Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

National Waste Strategy: Statements (Resumed)

 

11:00 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House. Senator Cannon was in possession, but as he is not present I call Senator Glynn.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim comhghairdeas leis as ucht an jab atá déanta aige i dtaobh an chomhshaoil. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to the House and congratulate him on the proactive measures he has taken in regard to the environment since he took office. It is one thing to talk the talk, but the Minister is also walking the walk, and that must be commended.

Waste management is next major question facing us and it has been a major issue for some time. It is the reality. As we all know, the reality that exists when one goes to bed at night is still the reality in the morning when one wakes up. Nothing will have changed.

A suite of policies developed by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government over the past decade has provided a framework for the implementation of national policy. This policy is premised on the internationally accepted waste hierarchy which favours prevention and minimisation of waste followed by reuse, recycling and energy recovery, with disposal to landfill being the least favoured option. There is no point in putting our problems into the earth and covering them with soil. If we do that, de facto we will plant the seed that will produce problems for future generations.

The programme for Government contains a range of commitments to waste management policy centred on the Government's continued support for the internationally recognised waste hierarchy, which places major emphasis on the prevention, reuse and recycling of waste while minimising reliance on landfill and other disposal options. The programme also makes major commitments to national waste policy. In particular, there is an emphasis on moving away from high reliance on incineration, foreseen in the national development plan and reflected in the regional waste management plans for which the local authorities have statutory responsibility, generally operating in regional groupings. It is intended that there would be a commitment to the increased use of alternative technologies, including those known as mechanical and biological treatment, MBT.

Capital costs of heavy waste infrastructure are not funded by the Exchequer but are provided by the private sector as entirely commercial developments or by local authorities by way of public private partnerships. Through the environment fund and, more recently, the Exchequer, however, the State co-funds local authority recycling facilities at a rate of 75%. The national development plan provides for a continuation of this funding and does not foresee its extension to heavy waste infrastructure, for example, landfills or incinerators.

A private individual has taken on the mantle of providing a recycling service in Mullingar and Westmeath County Council also provides such a service. I benefit from the availability of those two services. I am not allowed to mention names in the House, but I commend that local contractor, a young man who took his courage in his hands and provided this service. If one misses the waste collection one day, it is great that one can avail of the alternative service a few days later.

The introduction of the brown bin collection service is also welcome. This service collects household waste, grass cuttings, hedge clippings and other such waste which posed a major problem, especially in an urban setting. As a country man living in a town, I am aware of the problems such household waste has created. The innovation and the practical policy implemented by the members of Westmeath County Council, on which I was proud to serve for almost 25 years, has resulted in the introduction of the brown bin and the blue bin service. Therefore, the excuse cannot be made that one is producing waste that is not collectable. A service to collect all household waste is provided for by Westmeath County Council, on which I commend it. I ask the Minister to take note of the brave decisions on waste disposal taken by that council.

I was bred, born and reared in the country, with a strong farming background on my mother's side of the family. I am a strong advocate of farmers and farming methods. However, one matter has been drawn to my attention, namely, the spreading of slurry at certain times of the year on land whose soil is impervious, with a very small depth of arable soil covering the impervious soil. If the gradient of the land is towards a river which is usually the case, even a small amount of rainfall will result in a run-off into the river. I acknowledge that slurry is a very good fertiliser but I ask the Minister and his Department to ensure land which falls into this category would be enriched by other methods. I preface my remarks by reiterating that I am a strong advocate of the farming community and its methods in the main.

Ireland must meet challenging targets for the diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill. From 866,000 tonnes recovered in 2006, Ireland must achieve landfill diversion targets of 1.4 million in 2010, 1.7 million in 2013 and 1.8 million in 2016. The national strategy for biodegradable waste sets out a detailed set of measures to meet these targets. An immediate priority will be the roll-out of a brown bin service in line with the regional waste management plans drawn up by local authorities. I am aware that this is happening in the local authority area of Westmeath County Council and it is a marvellous service. It is also the intention to ensure adequate economic drivers to encourage diversion of this waste stream.

As a further step towards meeting the programme for Government commitment, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has directed his Department to commission the international review of waste management policy provided for in the programme. It is intended that this review will provide a mechanism to give further effect to the commitments on waste management in the Government's programme. The review will examine the current statutory, organisational and operational arrangements of waste management infrastructure and services. Expected outputs from this study would include an analysis of the various technologies available to recover and dispose of waste in an environmentally responsible manner, including the potential for co-firing; the standards for mechanical and biological processes which should apply to waste management to match best international practice; and the scope for greater use of economic instruments to achieve recycling objectives and meet landfill diversion requirements.

These are some of the measures which the Minister and the Government have put in place. I wish the Minister and his Department every success in achieving the objectives set out.

I live in County Westmeath which is known as the lake county. It is regrettable to see the manner in which the shorelines of our lakes are used by people who avail of the facilities but leave piles of rubbish and other matter in black bags and in other receptacles and which would be best located in a refuse bin. It is not too much to ask a person to protect the environment which he or she has been lucky enough to have been born into. Even the poorest person in society can make one bequest to posterity by his or her contribution to ensuring the environment is clean and healthy.

