leniency in regard to companies that might be using incineration for their waste? I brought this up last time.
It is nearly impossible for repair cafes to get insurance. VOICE has got insurance for repair cafes, but we are one of the only organisations that have them. I probably should not say it but we have lent our name to different repair cafes so they can fall under our insurance. It does not cover the repair of electronics. We cannot find any insurance for the repair of electronics. It has been impossible to run these for that reason.
For finance, 0% VAT is essential. Right now, if your CD player - I do not know if anyone uses them anymore - or DVD player breaks down, it is cheaper to buy a new one than repair it. I suggest 0% VAT or even tax credits for companies that buy refurbished or repaired items. I bought a used computer and still had to pay VAT on it. Maybe offer a tax credit to encourage the take-up of that.
On compostables and facilities for collection, I worry about compostables. It is referred to as "unfortunate substitution" because you are going from one single use to another single use. I read a statistic from a life cycle assessment of reusables. I would also like that to go on the record. I have two reports I would like to submit. It stated that 3 billion trees are logged every year globally in order to produce paper packaging and 6.5 million are used to make coffee cups alone. If we move from one single use to another, we are still extracting resources.
Instead of going down that route, it is much better to move towards reusables. Reusables, for environmental and economic reasons, beat single use every time. In terms of facilities to collect compostables, there might be a use for compostables for pre-made sandwiches. Put them in compostable packaging and provide street bins to collect the food and the packaging at the same time. A huge public awareness campaign would be required because when people are out and about, they put things wherever they see a bin. They do not care. I have gone to many festivals to monitor bins and I know that you have to tackle people to put things in the right bin.
The Senator said if compostable packaging is offered, there should be facilities. The problem is if you are getting compostable, you are often leaving. Even if the bins are there, you are down the street somewhere else when you finish the product. I worry about the switch to compostable products. We need to use reusables and push that. It is called "unfortunate substitution".
On incineration, is the Senator talking about the levies on incineration?
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
On finance, I refer back to the statement. There is a potential to think about how the fees collected in the EPR system are used. We already have EPR systems for waste electrical and electronic equipment, WEEE, and packaging and will eventually, maybe, for textiles. Given the French example of saving 5% of the funds for reuse, this means 95% of the financing is going to, at best, recycling. There are huge amounts of funds in the EPR system for these product groups. Unless they are directed towards reuse and remanufacturing, the best you can hope to achieve is recycling. There is much improvement to be attained there but it will not go beyond that.
The other area I wanted to make a point on in my statement but did not have time was public procurement. There is a big potential through public procurement to leverage remanufacturing. For example, imagine if all Irish schools remanufactured electronics. It could create a lot of leveraging and financing for remanufacturing in those areas. It could make sense in other areas like furniture. It is something to look into.
Head 1 was what I was referring to. The circular economy fund in head 1 can be used for recovery. The word "recovery" is a often used interchangeably with the word "incineration" or it can include incineration. I and one of the other members else brought it up on the previous occasion. The Department did not intend that. Are there any comments from the witnesses? There may not be. I think there is no intention to use it for incineration but it could be seen as that unless the wording is changed.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I noticed that and spoke with some people in the Department. It is not their intention to include it for energy recovery in cement kilns, incineration or waste energy. It is just a layover from the original environmental fund. I think they took a lot of the language from that. I agree we have to make sure that language is taken out.
I thank our witnesses for their helpful contributions. I have some comments and two or three questions I can identify readily from the contributions.
In the context of Ms O'Brien's comment on the fact we cannot rely on supermarkets to do the right thing and as to whether we are being preconditioned, I completely agree with that sentiment. She gave the example of inappropriate weights being offered for sale to a person who might know specifically how much loose vegetables they need to buy but are not given the option to do so. The bigger problem is where people are given the opportunity to buy individual items, but there is a differential price involved. The person is paying more, sometimes far more, for less weight. There is a requirement for us to look at that. I have noted some retailers are doing the right thing in that context, but not all. It is something we in this House need to work on.
Ms O'Brien provided the example of France and the fact that a certain percentage is provided if the facility is larger than 400 sq. m. That is a good idea. Certain retailers are doing or at least trialling it. All supermarkets, regardless of their size, need to take this sort of thing on board. While I appreciate that 400 sq. m is not the largest, there are other facilities that can provide that sort of service in terms of dispensing with packaging, reusing or refilling. Would there be an angle for us to look at all retailers and what they are selling?
Ms O'Brien's remark regarding VAT rates on repaired items on which VAT has already been paid is a valuable one. I had not considered that and think it should be taken up with the Department of Finance. On truth in labelling, I could not agree more. It has been referenced that a body of work is being undertaken but it is something we need to take a lead on.
I do not think we should wait for others or the EU to take steps. We should be doing it ourselves.
The witnesses introduced the idea of PFAS. I had never heard of it before, so I hope they will forgive my ignorance. The report will be lodged on the website but I would appreciate it if they would give a quick overview of PFAS and its effect.
What do the witnesses believe will be the benefit of financial incentives for recycling? We are improving rates of recycling in recent years and there is a return to the deposit and return scheme, DRS. I have no particular difficulty with that but I wonder whether the witnesses have a view on it.
France and Italy were mentioned in terms of their competition and markets authorities fining companies which blatantly built-in obsolescence into their business models. There was the example of Italy fining an ink cartridge firm, I presume that is because it was blocking cartridge reuse. Are the witnesses aware of firms doing such things in the Irish context? I am not sure I would know where to start, other than going to the consumer protection authority to make the inquiry.
What is the witnesses' view of polystyrene foam being used in packaging for most electrical goods? There are alternatives but when it comes to large heavy white electrical goods, is there an alternative because the ultimate aim of this committee, and this and future Governments, would be to ban polystyrene foam outright? Are there biodegradable, reusable or sustainable alternatives to that?
