Thursday, 14 April 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
I am pleased to bring the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011 before the Dáil today. This Bill has been the subject of much speculation and discussion and has been a long time in gestation. Debate on the Bill has been driven by the wider waste policy landscape. While I wish to focus today on waste policy, I will also later set out the other elements of the Bill as published and some of the amendments I propose to table on Committee stage.
As Deputies will be aware, waste policy has been the subject of uncertainty and debate for many years. A review of waste policy initiated in 2007 failed to result in the adoption of any clear new waste policy. Therefore, a significant degree of stagnation developed in the waste sector and resulted in an uncertain investment environment. This uncertainty must end and I intend to use the opportunity today to set out the broad outline of the Government’s approach to waste policy.
We have clearly signalled in the programme for Government that our policy will be based on the hierarchical approach to the management of waste, an issue to which I will return later. Our approach will provide clarity and will form the basis for a new waste policy which I will be bringing to Government later this year. The Bill I am presenting today will contribute to the development of that policy and to meeting Ireland’s EU obligations in relation to the management of our waste.
I want to see effective, efficient and quality waste services being provided to business and householders alike. The guiding principles which will be used to develop our waste policy are in line with the approach set out in the programme for Government. They will adhere to the EU waste hierarchy and favour a coherent approach to waste management that minimises waste going to landfill and maximises the resources that can be recovered from it.
The policy will have a number of key features. It will be designed to minimise the volumes of waste generated and to extract the maximum value from those wastes which do arise; aimed at delivering a positive environmental outcome and maximising the collective well-being through ensuring efficient, effective and progressive waste services for consumers and businesses; will be calibrated to the immediate demands Ireland faces and to the long-term challenges; founded on a firm, evidence-based understanding of the many scientific, economic and social issues which are inherent elements of the waste policy discourse; will be consistent with the cornerstones of National and European policy, including the waste hierarchy, the principle that the polluter pays, sustainable materials management and the urgent imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; will be in keeping with the complementary roles which the private and public sectors can play; designed to facilitate necessary investment in infrastructure, within an appropriately regulated waste market framework; and will be sufficiently flexible to respond to emerging developments in relation to technology, operational practice and wider thinking in the waste management policy realm.
We need to make progress and to make up for lost time in driving forward our management of waste. In doing so, we must be realistic about our starting point. As clearly indicated in the programme for Government, the internationally recognised waste hierarchy is the bedrock on which our waste policy must sit. In an early move to underpin this, I have recently signed regulations to complete Ireland’s transposition of the waste framework directive, giving statutory recognition to the hierarchy in Irish law. Taking that forward and looking at how we are performing by reference to the hierarchy, the stark message that jumps out is that Ireland is overly dependent on landfill. Despite the very significant progress that has been made over the last decade, we are still sending more than 60% of our municipal waste to landfill. Compare that to countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands where only 1% of municipal waste is landfilled and it becomes abundantly clear that we have significant work yet to do. Accepting the urgent need to make a rapid and significant move away from landfill must be our initial step on the road to the provision of a diverse range of waste treatment options.
Deputy Phil Hogan: Ireland already faces significant challenges in meeting certain of its EU targets. In 2009, we sent just over 1 million tonnes of biodegradable waste to landfill. The maximum amount of such material that can be sent to landfill in 2013 is 610,000 tonnes and will be only 427,000 by 2016. Our planning to meet these limits takes place against a background of landfill gate fees at record low levels. Currently, disposal, which is the most environmentally unsound option for dealing with our waste, is the cheapest. That situation is not sustainable.
A significant element of the response to this situation resides in the landfill levy. Greater flexibility in setting the levy will help to ensure a deterrent effect which will drive material away from landfill. The Bill before the House, once enacted, will contribute to ensuring waste is diverted from landfill, through higher landfill levies. It will also encourage the development of alternative treatment options to provide choice in the market and to deliver better environmental performance.