12:00 pm

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his announcement yesterday regarding car emissions and registration costs. I am delighted to have the opportunity of contributing on the question of waste. If he did nothing else as Minister except to take control of a number of small issues about waste, a lot could be achieved.

Before Deputy Gormley rose to the high office of Minister, he and I discussed on a number of occasions the waste miles spent in sending boatloads of our waste from western Europe to China every week. If it came down to a straight choice between incineration and sending waste to China, I would consider incineration and this is my own view.

There is no traceability of waste. People throughout Ireland are separating their waste and using their green bins. On at least four occasions over the past five years, I have tried to trace a little piece of waste but I found it quite impossible to do so. The stuff goes into one selection area, for example, in Castleisland, Farranfore or Milltown in County Kerry. Mr. Binman collects it and then someone else takes it from there to somewhere else where it is separated out — God knows how — and is then separated again into washed or unwashed categories. This system may have changed but the last time I checked, dirty plastic was sent to the Continent to be washed. We may be doing that ourselves now.

The European waste directive has ruled that waste should be disposed of as close as possible to where it is created. If we are sending hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste out of the country every year we are patently not in compliance with the directive.

I am speaking in the Minister's favour. There needs to be a straight, honest and direct discussion on what we are doing with our waste. I praised the Minister for raising the issue of waste-derived fuel, in particular, not derived by incineration but rather by natural chemical or physical methods which do not require incineration and do not create waste. A number of companies are engaged in research such as one in Dublin City University. This information should be made available to local authorities so that they can deal with this issue.

I ask the Minister to do one thing immediately. Any county or local authority which is not collecting waste on the basis of volume or weight should be fined. There are still counties which encourage people to dump all the waste they wish so long as they pay a set charge a year. The idea of an annual charge for waste collection is completely and utterly wrong. Waste collection should be made on the basis of the volume of waste or else by the number of bin lifts or some such quantifiable or measurable method. I understand this also was the view held by the Minister and the view of the previous Government. The then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, also was of that view. I suggest the Minister should direct local authorities. An annual charge provides no encouragement to people to minimise waste and this is wrong. The argument is often made that one must not be unfair to people with large families but there is a simple way. Some people could be given a number of bin lifts for free over the year. I ask the Minister to put the boot in hard on this issue.

I have raised the issue of China hosting the Olympic Games. Dongyang is a city in China and it is the place where most European waste is dealt with. It is a place which is polluted and where people are choked and are literally suffering the hardships of coping with our waste. They are breathing it and living it. There is no regard for environmental regulations or health and safety regulations.

I understand another European regulation requires those exporting waste to be able to guarantee governments that their waste is being disposed of in a proper manner.

I will make a promise to pay my own way to Dongyang if the Minister will come with me and if we are allowed free access to see what is going on there. The people of that city are not allowed use the Internet or anything else to promote their views. They are trying to make their situation clear. We would be doing Europe a favour. We in Ireland do not want to deal with the argument about incineration and Europe does not know what to do with all its waste. We are all turning a blind eye and are filling ships with our rubbish which goes to China and chokes the people there.

I draw the Minister's attention to those who export fuel. I should say dump rather than export. While some regulations must be met and in some cases licences must be obtained, it would be good if those involved in these activities were publicly listed. Such lists are freely available, although I do not know where they can be found. I would like to know what regulations these people have to meet in order to do their business. In regard to exporting, is it not the case that waste can only be exported abroad if there is a guarantee that it is to be used for the creation of fuel? I understand European regulations provide for this.

I do not know how we are meeting requirements in this area. I asked for this debate and I could speak at length but I will confine myself to the narrow points I have raised. There is no point in telling schoolchildren to be careful with waste if they are living in a county where the system is such that no matter how much rubbish is put out at the end of a week, it is collected just because their parents pay a couple of hundred euro a year. The system should not be like that. It should operate as a cost per lift, bag, tonne or whatever. It should operate on the basis of the amount of waste created and there should be a clear understanding of this.

People should be shown the bulk of their waste, as in those food programmes when people who are overweight are shown the number of hamburgers they have eaten. People are appalled by that. I would like to see the waste that an average household creates per year for sending abroad piled up beside the house. People would then see what they were doing.

Many people are under the misapprehension that the waste they put into a green bin is cleaned away and that everything goes in one direction. When I was in primary school, a favourite essay title was "An old biro or pencil tells its own story". An old piece of rubbish might tell its own story in terms of following all the tracks it makes to reach its end usage.

I ask the Minister to deal with the China question and the matter of waste-derived fuel. I have met two groups who guarantee me that they can derive fuel from waste, and I have also seen this subject covered on a television programme. Let us do this. The Minister could give a grant to a county or a local authority for the purpose. My understanding is that there are two local authorities in the UK, one of them in London, now working on a £30 million project of this kind. It is no longer simply a project because they are now dealing with their waste in this way. There is no impact on the local environment, huge amounts of waste are being dealt with and the system is as efficient as an incinerator. It also gives fuel.