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
There is a lot there. If we could do all retailers with reuse-refill, that would be fabulous. I would be on board with that. PFAS are forever chemicals. The Deputy might have seen a film called "Dark Waters" with Mark Ruffalo. The PFAS which is used for Teflon pans or Gore-Tex is used to create a waterproof or oilproof barrier so they do not break down and they bioaccumulate. They are tied to liver damage, cardiovascular endocrine and immune system damage, cause decreased fertility and lower birth rate. Not only are you eating it but if it goes to a composting facility, it goes into the compost and then onto land and into plants. There is a lot of PFAS in drinking water too. It is everywhere. We need to try and reduce it as much as we can. There is no reason to use it in packaging and they have found they can take it out. PFAS is something that I found out about around ten months ago. It is like whack-a-mole trying to figure out what they are doing next.
We have been pushing for a DRS system for bottles and cans for years. Originally, we were looking for glass to be included as well but our glass recycling rate is probably around 87% or 88% so we are actually doing quite well. We are pushing for regulations which have not been signed yet. I have been told they will be signed next week and will be up and running by the end of next year. We are pushing for the reuse element. I would rather have reuse for glass bottles and reuse for plastic bottles than recycling. We are already doing okay with glass but if we could do more reuse, and identify where we can do more reuse for containers. I was in Louth a couple of days ago at Holy Milk, run by the Byrne family. They sell reusable milk bottles. They have a vending machine and you buy the bottle for €3.50 or bring your own and then the milk is €1.15 and is right from the cow. There is another one in Meath. So there is a vending machine for milk and we can reuse bottles for sparking water and water as well.
I think polystyrene packaging is terrible. I would love to get rid of it. A colleague, Karin Dubsky, who has been in this area for ages, has been trying to get this out of fish boxes because it breaks into tiny balls and goes everywhere. If we could get rid of it, including in the fishing gear, that would be wonderful. There is a type of mushroom that can be used for padding for those goods. Smurfit has been working on paper packaging that gives the protection. I think you could use paper and mushrooms as an alternative to polystyrene.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I think DRS is very good, even if just for single use. Many European member states have realised that it is very difficult, nearly impossible, to reach the 90% collection target for these kinds of products without DRS. DRS ensures that you have a quality waste so that quality plastics like PET are not mixed with other materials and it means that you can have quite high quality PET recycling. There is definitely a benefit and I do not want to criticise it. What I was saying is that it will not go beyond this and we will not reach the reuse for these systems unless that is pursued.
On competition, I will not criticise the companies but it is well-known that the main market is based on selling printers and very expensive cartridges and that the cartridges have chips, that mean where there used to be a high street trade in refilling the cartridges, this no longer exists and the cartridges are sold to consumers at a very high price. I can share the decision by the Italian competition authority with the Deputy but it is up to the committee to investigate this kind of practice. It exists in other sectors as well. I am happy to share the information with the Deputy.
On polystyrene, I know one company that makes reusable packaging for white goods but they remain very niche in the market. I think it is quite a challenging sector because the goods are very heavy and have to be stacked but there are reusable alternatives. My colleagues working on chemicals are very much in favour of banning polystyrene because from a chemicals perspective, it is quite problematic-acting material.
I thank Ms O'Brien and Mr. Schweitzer for their replies. I was not aware of the chipping of ink cartridges. That is a very interesting way of dealing with the refilling element of the sector. It is infuriating in the context of what most of us have known about for the past 15, 20 years or a lot longer in respect of damage to the environment. I will look at that. Of course it is our responsibility collectively to look into that and I will take Mr. Schweitzer's points on board.
On financial incentives provided to individuals for shopping around in respect of the circular economy and making the right choices for the environment, is there an example in another jurisdiction in Europe or beyond, of which the witnesses are aware, to incentivise people to make more environmentally-friendly choices in the products they purchase, be it food, waste or otherwise?
Nothing comes to mind right now beyond tax credits. There is a deposit refund for different items but that is not an incentive per se. I might come back to the Deputy on that.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
On incentives, in the US, there is a tax incentive to donate items. If people donate food, they get a tax write-off. That incentivises companies to donate food to charities. If they donate equipment or whatever they get a tax deduction, so that is an incentive for business. Individuals can also get a tax deduction for donating things.
That is interesting. If our witnesses want to come back with supplementary information we would be happy to receive it. The secretariat will circulate it to members and we can consider it as we draft our report.
I thank both speakers. It has been informative. I have a couple of points. I am glad Ms O'Brien said she would rather not have compostable be the minimum for use because she is correct that things do not get composted. Nothing in the Leinster House complex gets composted. I have come from the European Parliament where thousands of people work and the canteens there reuse. People pay a €2 deposit when purchasing lunch and they can be collected and brought back in bulk, or returned on the same day. It works. IKEA is a perfect example. Thousands of people go through the doors of IKEA and it does not use disposable tableware but plates, cups and glasses. It can be done when there is the will to do it.
Could Mr. Schweitzer elaborate on the point he made about Ireland not collecting the data on material flow? The OECD has been doing work on this since 2004. For the benefit of members of the committee, why is that important to do? We should move towards targets similar to those the Dutch and the Finns have. I agree with the point around the 20% of supermarket space for 400 sq. m. I would love to see reuse and refillable in every shop but I am thinking of the example of off-licences and the kickback over having those doors in place. Have either Ms O'Brien or Mr. Schweitzer heard what the reaction was is French supermarkets to implementing that rule? Was there much of a kickback from the supermarkets? Should we just push ahead with it because of what we learned from implementing the alcohol rules?
Another point is relates to the potential for job creation, not just in developing our own recycling processing, but, more important, around reuse and the collecting and cleaning. There is great potential for job creation which the witnesses may wish to comment on.
Finally, we talked about glass with Voice Ireland and we still think glass should be in the deposit return scheme even though we have high rates of glass recycling. That is because there is an added benefit for anybody who walks their dog or goes along beaches or local football pitches, as broken glass is a major problem for them. There is an antisocial element to it. A deposit on glass bottles is more likely to address that issue, as well as the recycling. I 100% agree with reuse. There is a great example of a craft beer company and the bottles that are created. While the initial outlay on the bottle is more expensive for the craft brewers, it reduces costs in the long run because they can reuse those bottles.