I mentioned the importance of clarity and to that end I today announce that, subject to the enactment of the Bill, the landfill levy will rise to €50 per tonne from 1 September 2011. I also plan to increase the levy to €65 per tonne from July 2012 and to €75 per tonne from July 2013. By announcing these rates today, I am providing the waste sector with the certainty it needs to prepare for the changes these increases will bring.
Another key issue on which the waste sector requires certainty relates to the application of a levy to incineration facilities. On 31 March, I completed Ireland’s transposition of the waste framework directive by signing the European Communities (Waste Directive) Regulations 2011. I have, therefore, been considering the waste facility levy proposal in that context and will make known my decision on Committee Stage which I hope can be accommodated shortly after the Easter recess. I make it clear that I have not completed the review of the Hennessy report which deals specifically with the proposal by Dublin City Council and Covanta to build a waste to energy facility at Ringsend. I am awaiting advice from the Attorney General in this regard.
Given the pressing need to move forward in complying with the landfill directive limits and to apply a range of measures to achieve compliance, my Department will complete a regulatory impact assessment on household food waste regulations. Regulations would be designed to divert such material away from landfill primarily through the brown bin system. I expect to conclude this assessment and announce my decision on the regulations before the summer recess.
The management of residual waste is only one part of the jigsaw. In line with the commitment in the programme for Government to move to competition for the market in household waste collection, I will commence a regulatory impact assessment next month to progress this proposal. This is a change supported by a number of analyses of the Irish waste market. I signal at this point my intention to include all stakeholders in this assessment process.
In addition to these regulatory impact assessments, I am initiating a review of existing producer responsibility schemes, with a particular focus on packaging, in light of commitments in the programme for Government. I want to ensure that such schemes deliver for their members and for Ireland in complying with national and EU legislation. The Bill also provides greater flexibility in setting the plastic bag levy, a tax which set the example for best international practice in waste prevention and minimisation. The level of plastic bag usage can fluctuate. To provide for a mechanism to respond to market conditions, I propose to amend the provisions of the Waste Management Act dealing with the plastic bag levy. While I have no immediate plans to increase the levy, I will keep the matter under review and keep a close eye on consumer usage and the preponderance of plastic bags in litter arising.
The Bill, of its nature, will deal with a variety of issues in its final form. As published, it provides for changes to the Air Pollution Act, the Waste Management Acts and the Freedom of Information Acts. There are four parts in the Bill, which contains nine sections, and I will refer in some detail to the main provisions.
Part 1 contains the standard preliminary and general sections. Part 2 provides for an increase in the monetary penalties under the Air Pollution Act 1987 and for the introduction of a system of graduated fixed payment notices, formerly known as on-the-spot fines, for certain offences under the Act. These measures will help to protect air quality in our towns and cities by supporting the enforcement of the smoky coal ban by local authorities.
Regulations under section 53 of the Air Pollution Act provide for a ban on the marketing and sale of bituminous or smoky coal in certain urban areas. It was first introduced in Dublin in 1990 and was subsequently extended to Cork, Limerick and other urban areas typically with a population of approximately 20,000. The measure has played a significant part in the improvement of air quality in urban areas in recent years. The success of the smoky coal ban is a good example of the positive effects environmental legislation can have on our health and quality of life.
While the ban has largely been effective, I am aware from our partners in local government as well as from members of the industry representative organisation, the Solid Fuel Trade Group, of some difficulties in the enforcement of the ban. There is also some evidence of a drop in sales of smokeless fuel over the past four to five seasons, while sales of bituminous coal have held up or even increased.
My Department has consulted extensively with local authorities to see how best to support the smoky coal ban and to safeguard and, where necessary, improve air quality in our urban areas. The amendments to the Air Pollution Act which are contained in this Bill are part of the outcome of this process. I intend to consult on further supplementary measures to ensure the continued effectiveness of the ban in the near future.
Currently, the penalties in the Air Pollution Act are: on summary conviction — fines up to €1,270 or 6 months imprisonment or a daily fine of up to €127 for continuing offences; and on conviction on indictment — fines of €12,700 or 2 years imprisonment or a daily fine of up to €1,270 for continuing offences. The penalties under this Act have not changed since it was enacted more than 20 years ago. They no longer represent a sufficient deterrent, especially when compared to penalties for many other environmental offences.