I ask the Minister whether it is possible to put a bag over every landfill in Ireland to collect the methane produced. People are not aware that the methane which is given off by landfill is 20 times more damaging to the environment than carbon. We always call such emissions carbon but a tonne of methane is equal to 20 tonnes of carbon. We are wasting fuel this in way. It is another area we should be examining. The Minister should make grants available to any county or area that puts serious effort into extracting methane from landfill. He is already doing this in a small way.

There should be a double incentive to do this in that such waste treatment would also save us money in the area of carbon credits. Some €270 million of wasteful expenditure has been set aside by the budget to buy carbon credits, a situation the Minister has criticised. I remember meeting him the night after the Budget Statement. I accept and agree that we must engage in some element of carbon credit dealing but we do not need to do as much as we are doing.

I look forward to the Minister's reply although I will be absent for a part of the debate as I have to attend a meeting. These are significant issues.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Gormley to the House and compliment him on a job well done to date. I am pleased that matters are going well. It has always been my view that the notion of the Green Party coming into Government with Fianna Fáil is a wake-up call for our party. We have our faults and failings on the issue of waste management and other environmental matters and the new coalition is pulling us in the right direction. It could have a positive impact politically on our party. There may be a few at grass roots level with a jaundiced view, but there are many others who believe it is probably a good thing.

Forgive me for being somewhat parochial but I have a some issues that weigh heavily. One issue is waste management. I live in a beautiful area of Ireland and I was born beside the shore of Bantry Bay. I do a little fishing as one of my pastimes and the litter and waste, including plastics and rubbish, that come onshore in beautiful places such as Ballylickey, Barleycove, Schull and Courtmacsharry is appalling. This is a problem for local authorities with a coastline. I imagine the same applies in County Kerry. It is particularly acute in the south west because the busiest shipping lanes in the world pass by there. The south west of Ireland also has problems with drugs importation, etc.

The Minister should urge local authorities in these coastal regions to take a more proactive approach to cleaning up the beaches. Litter comes in whether it is high or low water and there have been instances of harm to birds and damage to the environment. There have been many oil slicks in Bantry but I do not want to get into that. There is an ongoing problem with rubbish that primarily is not ours. I imagine it is carelessly dumped off boats. Bags of rubbish and sometimes much more drift onshore and stay there.

If we are to promote tourism and a healthy environment there must be change. I am not sure what the answers are. I was a member of my local authority in Cork for almost 20 years and, while not wishing to be disparaging towards it, the attitude appeared to be that it was not our waste or rubbish so we could stand aside and let someone else deal with it. The result has been that no one has dealt with it. There is a non-political group in west Cork which has done a lot of work in this area conducting research and taking photographs. I have seen the rubbish in little coves and inlets along Bantry Bay, Dunmanus Bay and Roaring Water Bay. I feel ashamed that we are not prepared to deal with it. Perhaps some initiative could be taken. While I do not want the Minister to contact the Cork county manager and say I said he was doing nothing, something must be done. There must be a programme for dealing with waste coming onshore.

On the positive side, the committee of the western division of Cork County Council, under an initiative from the now-retired chief administrative officer in Clonakilty, Mr. Jerome C. O'Sullivan, became the first in Cork if not in Ireland to introduce a pay-by-weight scheme. There was a political fuss at the time but the effect was a 60% reduction in two years in the amount of rubbish collected. Once the scheme hit the householder's pocket, there was greater awareness of the need to reuse, recycle, compost and segregate rubbish. I include myself in that. There was a time 12 or 15 years ago when I had three bins, but I confess I soon learned. The impact in the western division of Cork County Council was immense in a short space of time. When I joined the council in 1985, there were six landfill dumps in west Cork. Most are closed now and I believe there is only one left, mainly because we are a long way from a central area.

We must consider providing civic amenity centres. One was proposed by a very forward thinking assistant county manager of Cork County Council, west Cork division, John Deasy, who has now retired. He proposed having a civic amenity site in Bantry, my home town, approximately 12 years ago. There was a great hoo-ha that we were about to create a dump and following public meetings it was stopped. It was supposed to be the model for County Cork. Bantry is the only town of its size without a civic amenity site. Anybody with an old bed or fridge-freezer to dump must travel for miles to get rid of it. I have urged locally that such facilities should be provided in every town.

I laud the very important anti-litter awareness grant scheme. My generation needed to be dragged kicking and screaming when our pockets were hit in order to stand up and smell the roses and face the reality of having to pay to get rid of our rubbish. There is a young generation from national school upwards that must be educated on how to deal with plastics and protect the environment. When I was a teenager that issue did not arise. However, now there is awareness among young people who question what the world will be like when they grow up and for the next generation. We must tap into that awareness and promote it.

Individual households produce domestic waste. Thankfully we have bottle banks and can recycle plastics and paper. However, one of the main problems involves commercial retail and wholesale companies dealing with bulk waste like cartons. Supermarkets generate significant volumes of cardboard, plastics and other types of waste. Commercial entities, including large supermarket chains, should be taxed or forced to take a more realistic approach. There is a provision allowing them to pay into an educational programme for dealing with waste, which should be encouraged and controlled. There is no doubt it can be a success.