Those are just a couple of comments. The questions were whether the witnesses know of any kickback from supermarkets and, for Mr. Schweitzer, why the material footprint so important.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
First, the Senator is sorely missed in Brussels and many people were very happy with her work there. On the material footprint, the point is that the existing indicator, which EUROSTAT asked for and all member states support, is domestic material consumption. Importantly, this misses the embedded materials in imported goods. This is quite a technical point. Most European countries import most of their materials from outside Europe or from other countries. This means that when the overall consumption of natural resources is assessed, this embedded impact is missed and this is quite critical for products like electronics or more or less any manufactured good where there is a kind of trail in the supply chain of moving material. The indicator that covers this most holistically is material footprint and for now, from what I understand, only a few member states are reporting on this. I think there are 11. I understand Ireland is not reporting on it but it is widely agreed to be the best indicator for consumption. A slightly critical point on the indicator is it is quite crude because it refers to tonnes of material and obviously we cannot compare a tonne of sand to a tonne of gold as they have their independent impacts. When we are talking about consumption we need other indicators to support it as well, like impact indicators or the water or land footprint. Thus it can help to give you a good overview of the level of consumption in your economy but it is not a silver bullet.
I want to come back to the question about incentives from Deputy Alan Farrell. I will give one negative example of incentives. In Belgium, we have a system of green vouchers, which encourages people to buy energy-efficient electronics. Some studies on this showed a kind of rebound effect whereby many people were buying green-based credits to buy additional appliances rather than replacing their old ones. In practice they ended up with two refrigerators running rather than one. The example of the rebates in Austria may be more interesting because they focus on reuse. That was just to give an example of how measures might not always work in the way one desires so be wary of how these kinds of incentives are designed.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
On the kickback from supermarkets in France, it is a new provision so I do not know but it is in law. I hear there is a little uproar from the paper producers in Portugal on the eat-in dining mandate but I can find out from my French colleagues how the supermarkets are doing and will get back to the Senator.
On glass, there is indeed an antisocial aspect to it. We have asked for a trigger to be put into the regulations that if recycling falls below a certain level, glass would be included. We already have the infrastructure. The problem is if we put glass in, I fear this DRS will linger on and that we will not get it in place. In Scotland, they really fought for glass. They have been fighting it for four years and they still do not have it in place. That is my fear because I would like this to be in place by next year.
On reuse, Oregon has been a great example. As members can tell, I am not from here. I am from Michigan. I grew up with a DRS. It was in our constitution back in the 1970s. I think Oregon was after us. I do not know which came first but in Oregon it was always a single-use DRS but now it has turned its system into reuse for microbreweries. It established washing systems and agreed a standardised bottle. The only thing that changes is the label. The bottle can be used 50 times and it is a much better scenario. We have spoken to the Irish Beverage Council. It does not want to do it. The council was saying to me the microbrewery business is quite small and they are moving more towards cans now.
I would like further research to be done in order to see where reuse could really have an impact. What I am thinking is milk and water, because we can produce those here. I do not know how much is being bottled here. Definitely, more research should be done on this and where we can do reuse for deposit return scheme, DRS. Is that all the Senator asked about?
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
On jobs, there is a report that I might submit. In the United States, there is always a fear in business that reuse will be more expensive. It is not more expensive; it is actually cheaper. It has fewer environmental impacts but it also provides local jobs. The OECD has a report on this - I would have to get it for the committee - about how much it would provide. Instead of importing all of the packaging, we are creating a washing facility, the infrastructure, the logistics and the delivery service. These all involve local jobs.
I understand that the Government is investing in an industrial washing facility in Ireland which would be great. I do not know if we can have two of them. I do not know if we are big enough for more. That would wash reusable containers, cups, etc. It would keep the jobs here instead of paying people to take away the rubbish.
Those were very interesting presentations. We could talk until the cows come home about this matter. As a society, we really need to start consuming more and give up our addiction to economic growth, as I am always saying.
Mr. Schweitzer raised some excellent points that I agree with. The non-recycled plastic packaging levy is being paid from the general budget. That is crazy when the polluter pays or, in this case, the producer pays model is a far better and more sustainable option. I agree with Mr. Schweitzer about the tax being placed on virgin plastics, but I have a simple question for him. What is the position with the Right to Repair campaign? It is such a great idea. The work Mr. Schweitzer is doing is clearly excellent. I mentioned it to a few people in the constituency yesterday after reading Mr. Schweitzer's opening statement. These people would have been climate aware and anxious to do their bit but they had never heard of it. They were delighted to hear about it. I would like if we could see more about how to get this into the regular media, not just specialist media. Maybe Mr. Schweitzer could tell us how quickly the campaign communications are going around that.
Ms O'Brien gave an excellent presentation. I have very few questions. I agree so much with what she said. We need a radical change away from our current disposable economy. We cannot recycle our way out of this climate crisis. As Ms O'Brien stated, we need real leadership on this matter. What she said about paying a premium for buying only what we need or want is spot on. When I lived abroad, I never did a big shop. I lived in Spain for five years and we never did a big shop. We did a local shop all the time. I am only thinking about it now. I never took the car to the shop either because it was within walking distance and you would buy what you needed that day. You were buying fresh produce and there was very little waste. You were not finding things at the back of the fridge that were going off.
I also liked what Ms O'Brien said about the forever chemicals. It is frightening. Senator Boylan spoke of the compostables stuff we are using in the canteen here in Leinster House. We should be doing something about this. For the past few months, now that we are back here, I have been thinking that it is an awful pity that if you are getting a takeaway lunch, there is nowhere to compost any of the products that make it up. Now, however, I am glad that there is nowhere to deposit them. They should be going in the bin.
I always worry that we are consuming too much. We cannot recycle our way out of this. The rate we are consuming at is totally unsustainable. That is the real elephant in the room. I would be grateful if Ms O'Brien could expand on what she was saying about her work on Capitol Hill. She said people would say that they could not do that and then, as we saw through this Covid crisis as well, what they say cannot be done can actually be done very quickly when there is a crisis, and we are in a crisis.
I certainly agree with Deputy Cronin's suggestion that we let the Oireachtas Service know about the PFAS issue that Ms O'Brien has highlighted to us. It would be good if we could get that resolved. The first question was for Mr. Schweitzer.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I thank Deputy Cronin. First, the Deputy raised the point - it was in my reference statement but I did not read it out - about the own resources plastics tax from the EU. To be honest, I am quite surprised that, as far as I am aware, almost all European member states are paying this - what I consider to be an environmental levy - from their general budgets rather than charging the amount for the non-recycled plastic packaging waste to the producers or the industry linked to the products involved. It is a bit of a scandal, if you ask me. I would be interested to see member states respect the polluter pays principle for that levy.