Given the potential for persistent breaches of the smoky coal ban to cause significant air pollution in urban areas, with consequent adverse impacts on health and quality of life for those living in those areas, it is important that a credible range of penalties is in place to deter such breaches. Therefore, sections 3 and 4 of the Bill update the penalty provisions of the Air Pollution Act 1987 by reference to the classes set out in the Fines Act 2010. They provide for: on summary conviction — a class A fine of up to €5,000 or 6 months imprisonment or a daily class E fine or up to €500, for continuing offences to a maximum of €5,000; and on conviction on indictment — fines of €500,000 or 2 years imprisonment or a daily fine of up to €10,000 for continuing offences. There is also provision for the payment of graduated fixed penalties up to €1,000 for an offence under section 53.
The fixed penalties will relate to breaches of the Air Pollution Act, 1987 (Marketing, Sale and Distribution of Fuels) Regulations 1998, specifically the following regulations: regulation 3(1) in relation to the marketing, sale or distribution of bituminous coal within a ban area — payment of €1,000; regulation 3(2) in relation to the transport of bituminous coal within a ban area — payment of €500; regulation 4 in relation to the requirement for bags of solid fuel to be sealed and appropriately labelled — payment of €500; regulation 6 in relation to the requirement on fuel merchants located within a ban area to maintain a register of fuels stored at and transported from the premises — payment of €500; and regulation 7 in relation to the requirement on the owners of vehicles used to transport banned fuels within a ban area to produce a statement of the fuels being transported, including suppliers, destination and purchasers — payment of €250.
Part 3 amends the Waste Management Act 1996, as amended. It allows for greater flexibility in setting the plastic bag levy rate and the landfill levy rate. It is not my intention to increase the existing levy of 22 cent on plastic bags at this point. I will keep the matter of setting the levy at an appropriate rate under review. To accomplish this, a greater flexibility is required in the setting of the plastic bag levy, an environmental charge which set the example for best international practice. At the current time, amendments to the rate of the levy are limited to changes in the consumer price index only. This hinders a Minister’s ability to respond with the appropriate amount of flexibility to changes in consumer usage of plastic bags and the extent to which they end up as litter.
The level of plastic bag usage can fluctuate and to provide an effective mechanism to respond to these changes, I am introducing section 5 of this Bill. It will amend the provisions of the Waste Management Act which deal with the plastic bag levy by providing that the ceiling be set at an absolute limit of 70 cent. This limit is designed to allow for increases to the levy for a number of years and is provided for in the amendment to section 72(3). It also provides the mechanism by which the levy rate may be increased through the insertion of a new subsection 72(3)(a) which will allow the application of the consumer price index and a discretionary application of not greater than 10% in any one year, provided that the absolute ceiling of 70 cent is not exceeded. Any amendment to the rate of the plastic bag levy will be for the purposes of preventing the generation of waste and a reduction in the use of plastic bags. The existing power to amend the rate of interest charged on unpaid levies is to be removed.
I spoke about the importance of ensuring that the landfill levy acts as an effective deterrent against recyclable waste being sent to landfill and contributes to meeting our landfill directive obligations. I have also provided certainty to the sector through the details I announced earlier regarding the extent and timing of the increases in the levy over the course of the period to mid-2013. Existing legislation is not adequate to allow for these changes to be made as it provides that the landfill levy may only be increased by a maximum of €5 per tonne in any one year.
Section 6, therefore, will amend section 73 of the Waste Management Act 1996 by providing that the levy may be increased once in any given financial year, subject to a maximum increase of €50 per tonne. It also provides for an absolute limit on the levy of €120 per tonne. In addition, section 6 inserts similar provisions in regard to interest charged on unpaid levies as is already provided for under the plastic bag levy, namely, that interest on late returns be liable on a daily basis.
Sections 7 and 8 provide for creation of a waste facility levy chargeable on incineration of waste classed either as disposal or recovery for the purposes of preventing the generation of waste and the reduction of the quantity of waste disposed of or submitted for recovery. I have been reviewing the provisions of the Bill relating to the waste facility levy, in light of the transposition of the waste framework directive. I will make my decisions known on these provisions on Committee Stage.