Clonakilty in west Cork won several awards. Dealing with litter in the town was key to its winning Tidy Towns awards and international gold medals of all descriptions. That town has a civic mindedness of top quality. Its inhabitants have a town of which they are very proud. It generates tourism and has achieved international recognition. The people in the town and its hinterland are conscious of littering and waste, which rubs off on others. We should congratulate Clonakilty on its success in the past ten or 15 years. Other towns should aspire to similar achievements. A town with a litter problem will not win a Tidy Towns award or an international gold medal, whether European or on the world stage. If it can be achieved in Clonakilty it can be achieved in other towns. Clonakilty is a medium-sized town with a population of approximately 5,500.

I wish to comment on what Senator O'Toole mentioned earlier. While it might be changing we have a mindset of "not in my backyard". The export of waste to China and India is a short-term cheap-shot measure that I do not advocate. There have been heated debates about the proposed incinerator in Ringaskiddy. I had mixed views on it and abstained when the council had a critical vote on the matter, in part because I lived 60 or 70 miles away from the proposed site. We cannot bury our heads in the sand anymore.

My home town and Castletownbere have plans to dredge the harbours to clear mercury and TBT from the silt. That is a very expensive way of dealing with this issue. I would like to know where the mercury is coming from. I always thought the mercury in my home town came from the local hospital. It cannot be taken out to sea as it is a lethal chemical.

In Castletownbere the silt that is contaminated is being skimmed off to a depth of 1 m or less. It is dried, mixed with concrete and exported to Germany as concrete blocks. Those two towns may be exceptions. However, we should consider how we can eliminate the contamination of harbours and ports by mercury. The dredging of the inner harbour in Bantry has been delayed for 20 years. When a seismographic study was carried out and found the contamination, the authorities ran away from the problem. The old way was to dredge the area and release the waste 20 or 30 miles from shore. That is not allowed anymore because it can do serious damage to marine life. Mercury is a lethal poison. While the Minister might not be aware of this parochial issue, perhaps he might look into it at some time to ascertain how we can deal with it in the future.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on climate change and I thank the Minister for coming to the House. While I was doing research for this debate, I noted that the EPA has stated that the outcomes achieved, especially on biodegradable municipal waste, are less than satisfactory. Recent data from the national waste report showed that 1.4 million tonnes of such waste went to landfill in 2006. We have very few facilities for disposing of green waste. As a former county councillor in the recent past, one of the big issues was how gardeners, in particular, would dispose of green waste. We need to take urgent action if we are to meet our EU commitments. At present 92% of organic municipal waste is going to landfill, which is a disgrace and needs to be addressed.

Senator Glynn already referred to the fact that Westmeath County Council has rolled out a pilot scheme to 1,000 people, on which I commend it. The same is happening in other parts of the country. I ask the Minister to engage in an awareness campaign to encourage people to use brown bins and to recycle organic waste. Some people are doing so in their own households, for which I commend them. At the end of this process we need to decide how the market will deal with biodegradable waste. A development group is meeting to discuss the market and I look forward to its findings.

Senator O'Toole spoke about plastic and the end product of our dry recyclables. I ask the Minister to comment on that matter. I have always wondered where our dry recyclables go. I have asked that question several times in the county council and was told they are sorted and exported. It is not very environmentally friendly considering the amount of energy it takes to transport our disposables. I ask the Minister to comment on the matter.

The amount of energy we use is the main contributor to climate change. Agriculture and transport are contributory factors to global warming. I note that our transport-related greenhouse emissions have increased by 160% from 1990 to 2005.

In the past the Minister has been, and still is, passionate about transport and the environment. I would ask him to elaborate on how we will proceed in this respect. I welcome Dublin City Council's plan to provide bicycles, which will be rolled out in a year's time. Under the plan that is currently being discussed, the public will be able to pick up a bicycle to travel to their destination where they can park it. I welcome that very good idea.

Recently, I travelled on the new Dublin-Sligo train, which is a comfortable state-of-the-art facility but I was disappointed to learn that it is run on diesel. Why is it not electric? Perhaps the Minister can answer that point.

I commend the improvements that have been achieved in the agricultural sector which was one of the chief contributors to global warming. In addition, energy production, including home heating and insulation, has improved significantly. This debate provides an opportunity to highlight ways in which the public can recycle and reduce emissions.

The Government should fund local authority waivers for waste collection schemes. It is impossible for local authorities to compete with private waste collectors if they must provide this service free for the elderly and others who are less well off.

Some people have been granted licences to produce biofuels but others who are not producing biofuels have also been granted such licences. Meanwhile, there are people who are desperate to establish their own biofuel businesses yet cannot obtain these licences. I therefore ask the Minister to comment on the biofuel licensing process.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I join with Senator O'Toole in commending the Minister for his announcement backdating the lower green motor tax to January. The story was carried in The Irish Times today. The Minister's viewpoint on all these issues is welcomed not only by Members of the Oireachtas but also by the public, including my own constituents. I commend the Minister for his positive thinking on new initiatives, ideas and methods of minimising waste as well as fulfilling our environmental protection commitments.