The Right to Repair campaign, which I also did not mention in my speech, is a campaign we established in 2019 which brings together NGOs, both the one I work for but also independent repairers and repair cafe networks. I thank Deputy Cronin for raising the matter. The campaign is going well, I would say, because there is more and more attention in non-EU countries of right to repair. The biggest challenge has been to engage independent repair shops in the campaign. It is not because they are not interested, because the ones we speak to are very interested. It is actually because they struggle to have time because they really are working on such a margin. The amount of time that they can give to repairing phones and laptops and the turnaround that they have to have for a product they repair each day means they have limited time to engage in policy action. We would welcome to hear from any independent repair shops that are interested in right to repair because we are slowly building this network. We have two members in Ireland - the Rediscover Centre and Community Resources Network Ireland - and they contribute well to the project.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I thank Deputy Cronin for agreeing with a lot of the things. In terms of the Dáil, we approached the Dáil - Voice did - earlier this year. After speaking to Senator Boylan about reuse, we tried to get a proposal together for the Dáil to get rid of all the disposables and go for reuse. It went along great and then it stopped. I do not know where that is, but if the Deputy can push it forward, we would love to do a pilot with the Dáil to have all reusables here and even have a reverse vending machine to educate how the DRS will work.
In terms of Capitol Hill, it was back in the 1990s. I remember them coming in, talking about energy efficiency standards or fuel efficiency standards and stating that they could not possibly do that, but they did. I remember one company came in and actually exceeded the standards. Then they used that. They wanted increased standards because they were already there. They wanted their competition to be behind the eight ball. They were saying that they thought the standards should be really high because they had already achieved them. Industry can do a lot more. They are giving themselves short shrift not thinking that they can.
It is reported that small businesses can save up to $322,000 per annum through reuse. Reuse reduces waste costs. Businesses never think about the purchase of disposables. That costs a great deal of money. If they invest in reusables, the water, the energy and the staff are negligible, so they can save money. They just need to give it a try.
I thank the witnesses for their very informative contributions. They are very helpful in terms of the committee's work-through of this legislation, which is really important.
The scale of the challenge was mentioned. There are many like-minded people on this committee, but I wonder sometimes about the barriers to the implementation of this type of measure. As mentioned earlier, there is a cohort out there who are completely on board and doing this stuff already, but is only a tin percentage of people. How do we scale up in terms of the population as a whole? In her opening statement, Ms O'Brien mentioned convenience and what creates it. Does she have an opinion on how we can scale up reuse and on the piece in terms of convenience? The latter is a reality in terms of the type of lives people live. In Ireland, one needs two people in employment to purchase a house. Those who have children are juggling much of the time. People are back commuting having not had to do so for more than a year.
We need to get this legislation right. There are elements of it on which we need to hear from the witnesses and others to make it stronger. In the Irish experience and in the international experience, are there other elements that need to come with this in terms of work-life balance, a four-day working week, public awareness and so on? What other elements need to come with this measure to create the environment where these types of system changes can happen? I accept that is a broad question.
The other piece for Ms O'Brien and Mr. Schweitzer is the role of the State and its agencies in terms of being a leader in this area. I worked in the health service for a long time. The opportunity there to be a leader in terms of managing waste is massive in terms of the €22 billion budget and the level of consumption in terms of disposables. I worked in laboratories, where the amount of waste generated was incredible. Is there an opportunity for the State to be a leader in this area?
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
In terms of convenience, I agree with the Deputy. We are preaching to the converted. Many people will say they do not want plastic packaging. I ran into a friend recently. She had just purchased oranges that were packaged in a plastic bag. When I asked her why she had not bought loose oranges she told me that the packaged ones cost 25 cents less and then she ran away from me. She knew she should have purchased the unpackaged oranges, but it was more convenient to just grab the packaged ones. It is very convenient to just grab a bag of onions or apples. We need to make reuse and refill convenient. I have given this a great deal of thought. In zero waste shops one can bring one's own container and refill it, but have to weigh the container and then refill it. It is a process. We need products to be pre-filled in reusable containers. When one buys the product you pay for the container initially, but one can then bring it back to shop and have it replaced with a new container. The shop will then have the used container washed and put back into use. It will not be on the consumer to wash it; that will be done by the company. When people are going for a coffee they often forget to bring their cups and so they opt for disposables. We need cups that can be rented. One buys it and return it. We need agreement on a standardised cup. Instead of putting a cup into a rubbish bin, one would return it to, say, Starbucks or Insomnia, where it would be washed and returned to the pooling system. We need to make it easy. Likewise for takeaways. I was in Howth on the bank holiday in June, where I saw a lot of compostable packaging and paper bags being disposed of in normal rubbish bins. The containers I am holding up are reusable polypropylene containers. They can be used hundreds of times. They are really good in-wash and they are easily stacked. In one of the towns in San Francisco, instead of having rubbish bins on the street they have used container bins. People throw the used containers into the bin and they are then picked up and sent to the industrial washing facility and returned to the cafés to be used again.
The Deputy is right that we need to make reusable more convenient so that is almost the same experience. People are so tired of all the packaging.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
We need to make it easy for them to do the right thing. In terms of the State as a leader, under green public procurement Departments and Government organisations would not be permitted to purchase disposable items. That would drive the market. We are working on a report on waste in healthcare. There is a huge amount of waste in healthcare in terms bandages packaged with other products. A scissor might be taken out and then they throw all of it away. It is all disposable. We have forgotten about autoclaving. There is a lot of waste in the healthcare area as well. Those are two ideas. Green public procurement could drive the market.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
An example that would be interesting to explore with regard to public procurement is Italy which, for some time now, has had a mandatory level of, I think, 50% of public procurement contracts having to include some kind of sustainability criteria. I do not know how well this has worked because it is a very challenging thing to do. We spend a lot of time telling consumers that they need to change the way they consume, but even public procurement Departments have a tough job in identifying what is the most sustainable choice when it comes to fitting out an office space or buying equipment. For this reason, there needs to be some investment in the human resources in public procurement such that we would have people trained in sustainable purchasing. We need to have sustainable contracts, but one really needs people trained in buying sustainably and setting up sustainable systems. It is not something that is straightforward, but the State, in terms of its budget, clearly has a role to play.
