Thursday, 14 February 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to discuss this matter. Anyone who has been out in any scenic area of the city or the country, be it near a canal or a river, in a park or on a beach, will be acutely aware of the blight on the landscape that plastic waste can often pose. We pride ourselves on Ireland being a green country and a beacon for tourists, and, indeed, an increasingly environmental country. It is my belief that the Minister and I, and all Members of this House, would consider ourselves green with a small "g" or environmental with a small "e". Accordingly, the idea of a deposit and rebate scheme for plastic bottles tends to carry the support of the vast majority of the Irish public according to all the polling and opinion pieces I have seen. More than 90% of the people I talk to are in favour of such a scheme. In a 2017 Bill, the Green Party effectively set out a deposit-and-return scheme which has been somewhat tacitly accepted by many in the House but has been subject to delays. In 2018, the Oireachtas Library and Research Service put together a publication outlining the potential costs of implementing such a scheme and its potential benefits. The benefits seem to be myriad. They include increasing the rate of plastic bottle recycling - by only 3%, granted, but that is an increase nevertheless - and a cleaner environment. I am not sure we can put a price on that. It is accepted that implementation would involve a cost, but, equally, it would bring great benefits.
I am seeking an update on the Minister's progress and perhaps his thinking in this regard. The most recent media reports suggest he has gone back to look at this afresh. Obviously, we have had a change of Minister in this portfolio in recent months. I am curious, as I am sure the public is, to hear where the Minister's thinking with regard to this matter currently is. Can he give a commitment on this? I am conscious of the day that is in it. According to the Minister's Instagram, he is a keen baker and cook. I imagine he is keen to get home to his dinner on St. Valentine's Day, so I will not keep him much longer, except to end with an appropriate St. Valentine's Day poem, if the Acting Chairman will permit me.
If I was Virgil or whoever it was I would be able to do so, but sadly it has been a long time since I was able to do that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I recently commissioned a study to establish whether a deposit-and-return scheme would be a cost-effective measure in terms of achieving the goal on which we all agree, namely, reducing the levels of plastic pollution and improving our recycling targets. I am very keen to see an effective response to the problem of plastic use in Ireland. The figures suggest that use of plastic in packaging in Ireland is nearly 80% higher than in other European countries. The scale presents us with a problem. We need to think not only of recovery schemes, but also reduction schemes. As the Deputy probably knows, one of the first things I did was introduce a ban on the use of single-use plastics across the public service. That has come into effect immediately within Departments and will be rolled out across the public service in March. This will prevent any further acquisition of single-use plastics, although current stocks will continue to run down.
The difficulty with the deposit-and-return scheme was outlined by my predecessor. We have a kerbside collection scheme which is meeting pretty high targets, achieving approximately 70% recovery of plastic bottles. We have agreed to a higher target of 90%. We need to see if this is a cost-effective measure before we make it a legal obligation. The Deputy rightly cites public opinion as an important indicator of the direction of policy thinking. However, introducing a legal obligation would give rise to the cost implications and so on of legal enforcement and actions against businesses. I am conscious that many small businesses informed the committee that the cost of this would be very significant.
The point my predecessor, Deputy Naughten, made is also valid in that if one of the more valuable recovery streams is taken out of the curbside collection, namely, plastic bottles, there is the risk that an additional cost on households would be created and we would see an increase in charges for households. To decide in a robust way based on evidence, I have taken the step of commissioning work on this so that we can establish, first, if it is cost effective and, second, how we should design it. That invitation to tender has been published and is available if the Deputy is interested in seeing it.
We need to bear in mind also that we have very ambitious recycling targets for plastic generally. We are at less than 35% across the entire plastic packaging spectrum. We need to get to 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030. There are a number of things we need to consider to make that a reality. There is far too much mixed materials going into the plastic packaging stream that cannot be recycled and we need to address that. I am looking at how we can improve the current producer obligation scheme to ensure there is less plastic going into the waste stream and that what does go in is more recyclable. I am looking through the supply chain to come up with initiatives that would be cost effective but I have by no means ruled out the deposit return scheme.
I did pen a rhyming couplet for the end so hopefully we will get this one on the record and the Minster can hear it. I am keen to see an effective response from the Minister. I know that his energy and enthusiasm when it comes to environmentalism is somewhat unparalleled and that he has hit the ground running on this issue. I was delighted to see he launched the single use plastics ban in the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, in my constituency, which is doing fantastic work in teaching people about both the inputs and the outputs and the impact on environmentalism. The Minister is absolutely right in what he says in that regard.
However, in terms of the waste providers and the practicalities of how current schemes work, it would strike me, and I imagine it would strike the Minister and the public, that in the instance where I buy a bottle of water or a bottle of Coca Cola, generally speaking, I do not bring the bottle home with me. There is no real incentive for me to recycle that. I would likely dispose of it in a public waste facility. There is no prospect of it being recycled. In other cities I visit, if I buy a product in a convenience store I can dispose of the bottle or the packaging in that convenience store. The existing waste providers do not like that. They argue that curbside collection costs might increase, and they might well increase, but in terms of practicalities, if I consume a product in the outside world and do not have an opportunity to bring it home with me there is no prospect of it being recycled. Similarly, the existing waste collectors do not pick up bottles, etc., on the road so there is no incentive currently to do so. Implementation of a scheme like this one might allow for more recycling.
I will go for a second rhyming couplet.
Roses are red, violets are blue,
Waste providers may not like the scheme,
but the Irish public do.
I hope the Minister will reflect on that and act accordingly.
I thank the Deputy again for tabling this Topical Issue matter. I hope we will have evidence in the very near future on the merits of this scheme, if it is the right way to go, how we should design it and whether there are any strengths or weaknesses we need to take into account from what has happened in other countries. We will await the completion of that work but in the meantime I will be proceeding to examine other measures that can improve the way in which we handle plastics in trying to achieve, as they say, a more circular economy where we have less waste to dispose of and pay greater respect to the resources we are using.