Waste management has emerged as one of the most challenging environmental issues facing the country in recent years. Modern lifestyles have resulted in a significant increase in the quantity and type of waste being produced, but we are faced with the problem of how to dispose of it. Traditionally, most waste was disposed of as landfill and we continue to depend on that disposal method. Due to new legislation, increased environmental concerns and a lack of suitable disposal sites, we are now turning correctly towards waste minimisation, recycling and composting as the chief means of dealing with waste.

Under the Waste Management Act 1996 local authorities are responsible for producing waste management plans in their areas. Such plans are proving to be both positive and workable, giving local councillors an input into the decision-making process for such issues. I suggest, however, that councillors should have more input into compiling those plans. In my own local authority, of which I was a member up to last August, the plan was enacted by the county manager with little input by elected councillors. While not wishing to run down the manager, I want to bring that point to the Minister's attention.

Waste prevention is a key priority of the Government's strategy to minimise the generation of unnecessary waste. A recent international report examined models of best international practice for waste prevention and how this might pertain to Ireland. The report also examined anticipated EU legislation, such as a review of the waste framework directive which proposes benchmarking and target-setting for waste prevention.

The national waste prevention programme, NWPP, is currently being reviewed by the EPA which is the lead agency in developing that programme. The local authority prevention demonstration programme is acknowledged as the agency's flagship under the NWPP for the local authority sector. It is specifically aimed at empowering local authorities to prevent waste in their areas. It will be interesting to see how that is achieved in each local authority area. Perhaps a league table could be drawn up which could be made available to elected councillors and Members of the Oireachtas so they can gauge the positive and negative elements involved. We should review them annually or biannually.

I welcome initiatives aimed at changing existing waste disposal practices by reducing unnecessary waste volumes, including food, plastics, farm waste and packaging materials. Such initiatives also encourage the reuse of such products.

We must focus on recycling as a pivotal element of waste management. In Ireland, we recycle approximately 35% to 40% of our waste, although the Minister may have more up-to-date figures. European, national and county targets have been set to increase and thus improve these figures. We have a number of challenging targets to meet in the coming years, including the diversion of 50% of waste from landfill, reducing the organic fraction of landfill waste by 65%, and reducing household waste by 35%.

I understand that Donegal County Council is currently recycling approximately 27% of waste in its area but that figure should be increased. Local authorities, such as Donegal County Council, should not merely focus on recycling in urban areas — they must also provide recycling bins and other such services to people in rural areas. That is one of the challenges to be faced.

Since August 2005, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, WEEE, has required producers to finance the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally-sound disposal of such equipment. Civic amenity sites are generally being developed across the country on the basis of electoral areas but we should also provide more local collection facilities. While civic amenity sites are being opened, many people will not take the time to travel to such sites which could be 40 or 50 miles away in a rural area. Therefore fridges, freezers and computers are being dumped in bogland areas. This problem should be taken into consideration. While civic amenity sites represent a significant step forward, we must deal with the problem on a more localised basis. For example, contractors or the local authorities could engage in the collection of such waste at local level and feed it back into the civic amenity sites.

Senator O'Donovan referred to the importance of maintaining beaches and the coastline. As a person who lives in an area with an extensive coastline, I had reason recently to write to the Minister on the issue of beach environmental management. It is an issue that may come under the remit of more than one Department. I understand my constituency colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coughlan, has some responsibility in this area and I have spoken to her about it.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should play an active role in encouraging local authorities to take responsibility for beach management. There is no evidence of such management in my constituency. It is important that beaches are maintained so that local people and tourists alike can enjoy this important amenity. It is also a question of protecting a natural resource. In Spain, Portugal and other European countries, the resources may not be readily available but the beach management plans are in place, including everything from lifeguards to litter bins, signage and so on. We must promote our beaches as the best in Europe, which they are.

I commend An Taisce on its proactive approach in introducing the green flag programme. Many schools are availing of the initiative as it is rolled out throughout the State. It is playing a vital role in educating the next generation on the importance of minimising waste and transferring from the traditional methods of treatment.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and apologise for missing his opening remarks. I have heard him speak before on this issue. In the past ten or 15 years, in this and the other House, I have heard so many Ministers speak about waste management that if all the scripts were piled on top of each other there would be a recycling bin to fill. Every Minister comes to this portfolio full of good intentions but we are still not making sufficient progress and we remain as far from the clean, green Ireland we seek to achieve as we were ten or 15 years ago.

We still do not have a co-ordinated national waste strategy. I made this point last week to the Minister's colleague, Senator Boyle, as I have done on many occasions in recent years. The Republic of Ireland is not a large country, but every local authority appears to have a slightly different or slightly amended plan. For instance, the waste management plan for County Cork is different from that for County Kerry and both differ from the plan for County Limerick. That is difficult to accept. If the plan for County Cork represents the best possible solution, there should be no difference in the plans for Limerick, Clare and elsewhere.

Cork County Council spent up to seven years debating waste management before arriving at what the management considered the best solution, which was a combination of a materials recovery facility process and a landfill site. The latter is located in my parish, a mile or two from my back door. It is an enormous facility that cost a significant amount of money to put in place. Cork City Council was to work in tandem with the county council to develop the materials recovery facility. However, the city council reneged on this commitment and that element of the project has not progressed.