Something should also be set for corporate procurement. When it comes to public private partnerships and the competition between the public and the private sector, the private sector also has a role to play. When it comes to transport and education more often than not it is private companies who are competing and offering these services. They should also play their role in purchasing sustainably. They are also major buyers of products. It is important not to forget that side. Municipalities are already under pressure with their budgets, whereas there are many big companies who are also providing public services who should also follow these rules.
I thank Mr. Schweitzer.
I want to follow on from Deputy O'Rourke's question. I do not expect the witnesses to have the information to hand but are there any examples across Europe of state institutions that have led the way in this area? The Deputy mentioned that he worked in our health service, which, in the course of its work, generates a lot of waste. If there are examples elsewhere in Europe where the state has led on this, the committee would be very interested to hear about them. If the witnesses could forward such examples to us, we would appreciate it.
I thank the witnesses for their engagement with the committee. On procurement, one of the first things we need to get right is the requirement to include quality criteria. Both price and quality must be considered, rather than the approach of only going after the lowest price as the first choice. I must express an interest in this regard in that I have brought forward legislation pushing for the price-quality ratio approach and the insertion of quality criteria. Having quality criteria will allow us not only to set minimum standards but to award bidders who go above and beyond in taking the standards further than what we might look to as a minimum.
I am particularly interested in the health and food consumption area. One of the key issues that arises in this regard is hygiene and sterilisation. I have heard interesting things about industrial washing and other alternatives to intensive packaging in terms of the sterile requirement in the health area. There are areas of health plastics need, such as in the disability sector, which are ongoing and will continue. In both food and health, there is a heavy reliance on plastic packaging for reasons of sterile assurance.
I was struck by what the witnesses said about industrial washing. In terms of the service coming to Ireland, and looking to services that are operating elsewhere, how can we ensure such services are just not just available on contract to large-scale manufacturers of particular items - milk and water were mentioned - but are also accessible on a small scale? I am thinking, for example, of the local food shop that wants to recycle the juice bottles it sells every day, usually to the same customers. The packaging of that kind of takeaway food could be replaced by something that can be sterilised and reused. I am very interested in any supplementary information the witnesses might have on industrial washing.
Much of the focus in these discussions tends to be on the waste aspect but I want to roll it back to the production side. The key point in this regard relates to the question of obsolescence and irresponsible production. Mr. Schweitzer mentioned in his presentation that Italy has successfully fined a company for breaches in this area. While there has been a difficulty with the definitions in France, it would be useful to hear how it worked out in Italy and what we can learn from that. I would also like to hear his thoughts on how we can get a measure like a restriction on obsolescence right. If there is too much of a bar to prove bad intent, do we instead need to look at something like, where we are systematically seeing a product that is reaching the end of its user life after two or three years, that would be a signal? If companies are complained to a certain number of times about the same flaw in a design product and they do not respond, does that become evidence of a failure to address obsolescence? I am trying to see how we might deal with that aspect, because it is key.
Another area that is crucial is our consumption of precious minerals and resources. When we look to the other end of the value chain, the damage done in terms of mineral extraction is immense. There are aspects of mineral extraction referred to in the Bill. Do we need an extra level, such as a disincentive relating to reckless or excessive use of the kinds of minerals and other things that are going into our microchips and so forth? Currently, the European Union seems to be heavily weighted towards a focus on the waste electrical and electronic equipment, WEE, directive, which applies to white goods and electrical disposables recycling. Facilities for the disposals of such products are available right across Ireland. However, this approach is very much about products that reach the end of their working life in somebody's kitchen and are then sent straight to recycling. Is there potential to use that existing infrastructure to insert greater monitoring of obsolescence where it is observed, for instance, that too many of the same items are turning up? Is there scope for further repair or reuse incentives to be incorporated into the system? There might be a need for a much higher levy on the excessive use of minerals that are extracted. I would appreciate the witnesses' thoughts on that.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
Regarding industrial washing, I understand equipment is being purchased by the Department and there will be a Government-owned washing facility. Such a facility can take all types of packaging, including cups, and large numbers of people will be able to use it. It will not just be for large-scale users. A key point in this regard is that we need to standardise packaging to ensure that whatever is used in a small shop, for example, can also be used in a large shop and can subsequently be sent anywhere. I hope and expect the facility will be available for anybody to use. The bids have not been sent out for the use of the equipment but that is my understanding.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
No, I am referring to what is happening here. I am being told that the Government is buying equipment that will be able to be used here, which is great. However, we need to standardise the packaging.
In terms of the WEEE directive, Senator Higgins is right that the fee needs to be visible in order that people know what it is. It used to be that when one bought a product, the disposal or recycling fee was set out separately, but it is now incorporated into the price. The WEEE system has potential for a much better repair element but, right now, the stuff is just being chucked into large containers, damaging it in the process and leaving no possibility of repair. We need a better collection process in order that some of the items disposed of under the WEEE process can be repaired rather than recycled. Repair is higher on the waste hierarchy than recycling.
Monitoring obsolescence is not my area of expertise. Mr. Schweitzer might comment on that. Many of the precious metals used in microchips are coming from war-torn areas. I do not know how that can be resolved. It is probably a case of the EU needing to pressurise the people who are extracting those minerals to adhere to fair trade processes and better working standards. That is not really my area either, but Mr. Schweitzer may be of help.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
On the packaging of health products, there was a great deal of lobbying in Brussels during the pandemic from single-use packaging companies claiming that reusable options were not hygienic. I strongly refute that and am happy to submit evidence on it. In fact, many reusable materials like glass and steel can be washed in industrial washing facilities at very high temperatures - much higher than the temperatures possible with most single-use materials – which shows there is a possibility for them to be just as, if not more, hygienically clean than the single-use options. As I said, I am happy to submit evidence on this. Our partners at Zero Waste Europe have collected a significant amount of information on the topic.
I have an English translation of the Italian ruling the Senator referred to, which I am happy to share with her, but I do not know the particulars about how the authorities there managed to prosecute the company in question. One issue that is interesting to consider - implementation in this regard may be ongoing in Ireland – is the sale of goods directive and the length of the legal guarantee period. I understand the minimum period in the EU is two years but there is the possibility to extend it to three.