In Part 4, Section 9 provides for an amendment to the Third Schedule to the Freedom Of Information Act by the addition to the Schedule of section 16 of the Air Pollution Act 1987, which relates to the non-disclosure of information. This means that information obtained by a local authority in connection with its enforcement of the Air Pollution Act will be brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information Acts.
Section 16 of the Air Pollution Act 1987 contains a prohibition on giving information obtained by a local authority on fuels or other materials burned or other details of processes or activities, to any person other than a prescribed person. Under Section 32 of the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003, a record can be refused where its disclosure is prohibited by any enactment. However, if this enactment is included in the Third Schedule to the Freedom of Information Act, the non-disclosure provision cannot be used to refuse records following an FOI request. The non-disclosure provision continues to apply outside of FOI. Listing in the Third Schedule does not mean that records will be automatically released; all of the substantial exemptions and protections within FOI must first be applied.
It is my intention to introduce, on Committee and Report Stage, amendments to address a number of other matters. These amendments will be designed to complete the legislative requirements necessary to allow Ireland to ratify the Aarhus Convention, make a number of revisions to the Planning and Development Acts and the Local Government Acts, to introduce further revisions to the Waste Management Acts and Air Pollution Acts, and to provide for a number of technical revisions to this Bill.
This Bill represents the first phase in providing much needed certainty to the waste sector and reflects the Government’s intention to ensure the development of an efficient, effective and diverse waste management sector. In developing the Bill, a regulatory impact analysis was undertaken, and the Bill was also the subject of a full public consultation. I thank all those who contributed to those processes. I look forward to engaging with the range of stakeholders as I work towards finalisation of a new waste policy by the end of this year. By allowing for meaningful increases in the landfill levy, this Bill will contribute to ensuring that Ireland does not face fines for breaching the limits set in the landfill directive and will provide a further catalyst for the development of alternatives to landfill.
This Bill is being introduced at an extremely challenging time in this country. However, when taken together with other measures I have outlined, the Bill will drive waste from landfill and assist in creating jobs in the alternative waste infrastructure to be provided.
Much has been said since 2007 about waste management policy, but little has been brought to a conclusion. However, a number of things are certain. If we do not meet our EU obligations, Ireland will face significant fines. If the alternatives to landfill are not put in place we will not meet our EU obligations. If we do not provide certainty, those alternatives will not be provided and Ireland will not be in a position to manage its waste in a sustainable manner. The Bill before the House and the announcements I have made today are crucial steps in addressing this situation.
Deputy Sean Fleming: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I will comment on the programme for Government and the Minister’s statement, and deal with some specifics of the Bill, especially the waste management area. We are only dealing with one section of a much broader issue. In the programme for Government, there is less than a page dealing with sustainable waste policy. It rightly refers to minimising the waste going to landfill and producer responsibility. The final paragraph states:
This new utilities regulator means that another quango will be set up. This is coming from a party that campaigned in recent years to reduce the number of quangos. Who will pay for this regulator? How many staff will be employed? How will it link with the EPA and local authorities? Who will fund it? We all know that the poor people of Ireland will fund it eventually, whether it is through wheelie bin charges or through increased taxation. To introduce a new regulator in one of the first Bills before the House is not a good approach to dealing with this. The powers of the EPA can be enhanced and it can be further resourced. I do not think we need a utilities regulator.
Will the Minister give careful thought to what is in the programme for Government? There is a proposal for local authorities in the private sector bidding to provide services in an entire local authority area for a set timeframe. I would caution against taking that blanket approach. It is anti-competitive and maybe it was mooted in some of the Dublin local authorities, where they want to control waste. More than 20 years ago, the collection of waste was privatised in Laois and carried out by the private sector under licences issued by the local authority and the EPA. The local authority was not involved in the collection at all. At that time, the charge per annum for the local authority to collect the bin was the equivalent of €30 and people in Laois would not pay it. When the private sector came in it was raised to €60, yet people paid that amount. For some psychological reason, Irish people do not like having to pay extra money to local or central government and when given a chance, they would be happier not to have the local authority or any arm of government involved in local issues that do not have to be dealt with by a local authority.
