Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

National Waste Strategy: Statements


4:00 pm

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his presentation. This is an important issue for the Government and for the service providers, local authorities and all those involved in waste management but, most importantly, for the people of this country. They have a greater awareness nowadays of the implications, complications and cost of waste management and its infrastructure.

Before examining the new waste management strategy, we must draw attention to the existing plans and ask the Minister of State about their status. A number of regional plans were adopted by county managers and I believe they are now on hold. These were prepared after a major consultation process, at great cost, but this has left much confusion and frustration because the Government has taken a new direction. Perhaps it will be for the better but the confusion that exists must be clarified so that local and regional authorities can engage with proper waste management structures in the interim.

We should examine the existing infrastructure to identify deficits. The Minister of State referred to landfill and landfill capacity. I wish to see an audit of landfill capacity throughout Ireland. It is important to know our landfill capacity in the interim period before the implementation of the new strategy.

I draw attention to the legacy landfills - unlicensed landfills that are unknown to many local authorities. All parties engaged in the practice of dumping over decades and much environmental damage was done. I recently sought a list of licensed and unlicensed landfills throughout the country. Some of this information has been received from the local authorities but I am concerned about other landfills, of which I know, that are not listed anywhere. They are beside rivers and tributaries and I will undertake further investigations in this regard. We have obligations under EU regulations to compile a complete list of our landfills and how we propose to treat them. Addressing legacy landfill will be a problem for all local authorities and the Government.

While grants have been received from local authorities to address the cost of licensed landfills that have been closed, remediation costs are a major burden on local authorities. This affects the management of waste and waste management infrastructures in those local authorities. In my local authority area of Waterford, the local authority can no longer afford to employ an environment education officer because of the major remediation costs, which amounted to over €10 million. The education officer had been doing great work on environmental initiatives in the community and in schools, delivering real change on the ground. I ask the Government to examine this and provide more resources for local authorities, provide greener initiatives and provide more officers to develop and promote the initiatives. These initiatives deliver results and it is a pity that such schemes suffer due to the burden of remediation.

The Minister of State referred to recycling. We have made progress in the past ten years. My local authority was the first to introduce the three bin system - one bin for recycling, a brown bin and a grey bin. Major strides have been made in implementing this system around County Waterford. Many local authorities have followed suit. I ask the Minister of State to carry out an audit of the number of local authorities with the three-bin system in place. It is not good enough if waste streams are being mixed in areas we control. People are engaging with the management of waste and are recycling. It is important that we provide infrastructure for them to use. I include in this proper recycling initiatives, proper waste collection services and proper civic amenity sites. While there are some excellent civic amenity sites, there is room for more. We must increase access and availability in order for people to engage with them and get into the habit of visiting them on a regular basis. People can dispose of building, garden and hazardous waste, such as batteries and oil, that can be reused or recycled. People will use sites if they are put in place but a limited number is available at present. I encourage the Minister of State to provide more resources to local authorities for these sites.

Local authorities play a dual role with regard to waste collection. They are both regulators - an important role to ensure waste is collected in a proper and compliant manner - and service providers. This amounts to a conflict and local authority managers agree with this. The private collectors suggest that this inhibits fair competition.

There is much confusion with regard to private and public waste collection services. Serious difficulties exist and the Government should clarify where we stand. Local authorities accuse private collectors of cherry-picking and private collectors accuse local authorities of overregulation. There is a war over waste collection services and it is important that a national regulator for waste collection be appointed. I encourage a debate on this because a regulator could introduce fair competition. A private operator cannot cherry-pick the city and neglect rural areas. If a regulator were in place, he or she could set up a system that mixes rural and urban collection and put it out to tender. People would be then on a level playing pitch and we would have a much fairer and more efficient system of waste collection. The Minister should consider having a national regulator for waste collection services.

Local authorities are required to introduce waiver schemes in their areas. Many would argue that the Department of Social and Family Affairs should pick up that tab similar to the way in which it deals with electricity and fuel allowances. The Department of Social and Family Affairs should pick up the tab for social welfare recipients who have waivers for waste collection services. Local authorities are being asked to operate waiver schemes at a disadvantage. They are forced to bear the brunt of that cost and compete with the private operators. Much of that needs to be scrutinised so that we have an efficient, well-managed and fair waste management system in all local authority areas. There is serious competition in Dublin city and Waterford city with serious arguments between waste collectors.

I wish to acknowledge the input of Repak and its constituent corporate bodies regarding industrial and commercial waste. They are doing a good job in minimising waste. However, I note that 48% of hazardous industrial and commercial waste is being exported. I will be interested to see the proposals arising from the review for handling hazardous waste and whether the same levels will continue to be exported. I look forward to the Government's response on completion of the review, which will make for interesting debate. All parties will engage proactively at that stage because it is important to deliver proactive and sustainable waste management for the future. I hope the review will take into account our infrastructure deficits. The Minister proposes to engage some new technologies, including mechanical and biological treatment. There is considerable rhetoric regarding this technology. We need to understand how he proposes to achieve these targets and how the technology can deliver on his proposals.

The review needs to address the resources issue. We must not forget farmers and the rural economy. Farmers have issues with farm waste. While a number of pilot schemes on farm waste are operational, I would like to see them expanded giving real resources and support to farmers who want to engage in proper waste management on their farms. They are certainly interested in engaging in that process, as is the IFA.

Packaging at source needs to be reviewed seriously. In the UK there was an exciting initiative called the Courtauld commitment. They considered the introduction of initiatives for businesses to incentivise retailers to reduce packaging waste. They emphasised the corporate responsibility of retailers to reduce packaging. Many of the large supermarkets in the UK, such as Sainsburys, ASDA, Tesco, and Marks and Spencer have bought into this initiative and have set timeframes whereby packaging can be reduced by more 25% by a set timeframe. Ireland should consider a similar initiative. Packaging at source is a major problem. The amount of waste coming into a household over the Christmas period in particular is phenomenal. It is very difficult to get rid of it. It is hard packaging with marketing material. If we could address that problem in a positive way we would be doing a good deed for all consumers. People are asking us to tackle this problem.

I look forward to the review. While we have come a long way regarding waste management we have a long way to go to comply with our EU obligations. It is important to resource our local authorities adequately to ensure they can deliver locally the amenities and facilities so that people can engage with them.


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