There is a burden of proof, which describes the amount of time consumers have to prove that the fault in the product is due to the manufacture. This can also be extended to two years. This is something to look into because it at least extends slightly the period of time in which consumers have some control over the products they own. Admittedly, however, this is only a three-year period and many products, if we think about laptops or washing machines, should really last much longer than this. It is, however, something that could be worth looking at.
Mineral extraction is a very important topic because if we think about the transition we all need to make time now in moving towards climate neutrality, we will need an awful lot of minerals and materials to produce renewable energy batteries and electrification. Any kind of wasteful application of electronic products or products containing critical materials at this time is dreadful. It is in this context that we have to think about it. I do not have any suggestion on how we can monitor obsolescence for products but it is an issue we should consider and take seriously.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
In terms of white products, another way to look at it is to challenge the ownership model. I have not lived here but I know that people used to rent televisions here. Do people actually have to own a washing machine or refrigerator? Could they lease it? That would put more pressure on the producer to make something that is not obsolete within two years. People would have a service agreement with the producer which could then repair the product. It would be interesting to see if more white goods could be offered on a leasing basis. Producers know how to fix the machines and could take them back and then send them out again. That is another way of looking at ownership of white goods.
I thank the witnesses for their insights into this issue. I get the sense from my colleagues on the committee that we could spend all day talking about it. The whole topic is fascinating because of the breadth of issues it covers. I note both witnesses stated they watched the committee's discussion last week. From my perspective, and as Senator Higgins just said, this is about manufacturing. We want to reduce the volume of unnecessary waste at whatever stage of its life it is discarded and, hopefully, reuse it in many different ways. If that is not the case, we need to ensure that the manufacturing industry is thinking about the longevity of the product it is manufacturing and, ultimately, how it can be reused, recycled or repurposed. I would like to hear both witnesses' thoughts on how, in the circular economy, we can tackle that aspect in the proposed legislation, bearing in mind that, realistically, much of the stuff we are talking about is probably imported. While it may be a moot point for some manufacturers, those that are located here would have to abide by that.
I agree with the witnesses' comments about strengthening the wording. I believe Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about this last week and I totally agree. We owe it to the next generation and the generations that come after it to ensure this is strengthened. Ms O'Brien made the point that legislation must be for down the road; it is not for the here and now. This committee, of all the committees in the Oireachtas, is of that view.
Ms O'Brien also mentioned setting a percentage target for achieving this. I would be interested to hear, for instance, about manufacturing and reusing or repurposing products. Ms O'Brien said initially that she did not want a paltry target of 2%. I ask both witnesses to talk us through the various elements and what kinds of targets they believe we need to aim for to make meaningful change.
The other aspect I would like to touch on is contamination. By and large, the majority of people, regardless of their family make-up or product consumption, are eager to play their part. Unfortunately, contamination is not necessarily an act they are carrying out on purpose. Some of this is the result of misinformation. We are all aware of what kinds of plastics can be recycled. Contamination happens across the board, be it in what we would call our general waste bin or our compostable and recycling bins. That must be tackled, so we will have to be strong on education and fund it in the legislation.
On the issue of contamination, Ms O'Brien spoke correctly about the lack of compostability of some products that are labelled as such. That is a broad issue to discuss but she is right. The Houses of the Oireachtas should be leaders in that. I hope that VOICE Ireland will continue its engagement with the Houses of the Oireachtas to try to tackle that issue.
I will address a few other points made by Ms O'Brien. I note she is from Michigan. I am not sure which part but I must commend her on that. That is good news and I would like to hear more about it. She mentioned people who retain products. She is speaking to somebody who has a cupboard full of plastic containers that are kept for lunch boxes and God knows what else. Friends slag me over the number of Calpol medicine spoons I keep. I do not know how sick I going to be but I retain these things for a long time. What that points out, however, is the volume of excess products that we collect, which could either go for recycling or be repurposed at home.
Ms O'Brien mentioned that "producers must take responsibility for designing out waste in products and packaging." I mentioned the medicine spoons purely as an example for people who may be viewing this debate. We do not have an option to buy the product in question without a plastic spoon. That is where we need to get to with this legislation. Ms O'Brien also mentioned her friend with bananas in a bag. I wonder if she is still a friend after Ms O'Brien accosted her in the shop. As Ms O'Brien said, however, her friend made a comment about the cost and said it was cheaper to go for that option. As with our discussions on previous legislation about just transition, we must look at the cost of this. Single individuals and the elderly try to buy as few products as possible to ensure the products stay fresh but sometimes that is simply not an option. We need to look at that.
Senator Higgins's made a point about the waste electrical and electronic equipment, WEEE, return scheme, which has been a resounding success. If we were to model our circular economy on that system, I believe it would work very well.
Mr. Schweitzer said he watched our discussion last week and I commend him on doing so. Will he elaborate a little on extended producer responsibility? Touching on what I was saying earlier about manufacturing, I believe that is something we need to examine further. I might come back in later on the deposit return scheme.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I thank the Deputy. In terms of targets, if we just say we want a 3% reuse target and do not say, "You have to do that", or "This is how you do it", it will be the tragedy of the commons as no one will do it or take responsibility. What I could see is that in different sectors, for instance, hospitality, all restaurants that offer in-house dining must have reusable options 75% of the time or a takeaway service must have 50% reusable containers by 2030.
We need to have a target per sector and maybe ramp it up over a period of years, such as having a 50% target for fruit and vegetables package-free and 50% of cosmetics. We may want to be that detailed because if we are not, we are going to have free riders, and if no one has to take responsibility, then no one will. That is the one concern I have.
In terms of contamination, in 2017 we did the recycling ambassadors programme, where we launched the first recycling list. We had 30 ambassadors throughout the country and it was funded by the Department. We ran 700 recycling workshops throughout the country and reached 25,000 people face to face. Everyone said it was fantastic. They thanked us and said it really explains things and takes the mystery out of what goes into what bin. We could do something similar again but, for me, contamination is not only food, it is also putting the wrong material in the wrong bin. That also goes back to the producers in that they need to simplify their packaging. There are laminates which have multilayers, and even the punnets for products like tomatoes have plastic which looks like polyethylene terephthalate, PET, but it actually has two or three layers and might have PET, then polypropylene or something else between it, which might be cheaper. We need to simplify the packaging to make it easier.
