Thursday, 1 December 2016
Topical Issue Debate
Waste Disposal Charges
Earlier this summer, in response to widespread concern about the way the domestic pay-by-weight system was being introduced, Fianna Fáil called on the Minister to implement a transition period for the system to ensure householders were fully informed and were able to plan financially for the expected charges. One of the key features of the agreement that was put together in June of this year was that the prices being paid by customers would be frozen for 12 months on the basis of their current plans. It was also agreed that no later than 1 January 2017, customers would receive dual pricing bills listing the amounts of waste they are disposing of and, for comparative purposes, details of how much they are paying under their current plans and how much they will pay under the pay-by-weight system. The aim of this approach was to provide clarity for customers and to enable them to make more informed choices. However, what we are seeing on the ground is very different.
Residents of areas I represent, including Farran, Ovens and Killumney, have seen their bills increasing since September, when the local waste collection company, Wiser, introduced a charge on refuse weighing more than 30 kg. This is happening even though the new legislation in this area is not due to come in until next year. These customers have not received dual-pricing bills and therefore have been unable to make comparisons. They have merely been given advice on how to reduce the weight of the refuse they are leaving out for collection and some information on the charges they must pay. This is how they were told about the new arbitrary figure of 30 kg. These customers never expected such a situation to apply in light of the agreement that was reached earlier this year. It is not acceptable that this company, under the guise of a fair usage policy, is flouting the agreement so soon after it was announced by the Minister, Deputy Coveney.
When the Minister outlined his plans for introducing a pay-by-weight system, he said it was being done "in a way that builds acceptance and understanding of the benefits of Pay-by-Weight over time". The customers in my constituency were given no time to make decisions on how they would like to pay their future bills. The Minister assured us that "the operation of the price freeze by the industry will be closely monitored by Government and, in the event of evidence of it not being honoured, [he] will ensure that primary legislation is brought forward to legislate to enforce the freeze". What powers does the Minister have to enforce this agreement, given that companies like Wiser appear to be flouting it? If he does not have those powers, does he have plans to bring such powers about?
Tá costaisí breise á ngearradh ar theaghlaigh thart ar An Fearann, Cill na hOmnaí, Na hUamhanna agus áiteanna eile. Is cosúil go bhfuil an chomhlacht atá ag bailiú an bruscar tar éis an córas nua íoc-de-réir-meáchain a chur i bhfeidhm go luath, in ainneoin an tsocraithe a rinne an Rialtas chun an córas seo a chur siar go dtí an bhliain seo chugainn. People who live outside the larger population centres are suffering the most because they do not have separate bins for their food and biodegradable waste. They are forced to put such waste in their general waste bins and are consequently charged at the general waste rate. This contradicts the Government's policy of attempting to meet targets for food segregation and biodegradable waste. Customers should be given the opportunity to divert waste from landfill. If waste providers are breaking the agreement that was drawn up earlier this year, they must be held accountable. I understand the Minister is meeting the various groups. What enforcement measures will be taken against waste companies that are flouting the agreement and dumping on householders?
I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this issue, to which I am responding on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Naughten. The charges applied by waste management companies are matters for those companies and their customers, subject to compliance with all applicable environmental and other relevant legislation, including contract and consumer legislation. The mandatory pay-by-weight per kilogramme charging structure for household waste collection was due to be introduced in mid-2016. As the waste industry began releasing its proposed pay-by-weight prices in June 2016, the Government relayed to the industry its concern about the reported escalation of waste bills for customers of certain companies. As a result, on 30 June last regulations were signed to remove the requirement for a mandatory pay-by-weight charging structure. A review of the pricing structures used for the collection of household waste, with a focus on encouraging households to prevent, separate and recycle waste and reduce residual waste going to landfill, is due to be completed by July 2017.