While the strategy at national level is focused on waste minimisation and reduction, many local authorities across the State seem to concentrate on landfill. The landfill site in County Cork, in the townland of Bottle Hill, has an enormous capacity and will be sufficient to meet the county's needs for up to 40 years. If we succeed in reducing the level of waste by fully practising the concept of reduction, reuse and recycling, the site could be viable for 100 years.

My concern, as I said, is that different local authorities in this small State seem to be coming up with different solutions to the same problem. Who will take charge of co-ordinating these plans? It is somewhat late in the day for Cork given that tens of millions of euro were spent on the landfill site at Bottle Hill. In other counties, however, where the same financial commitment has not been made, the Department should take charge of waste management to a tighter degree by imposing some type of best national practice. I am not sure how far the Minister has progressed in this regard. It is disappointing that there apparently is no correlation between the Government's waste management strategy and the various strategies of individual local authorities.

When I entered politics in 1985, the local elections of that era were dominated by service charges and, more particularly, people's apparent unwillingness to pay for refuse and water services. Fortunately, there has been a general change in thinking on this issue and most people now accept that the waste they create must be disposed of properly and at some cost to themselves. We have a duty at national and local government level to respond to the public's willingness to pay. Previous speakers referred to civic amenity sites and bring centres, which are a positive aspect of the waste management strategy. While I am disappointed by some elements of the waste strategy for County Cork, several of these civic amenity facilities have been built in the county and are working well. They are a visible illustration of waste management and an important encouragement to the public to bring materials for recovery, reuse and recycling on a regular basis. Local authorities seeking funding from the Department to develop bring centres and civic amenity sites should be facilitated to the maximum extent possible.

The debate on waste continues to evolve. When a county such as Cork spends a substantial sum on a landfill solution, however, there may be an unwillingness to consider other solutions. The waste to energy debate is only commencing and may well assume a pivotal role in the overall waste management strategy. Any prospect of incineration, however, whether industrial or domestic, causes great concern for many people. There is a scientific school of thought to support both sides of the argument. We must invest time and careful thought in considering waste to energy solutions where they are appropriate. We should not shut our minds to some of the new forms of waste management. At a time when there is great concern about the security of our energy supply, it seems unwise to dispose of large quantities of waste underground in landfill sites without fully investigating waste to energy solutions.

Schools have an important role to play in waste management efforts. Children are generally the best informed about good environmental practices and we must continue to encourage that. The debate about water charges for schools is a separate issue but it is part of the Minister's broader environmental responsibility. Will he work with the Minister for Education and Science to consider making funding available to allow schools put water harvesting systems in place? While such systems are relatively inexpensive, they may be a little beyond the budget of individual schools with limited resources. At a time when we are encouraging schools not to waste water — it is proposed to charge all schools for water — we need to help those schools which are willing to install water harvesting systems. The use of such systems in schools would give pupils a good example of best environmental practice. Perhaps the Ministers, Deputies Gormley and Hanafin, can agree on the provision of some form of State aid to assist schools in this regard. While this worthwhile and laudable proposal might not relate directly to the debate, I would be glad if the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government would consider it and discuss it with his colleague, the Minister for Education and Science. The Department should help schools because they are under financial pressure at the moment.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to the House and thank him for keeping in touch with me as a public representative in the Seanad. He is prompt in letting me know what is happening in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which is very important.

This country's waste management services have developed from a low base. I spent 17 years as a member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The council opened its first baling station in Ballymount in 1993 because it was not happy with what it was putting into the ground. It understood the need to focus on recycling in Dublin. It closed Ballyogan tiphead, which was quite close to the city, five years later. Five years is not long in a recycling process. The baling and recycling station that was developed by the council has worked very well. There has been some criticism of this country's waste management systems, including recycling. We have improved such services in the short time since we began to take them seriously. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, who has some good ideas, will keep us on our toes.

I wish to highlight some figures which show that Ireland's performance in this regard is improving. There are 81 civic amenity sites and 1,937 bring banks in operation throughout the country. That is a significant improvement. We started with nothing. Some 58% of packaging is now recycled. I am sure we can do better in that regard. We should ask supermarkets, which represent the main source of recyclable waste, to look at the repackaging programme they have for display on their shelves.

The most amazing improvements which have been made are in the construction industry. Some 87% of waste from that industry, which used to go into landfill, is now recycled. That great improvement shows we are aware of what we can do with the recycled materials for which we have found a market. It is good we are thinking about how we can recycle and reuse material from demolitions on construction sites. It is a great improvement. Some 34% of biodegradable waste was recycled in 2005. I am sure we can do better than that. I have given some of the figures.

Senator Bradford mentioned the electrical trade in which significant improvements have been made. There was a great deal of opposition to the decision to phase in the recycling of such waste. I applaud the then Minister, Deputy Roche, on his introduction of electrical recycling which has made a major difference. If he had not taken that step, the countryside could have been littered with many more washing machines and cookers, etc. Although one can now bring such waste to recycling centres, some of it is still being dumped in the countryside.

The existence of recycling centres serves to remind people they cannot dump things anymore. One must recycle what one brings to recycling centres by putting it in the various bins. The substantial improvements made over the past ten to 15 years, when green, blue and brown bins have been supplied, have helped to educate people and change their mindsets. People in some parts of the country are still waiting to get brown bins, however.