I know many people look at the waste industry and blame it for not being able to recycle. In fact, it is the producers who are putting this there and the waste industry is trying to figure out what to do with it. Not only is it the contamination of food but the wrong material is going in there.
In terms of cost, I agree with the Deputy. I referred to prepackaged goods. I sent my husband out to get some carrots and told him to just buy a few carrots. He came back with a 2 kg bag and he said, “Don't blame me, this is the only thing I could buy.”
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
A month later, I am still going through that 2 kg bag. The thing with cost is, first, loose fruit and vegetables need to be the same price per kilo and, second, education is vital. StopFoodWaste.ie estimates that every kilogram of food people throw away costs them about €3, so each family is throwing out something like €700 or €800 worth of food each year. There needs to be a lot of education about food waste prevention. That programme is underfunded and a lot more could be done with that.
Food waste is a challenging area but, whatever we do, we need to make it cost-competitive because people are driven by cost. That is up to the supermarkets. I would like the committee to bring the supermarkets in and let them explain why they are charging different prices for what looks like the same product.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I want to react to three points: one on manufacturing, one on targets and the other on extended producer responsibility, EPR, so I do not miss anything. On manufacturing, in this area, there is a lot to be said for the role of the European market. There is huge potential to use the reach of that market to change the way in which manufacturers across the world behave, and the kind of measures we saw introduced recently for white goods is a good example to follow for other groups. There is a lot happening in this area in terms of what the European Commission is doing on the sustainable products initiative at the moment. However, there are also some big challenges, and one of them is about implementation of compliance. There is a big difficulty in following up with manufacturers and also the challenge of imported goods from overseas and online sales, and how we can tackle those aspects. Having the legislation, the regulations and the product requirements is one thing, but how do we actually check all of the products which we are faced with at the border? We need to think about innovative ways to tackle this.
As a proposal to the committee, I would welcome a greater presence from Ireland, for example, in the eco-design consultation forum, where some of the measures on electronics are currently being discussed, for example, for smartphones. Having an Irish diplomat there to promote reuse and repair requirements for electronics would be a welcome presence.
On targets, in particular the overall target which I mentioned in regard to material footprint, there is some scientific research on this, for example, from the International Resource Panel, but the level which is seen, from looking at different papers, is around a 60% reduction in material footprint. That is quite a vast reduction, when we think about it, but it is akin to the kind of level of ambition we need when we are talking about carbon neutrality in the economy, if we consider that 50% of emissions come from materials. There is a close relationship in this regard.
On EPR, there is a difference between the concept of extended producer responsibility and the EPR that is actually happening. What is happening on the ground has progressed over the years. We saw that, at the beginning, it was enough to see the waste disappear from our front door, then it became about recycling targets, but now it is more about the overall externalities from the materials and also reducing the overall throughput of materials. We need to rethink how this tool is being used as the quite sizeable amount of funds which it collects can enable the circular economy. It is not straightforward because there is a whole infrastructure surrounding those systems. There are interests and companies have invested a lot of money in the infrastructure which exists, so it is not an easy topic. There is clearly some work to be done because, from the waste perspective, that is where the money is.
I am listening with great interest so it is easy to be patient, in the circumstances. I had originally put my hand up to come in about obsolescence because I had forgotten to mention it the first time around, and Deputy Devlin mentioned it, as did Senator Higgins. There must be a lot of scope in consumer protection. It seems some of the failures and some of the cases that have failed are around proving that the materials used were going to become obsolete, as opposed to really looking at the length of warranties and what can be done there, so we are actually putting the onus for innovation onto the companies if it is the case that the rights sit with the consumer.
I thought the point made by Ms O'Brien in regard to leasing was an interesting one. We spoke a lot last week about the sharing economy, which has not really come up today. This is something I passionately believe can develop and can also build community, because we do not need to own everything and we actually use most things very rarely. If we look around our houses, they are stuffed to the gills with things we might use once a year, for example, something to take the air out of a radiator. I brought up the example of a shovel last week because I rarely use a shovel, but I have one. There seems to be no overall policy around developing an app or something in the digital sphere to develop a sharing economy because we need a large number of people using it for this to develop. Any thoughts the witnesses might have or any international comparators would be very useful.
The final important point relating to the circular economy is rainwater harvesting. I do not know if this is the place to bring it up but if we are not to discuss it now, we need to find a place to discuss it because, in consumption generally and in manufacturing, water is one of the great by-products that we dump, yet we do little rainwater harvesting here considering the volume of rain we have. I think it is ripe for development.
The point was on obsolescence. Mr. Schweitzer referred to it, although I am not sure it is his area. The point is whether we need to do more on consumer protection so it is a right of individual consumers. Therefore, there would not be as much onus on the states to prove that the products themselves are being developed in a way that will lead to obsolescence, and the manufacturers themselves would have to come up with the innovation to ensure they are not in breach of consumer rights.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I will answer that quickly. The examples I gave about the sale of goods directive and the role of the competition authorities could be interesting to explore. I cannot think of other examples off the top of my head but I will try to come back to the Senator on that.
On the point about the sharing economy, I agree there is a lot of potential. Personally, I use a tool library in Belgium, which gives me access to an amazing array of tools at very low cost. I use it maybe once a year so it does not make sense for me to own any of them. That is a great initiative. However, there are also bad examples of the sharing economy and we should not just assume that the sharing economy is always more resource efficient. If we think about Airbnb, for example, it has given people access to spaces all over the world for a low cost, it has encouraged tourism on a scale that many of us have benefited from and enjoyed, but it is also had a material impact. If we think about scooters, and I am sure there are some in cities in Ireland, all of the studies I have seen have said they have very short lives, they are unrepairable and the batteries are not necessarily replaced and not always recycled. They are also serviced by people with very poor contract conditions and low wages. We cannot make the assumption that the sharing economy, especially when it is on a platform basis, will necessarily result in resource savings. Yes, there is a lot of potential but it needs to be under the right conditions.
I do not have a comment on rainwater harvesting, which is not my area.
