Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

National Waste Strategy: Statements


4:00 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen and the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, who is taking his place.

I welcome these statements from the Government. I will preface my remarks by saying that I have had the good fortune and the pleasure of attending the series of lectures being organised by the Environmental Protection Agency in the related area of climate change. I attended one such lecture last night, given by Professor Wolfgang Lucht. It was very stimulating about the impact on climate change of land use and emissions. As was observed by the chairman of the meeting, Dr. John Bowman, many scientists are not just speaking out of their scientific knowledge in a sterile, objective and factual way. They are speaking from a moral perspective because their research information is allied to their sense of duty as citizens to help create a better and a more just world, a world in which people have the same opportunity to access the good things and resources of the world and the same responsibility to ensure the safe passing of these resources to future generations. I was very impressed by this strong sense of citizenship being shown by many in our community which is being led by people in the scientific community.

I was also happy to observe the very large attendance at this series of lectures organised by the EPA. It is clear that many people realise their responsibility. There was a time when in order to attract large crowds at public meetings, there had to be fears about emissions or rays and I recall, for example, the MMDS campaigns, where people perceived an immediate threat to themselves or to their families. It is clear that people are thinking globally on environmental issues, as evidenced by the large attendance at the meeting.

Climate change was the subject discussed at those meetings. However, similar issues arise in any discussion of waste management. We need to examine how we can continue to awaken that sense of responsibility throughout the community. There is much to be thankful for with regard to the awareness shown by many people of their obligations to protect the environment, to control their household waste and to ensure its proper disposal.

Ireland needs to improve its approach to waste management as per head of population we are one of the highest waste producers in Europe. A total of 91% of Ireland's waste is consigned to landfill each year and only 9% is recovered. The number of landfill sites is decreasing rapidly and soon there will be little room to dispose of the vast amount of waste we generate. Meanwhile, local politics and the configuration of the Government mean that incineration is not on the table as an alternative.

The European landfill directive places a legal obligation on us to cut the 1.9 million tonnes of biodegradable waste sent to landfill to just 450,000 tonnes by 2016. Again, there are parallels here. We hear a lot of talk, and rightly so, about the European Union, the impact of its decisions and the obligations we are accepting on greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, we need the same level of awareness of our obligations under the European Union landfill directive. In the same way we need to continue to foster the same level of public commitment and quite apart from the coercive power of the EU, our sense of desire to do the right thing for its own sake.

If we fail to increase our capacity to deal with industrial waste there is a possibility of overseas facilities for the treatment of hazardous waste being closed off to Irish industry which gives rise to the danger that businesses might be forced to scale down their operations to minimise their waste output.

Environmentalists constantly say the solution is to educate people about waste prevention and minimisation. We can all contribute to solving the problem by reducing the amount of waste by minimising the amount we produce. The mantra of reduce, re-use and recycle applies here. We can also re-use, recycle or compost much of the waste that we cannot avoid, but what of the waste that cannot be re-used, recycled or composted? This needs to be disposed of safely.

It might be said, notwithstanding my comments about the increased level of public awareness and of public commitment to the environment, that waiting for the public to respond to our exhortations is not an option on its own. I say that deeply conscious that popular opinion is more receptive than ever to green appeal. For example, in a recent survey 85% of consumers told a global survey that they were willing to change the brands they buy or their consumption habits in order to make the world a better place. More than 70% of people told a YouGov poll carried out in the UK last year that they had become more green. The awareness is there but the same poll also showed that the commitment among people was not yet rock solid. Only 25% of respondents said they would support enforced changes to their lifestyle in order to save the planet. A UK Government study last November found that consumers do not consider environmental issues when purchasing food and drink. One quarter of all food is thrown out unused and waste volumes continue to rise.

One possible solution could be to encourage investment in the thermal treatment of waste through autoclaving. This technology uses steam to sterilise waste before it is separated into recyclables and organic waste and the latter can then be used to produce clean energy. This process is already being used in a plant in Bridgend in Wales and it has proved its worth. According to the company that runs the plant, the technology has the potential to divert 85% of domestic and commercial waste from landfill sites, to increase recycling targets to 25% and to produce 4.5 MW of renewable energy for every 100,000 tonnes of waste processed.

In providing a clean energy supply, technologies such as this may offer a clear alternative to landfill but the Government needs to introduce measures to create a viable market. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, indicated his intention to produce a waste strategy and to encourage investment in this area which is very capital intensive to provide. One of the weaknesses of the current system is that landfill operators can drop their price to attract waste that might otherwise go to a treatment plant. As there is no penalty on a local authority for using landfill, local authorities actually have an incentive to use landfill sites and surely that is a counterproductive state of affairs.

The scale of the problem is such that we cannot afford to wait for any of us to reform our wasteful ways. The Government should seek any and all innovative and creative solutions to this serious and pressing dilemma. It is necessary to strike the right balance between promoting the idealism within the community that we would all desire to do the right thing and the consequences for not doing the right thing in terms of penalties and the like.

The green bins collection service comes to my house twice as frequently as it did a few months ago. There is a feeling among people that they will happily co-operate with all measures to protect the environment, especially to minimise waste, but they need to be facilitated in that. The system needs to be made user-friendly. This is a challenge that will continue. We should probably bear in mind the scene from a certain episode of "The Simpsons" where the town ended up swelling with landfill from underneath because of the lack of a public sense of obligation to each other to ensure that, as the saying goes, we live simply so that others might simply live.


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