My understanding of the case raised by Deputy Moynihan is that a collector has identified that a small percentage of customers consistently and repeatedly present extremely heavy residual waste bins, in some cases weighing over 120 kg. The presentation of this amount of waste for collection presents risks on a number of fronts, most significantly in terms of the health and safety of the staff collecting the bins. If every household presented such large volumes of waste, the capacity of collectors to deal with the material would be called into question. Our capacity to manage and treat the waste we produce has been called into sharp focus this year. A serious problem with regard to waste operators' access to outlets for the disposal of residual waste has been encountered in 2016. This issue will be further compounded if our society does not seek to change its behaviour in terms of the amount of waste it generates. I understand that heavy users will not be charged on a pay-by-weight basis if they present less than 30 kg of residual waste per fortnight - this is an allowance of over three quarters of a tonne per annum - or less than 22 kg of recyclable waste per fortnight - this an allowance of well over half a tonne per annum.
I am informed that the collector is in the process of rolling out food waste bins. This will give householders an opportunity to further reduce the waste going into their residual bins. Measures that incentivise a change in behaviour, especially by encouraging a reduction in the generation of waste and particularly residual waste, will not only lessen our impact on the environment but will also help to ensure we have the capacity and capability to manage our waste appropriately today and into the future. If householders are not happy with the service they are receiving, it is open to them to take their custom elsewhere if they believe they can obtain better value with a rival collector. I appreciate that this is not always possible in rural areas where there may be just one provider. The more serious issue here, and the reason the changes that were intended to come into force in July of this year were originally mooted, is the ongoing concern about capacity in landfill facilities. I am sure no politician in this House would like to have to attend a public meeting to make the case for new landfills around this country to deal with a growing waste problem as our economy and our population grows.
I put it to the Minister of State that enforcement is needed. Waste companies are either charging under the pay-by-weight system or they are not. It is a black and white matter. It is clear that waste companies are charging by the kilogramme even though they are not supposed to do so until next year. I suggest the Government needs to take action in this respect. The Minister of State referred to bins "weighing over 120 kg". We are not talking about massive loads in the order of 120 kg. We are talking about those customers who are described by providers as average customers with bins weighing 30 kg. They are being charged for weights in excess of that average. Half of the customers are going to be over the average without coming anywhere near an unreasonable weight like 120 kg. Many of those who have weights in excess of 30 kg will have weights of less than 40 kg. No credit towards the average is given for occasions when bins are not put out.
I am pleased that providers will be coming forward with an additional bin. That needs to happen sooner rather than later. There is no dual billing in place, but there is weighing. People are being charged for weights in excess of 30 kg. They are not huge bins by any stretch of the imagination. What kind of enforcement does the Government intend to put in place in respect of this form of charging? I understand that there will be a meeting. An issue arose in June and July because of the uncertainty and confusion that was being felt by customers.
They felt they had breathing space until next year. It is only adding further to the confusion to think that some are allowed to charge and others are not, and that confusion needs to be cleared up. They are not supposed to be charging. The Government is supposed to be introducing legislation and dealing with it.
As I have stated, my Department is reviewing how we can best encourage households to segregate and recycle their waste by using appropriate charging structures. In terms of our impact on the environment and our potential to exploit the value of the waste that we cannot avoid producing, particular pricing mechanisms have been shown to be very effective in terms of changing our behaviour. My understanding is that per-kilogramme pay-by-weight is not being introduced in the Cork area. I have been informed that a small number of customers who produce consistently high levels of waste are being offered an opportunity to bring their waste-----
I will be happy to bring that example to the attention of the Minister if the Deputy will provide the information. As I said, I have been informed that a small number of customers who produce consistently high levels of waste are being offered an opportunity to bring their waste presentation more in line with average figures in an effort to reduce the health and safety issues associated with collecting excessively heavy bins, to reduce the amount of waste being produced and to reduce the amount of waste placed in the residual bin through the provision of food waste bins.
I acknowledge this is something that needs to be rolled out in many different areas. The whole purpose of this process has been to reduce the amount of waste entering landfill. As our population grows, that will be more of a problem. The idea of encouraging recycling and composting was to reduce the amount of weight in the bins and, therefore, reduce the cost. As I said, there are serious capacity problems in landfills throughout the country and serious issues that we have to tackle. That is what this measure is about. If the Deputy provides me with examples, I will ensure the Minister responds to him.