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
On the sharing economy, there is great potential. We trialled a library of things four years ago with the Dublin Food Co-op for its reuse month, so it was only for a month. We had anything from knitting needles onwards but, because of insurance liability issues, we could not have any electrical goods, which was a real lost opportunity.
I agree with the Senator. The problem we had is that people had to drive quite a distance to go to the library of things. I would like to have an online mapping exercise. I always thought it would be a great app if I knew, in my estate, who had a ladder, who had wheelbarrow or who had a tool, and I could go to No. 24 and get a drill or go to No. 15 to get a ladder, and we could share items within the community. I was thinking about going door-to-door to try to track it. That would be wonderful and the question is whether people will use it. A platform called Trello tried to do an online version but that was for money. This can also be linked in with the civic amenities sites and there could be a sharing tool library, or it could even be linked to the actual libraries. For example, could libraries be extended to not only lend out books but to lend out other items as well?
It all comes down to liability insurance for electrical items. Liability seems to be an issue throughout the circular economy, from the donation of food to reuse and repair. We need to do something about liability and that is the one area I want to emphasise.
In terms of rainwater harvesting, I used to sit on the water forum and this was a big issue for some of the folks. It should become part of the building requirements, and building regulations should include rainwater harvesting. We need to become more future-proofed because we just do not know what is going to happen. Places are going to get drier, in particular Dublin. I have two water butts in my back garden. It would be a lot easier if that was incorporated into building systems. In addition, for new builds, in regard to using rainwater for non-potable uses, such as washing clothes and toilets, it is much easier to build that in when the house is being built, rather than trying to retrofit it later. In drier areas, that definitely might be something to look into.
Senator O'Reilly is keen that we have a discussion on rainwater harvesting at some point, so we will keep that in mind.
O the issue of resource efficiency, one of the reasons we have the Bill in process is climate change and there is a related reason for controlling the volume of disposable waste that we generate. A lot of this is generated outside Europe, often in developing economies. There is a proposal before the EU at the moment to bring in a carbon border adjustment mechanism. Do the witnesses think this could have a positive or a negative impact on resource use in Europe? It is five or six years away yet, but it seems that one of the problems we have is all this cheap plastic that is being generated in distant economies. Could carbon border adjustment mechanism something positively curtail some of this production?
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
I do not work on that area but, intuitively, I think it would because those would be the scope 3 emissions to put a price on the carbon that is used in production and extraction, and that is not being done here. We need to have some sort of mechanism to try to impact what is happening over here. As the Chairman said, many of these items from developing countries are cheaper and possibly poorly made, but that gives them a competitive edge against internal companies that are doing better or are more resource efficient. Intuitively, and I do not work on this, I think that would have an impact and would give a better competitive edge or would make European products more competitive. Perhaps Mr. Schweitzer would have a better knowledge of this than I.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
An interesting study a couple of years ago said that if scope 3 or embedded emissions from imported goods were accounted for, the EU would not have achieved any emissions reductions since 1990. The Chairman is completely right that there is a huge environmental impact in all of the goods which we import. It is a vast amount of goods, and it is not just plastics but also the feed for our livestock, fuels and many types of products that have a huge environmental impact.
The system can be fair as long as European goods are held to the same climate standards. The key point is that European and other manufacturers should also be facing the same rules on how energy-efficient and resource-efficient their products are. There is some potential in this measure.
I want to come back in on the DRS. The waste strategy has changed over the last three years but when we explored it in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council three or four years ago we found that there was not an appetite for it among the Dublin waste management authorities. They were not too enamoured with the idea of a DRS. Things have thankfully changed and our level of recycling in Ireland is quite high relative to our European counterparts. I want to ask Mr. Schweitzer and Ms O'Brien their views on how a DRS increases participation in recycling. Is it an absolutely necessary element of the circular economy or would people comply without it?
Ms Mindy O'Brien:
We have been campaigning for a DRS for the past 20 years and it is essential for two reasons. First, it gives people a financial incentive to bring their bottles and cans back. Second, those products come in a clean stream. The Deputy was talking about contamination but when it comes in a clean stream it is much easier to recycle. I was at the Shabra recycling facility in Monaghan. It takes a lot of the plastics from Panda Waste and Thorntons Recycling and makes it into plastic pellets. I went up there to look at its processes. All the stuff goes to plants and goes through all the different permutations to separate all our green bin waste and it is baled up and sent up there. There is about 30% contamination in our green bins and it goes up there but it still has about 15% contamination because when they compact the things together the plastic goes into some aluminium or steel and they cannot separate it so that has to go out. If those items can be collected separately it is a much better way to recycle. We have to reach a 90% collection target for plastic bottles under the single use plastic directive. That target is there and that is the only way we will reach it. Additionally, under the single use plastic directive there is a requirement for beverage companies to have 30% recycled content in their bottles. They are trying to figure out where they can get clean recycled PET and they get it from countries with a DRS. The beverage companies that were so opposed to a DRS in the past are now supporting it because they need to get that recycled material. The only people who have been against it have been those in the waste industry because they see that they are losing some of the valuable material that is going into the bins as it will be siphoned off through the DRS. If we can simplify the packaging for other items that will raise the material value of other waste. That is the measure that compels producers to simplify the packaging.
Mr. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer:
I will confirm what Ms O'Brien has said. The highest return rates for bottles in Europe are in countries with DRS systems. When I spoke yesterday to our member, Zero Waste Alliance Ireland, I understood from them that there is a PET recycling company in Ireland but that it imports PET bottles from other European states because Ireland does not have PET of a high enough quality to use in its facility. I would need to confirm that but it would be interesting for me to find out about that.
I note that this Bill does not look at the DRS; that will be dealt with in separate legislation. We have drifted from our prelegislative agenda but it was useful to do so because it has been a broad, interesting and stimulating discussion on the issue of waste and that will help us in our consideration of the Bill that is before us. I thank Ms O'Brien and Mr. Schweitzer for coming and sharing their expertise with us. It has been enjoyable and informative for us. I thank Members also, particularly those who stayed so late and came back in a few times to contribute to this discussion. We will have one more session of prelegislative scrutiny of the Bill next week. After that we will work together to produce a report which we will then give to the Minister.