I would like to ask the Minister about the waiver system for vulnerable people with fixed incomes, which has already been mentioned. Many people on social welfare, for example, cannot afford to pay waste charges. While I am a firm believer in the polluter pays principle, we need to help polluters who cannot afford to pay. I suggest the Minister for Social and Family Affairs should be in charge of the waiver system because it is a little unfair to ask the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to deal with it. As that could be a good move, it should be considered. The waiver system should be operated in the same way as the social welfare and pensions systems.

I wish to highlight a major problem which Dublin will be the first part of the country to experience. Kill landfill facility will close at some stage in the next five years. Dublin is exporting its waste. I suggest to the Minister that Dublin will have to consider incineration and thermal treatment. We should develop three or four incinerators throughout the country because this problem will affect areas outside Dublin as time goes by. When there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain, the authorities there found it difficult to dispose of animal waste and material such as tallow. We have to look at the bigger waste management picture. As a farming nation, we must consider how we will handle problems which will arise in the agriculture sector.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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I thank the many Senators who contributed to the debate on this important topic. Their concerns ranged across a number of issues, including this country's overall approach to waste management and the regulation of the waste management sector. Like the Senators who contributed, I am also conscious of how important is a sustainable approach to waste management. Since coming to office I have identified waste management along with climate change as my major environmental priorities.

We need nothing less than a step-change in our approach to waste management if we are to rid ourselves of unsustainable practices and meet our national and EU ambitions and targets. In particular, I am acutely conscious of the imminent challenge posed by the EU landfill directive. If we are to meet our obligations under this directive and avoid the threat of legal proceedings before the European Court of Justice, we must double the amount of biodegradable waste diverted from landfill by 2010. The scale of the challenge this presents was well illustrated in the EPA's recent national waste report for 2006, which shows that while quantities of waste recycled increased so too did the quantity of waste sent to landfill. The report demonstrates good progress is being made in recovering and recycling packaging, biodegradable waste and household and commercial waste. However, this is being offset by the increase in the volume of waste being generated.

While the rapid economic growth of recent years, with the accompanying increase in population and number of households, is the driver of this increase it is not one that can be maintained. Sustainable development is fundamentally about decoupling our increasing prosperity from the environmental impacts which can be a consequence of it. Development and proper waste management are not mutually exclusive.

A new way forward needs to be charted. For this reason, the programme for Government identified the need for a fundamental review of our approach to waste management, which I have initiated. I intend that it be completed and acted upon in months and not years because time is not on our side. We need to accelerate the move away from landfill quite dramatically, to examine all the technologies that can contribute to this and to regulate the sector in a manner that supports optimal environmental performance at minimum cost.

However, we should be under no illusion. Good environmental performance comes at a price. Ireland leads Europe in its application of the polluter pays principle through its system of use-based charging and the funding of most of our infrastructure in this way. It must be ensured that the costs of using this infrastructure reflect the environmental burden imposed. For this reason I shall shortly increase the landfill levy by the €5 per tonne maximum currently permitted in law and I shall develop proposals for a much more ambitious approach to using levies to minimise our reliance on landfill and incineration and to promote the viability of the alternative technologies. This is being done at a time when the fall in landfill gate fees runs counter to the need to rapidly reduce our reliance on this outmoded technology and avoid the sanctions that will result if we do not meet our landfill directive obligations.

An ambitious programme to achieve the diversion of waste from landfill required by the directive is set out in the national strategy on biodegradable waste published in 2006. The programme for Government commits to implementing it. This will involve diversion of up to 1.4 million tonnes of waste from landfill by 2010, 1.7 million tonnes by 2013 and an estimated 1.8 million tonnes by 2016. To put this in context, of the 2.3 million tonnes of biodegradable waste generated in 2006, only 867,000 tonnes were recovered. The Government is committed to ensuring the implementation of the national strategy through segregated collection of biodegradable waste and the generation of compost and through the introduction of mechanical and biological treatment facilities as one of a range of technologies.

The review will not only be about technology. Its terms of reference are deliberately broad to promote a fundamental review of the legal, institutional and financial approach taken to waste management. If the review indicates the need for significant legislative changes, then I will bring the necessary proposals to Government. Inaction is not an option and the approach reflected in the current crop of waste management plans, while facilitating some progress, is simply not going far enough fast enough. We need to move from being reactive to proactive, from accepting received wisdom in regard to waste management to seeking the most innovative solutions available internationally. Ireland has led the way on the plastic bag levy, ridding the workplace of smoking and will soon lead in the approach to energy efficient lighting and a motor taxation system that tackles the climate issue head on.

In the same way I believe we can lead in waste management. Ireland can move from being an under achiever to world class standard which will see us not struggle to meet EU targets, as is the case with landfill diversion, but take a position of leadership. For this reason, the programme for Government sets the ambitious long-term goal of reducing reliance on landfill to 10%. There have been rapid changes in the waste management sector over the past decade due to the increased involvement of a developing and consolidating private sector, the changing role of local authorities as service providers and competitors within the industry and the movement towards full cost recovery for waste services that has led to increased charges for the consumer. While the sector is fully and properly regulated from an environmental perspective, no similarly comprehensive system of socioeconomic regulation has been put in place.

While there is general agreement that the existing regulatory framework needs modernisation, there is no consensus on what form this should take, for example, whether a waste regulator is required or whether it would be sufficient to change the regulatory framework to provide for a form of public service obligation and to ensure waste can be directed appropriately. A key overarching issue that has emerged is the dual role of local authorities as competitors and regulators in the same market and the perceived conflict of interest arising from this. Private sector involvement drives least cost solutions, which may not always address necessary social and environmental objectives. In environmental terms, the absence of a universal household collection service leads to increased fly tipping and backyard burning. Social equity is also an issue in the absence of waiver schemes in respect of privately provided services raising issues regarding what kind of public service obligation might need to be determined for service providers. Senator Butler made a number of good points in raising this issue.

The identification of the changes necessary will be greatly assisted by the current OECD review of the public service, which includes a specific case study on waste management, and which will be implemented in the context of the overall review of national waste management policy provided for in the programme for Government. I again stress my commitment, which I know is shared by Members, to ensure we rapidly move towards the world class waste management system a world class economy deserves.

I refer to a number of the issues raised by Senators. Senator O'Toole raised the question of traceability. While, like him, I want a waste infrastructure that does not involve the export of waste, there is a problem, which we share with other small economies, regarding economies of scale. For the foreseeable future, we will rely on exports but the points made by the Senator are valid. We need to find out where the waste is going and whether it is being properly handled and I have taken steps in this regard. An authority did not look after this area but on advice I selected Dublin City Council as the authority to examine trans-boundary shipment of waste. The council is doing so and it has stepped up to the plate. The system is more rigorous and there is much more vigilance regarding such shipments. I will examine the Senator's offer to travel toDongyang. However, the air miles must be considered.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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The Minister should not worry about air miles. It will be worth it because a great deal will be saved by that one trip.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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The Senator also raised the issue of refuse-derived fuel, RDF. Ireland is the only member state that does not use RDF and this must be addressed. I have begun discussions with Lagan Cement Limited, which has an EPA licence. Progress is being made on this and, therefore, RDF will be used in cement kilns. Currently, no kiln uses this fuel. Ireland is bottom of the league in Europe in this regard and it is my intention to move Ireland up the table.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

1:00 pm

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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The Senator is also correct that new technologies come on stream regularly and the waste review will seriously examine these because they are changing all the time.

Other Senators raised important issues. Senator Glynn referred to people in the private sector who are making an important contribution. Some people in the private sector are making important contributions. When the interaction between local authorities and the private sector is reviewed, we will have to look closely at the role being played by private operators because some perform very well and are making serious contributions in terms of recycling. I have visited some of these private plants and found them to be conscientious in how they recycle but critical of certain local authorities. Consistency is needed between private operators and local authorities in regard to collection and recycling of waste.

Senator Glynn also raised the issue of slurry spreading. I am conscious of that issue and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food also has a role to play. Farming organisations complain to me that their members are over inspected. They are now inspected by the EPA, local authorities and water authorities in some instances. The Senator made a valid point in that regard.

Several Senators referred to coastal zone management. This function does not at present reside with my Department although legislation has been proposed to move it there from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is extremely important that my Department has a function in regard to foreshore management in particular. At present we assist Coastwatch Ireland and An Taisce's blue flag initiative. Senator Ó Domhnaill spoke about beach management. The blue flag initiative does not pertain to water quality alone. There are outstanding beaches throughout the country which do not have blue flags but have fantastic water quality. Blue flag status requires that beaches have lifeguards, carparks and other ancillary services. I would like to put in place a system that makes information available on water quality in order that people can be aware of beaches which have outstanding water quality even though they lack blue flags.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I ask the Minister to speak about volume and weight.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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That is an important issue. Most local authorities operate weight or volume based systems and, where a service is farmed out to another provider, it is usually done on the basis of one of those systems. It makes sense to do so because the more one produces, the more one pays. I can find out for the Senator where the exemptions exist and which local authorities do not have these systems in place. He is clearly aware of at least one such local authority.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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The last time I checked, Mayo and Kerry county councils did not operate volume or weight based systems. That was last year, however.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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I have asked my officials to find out which local authorities do not operate weight or volume based systems.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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Collection services are inconsistent across the country. Does the Department have data to indicate what system is in operation in each local authority area?

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Yes.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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It would be of benefit to Senators, the Minister and society in general.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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I can collate that data to give Senators Coffey and O'Toole a better idea. We could speak about consistency in respect of many areas. We are trying to introduce new efficiency criteria and league tables across a range of issues in order that we can see how local authorities perform.

Senator McFadden strayed somewhat from our brief and in answering questions I have ranged beyond the issue of waste management. The Senator's desire for electrification of the railway system is a matter for the Minister for Transport. Electrification is a good idea but it will be very costly.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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As the Government's Seanad spokesperson on the environment, heritage and local government, I thank the Minister for taking this debate and for the frank and honest responses he gave to questions raised by Members.

Sitting suspended at 1.05 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.