I also caution against the idea of issuing these licences for an entire local authority area. I am in an adjoining county to the Minister. AES is one of the big operators and collects waste in many parts of Laois. In the Minister’s area near Carlow, there are wheelie bins that are brought into Laois while other companies from Tipperary are trying to come into Laois as well. That is fine. It is economical, competitive and open, and people have a choice. However, giving a contract to one company for four, five or ten years and forcing people to deal only with that contractor is an idea that will not fly. It is anti-competitive. I can understand people sitting at a desk thinking it is a nice, neat way to do it, but I would caution against that. The public sector obligation would be part of that, and we do not know how the associated cost would work in different local authorities. Some areas have it and some do not. There is a massive inconsistency to which I will return later, but I would caution against that approach for each local authority area.
There is often debate about amalgamating local authorities and their functions. A midlands waste management plan was published for my region, and the licences for some of the waste services are issued by one of the local authorities on behalf of the region. Some of this is happening at regional level already and not at local authority level. It is uneconomical for the consumer when one contractor gets the contractor to collect all the waste in Kildare and in South Tipperary, whereas in the open market he might be able to do areas in between and offer a much more competitive price.
I am very concerned from the Minister’s speech about the increase in landfill levies. Having canvassed every house in the country, we all know that people are very short of money, yet the proposal here is to increase the landfill levy by €50 per tonne from 1 September. If we did that, the parties opposite would call it another stealth tax. The Irish people will see this for what it is. It will put up the cost of wheelie bins.
There is another issue there. Since 1 September many contractors collecting wheelie bins do so on the basis of the local authorities having done their annual estimates at the start of the year. They knew the landfill price for the year and what they would be charged. Nine months into the year we find there will be a charge for the collector to deliver these to the landfill. Customers will have already been advised prior to the collector knowing this charge was in the offing. This will cause some financial difficulties, I believe, and will have to be teased out as well.
I am very pleased the Minister referred to the Hennessy report which deals specifically with Dublin City Council and Covanta’s building of a waste energy facility at Ringsend. I know he awaits the advice of the Attorney General in this regard. I merely ask the Minister to provide clarity and a timescale as quickly as possible because this matter has dragged on. There were local parish pump politics involving a Minister from a particular constituency affecting matters and it would have gone through long ago had it been any other constituency. However, we are where we are and I ask the Minister to move matters along, regardless of the outcome.
I welcome the fines in regard to air pollution and the smokeless coal ban, but I ask the Minister to clarify the areas that are covered by the ban already. He mentions urban areas and I understand it is to be rolled out to other local authorities. However, I understand “urban area” in a Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government context could relate to cities, urban councils or whatever. I am not quite sure what this specifically means. He refers to air quality in urban areas as if rural areas are not included, and will he say what is not an urban area? The word “urban” might hark back to an early definition within the Department, but towns and populations would have increased since then. I ask him to clarify the particular areas, with either a map or a listing of the towns to be covered in the legislation.
We are delving too deeply into people’s day to day activities in relation to regulation 4 where the Minister talks about having a fine of €500 for the requirement that bags of solid fuel be sealed and appropriately labelled. Every Deputy in the House knows that he or she will find bags of sticks in the local shop. Some people have left them in and there are arrangements in place. I realise some have gone through an expensive process and they are measured and precise, in sealed bags. However, in many shops I visit one will find bags of sticks, one sees what one is getting, the bag is open and one is not buying a pig in a poke. The idea that regulators will be sent around to prosecute such outlets for selling a few bags of sticks is ludicrous. I do not say this in a frivolous fashion, but it is widespread practice in Ireland. Issues such as this bring the law into disrepute if we are going to prosecute shops for selling bags of sticks and the public for buying them. The Minister appreciates that bureaucracy will have gone too far, in that regard. Perhaps he might clarify that and confirm which type of products are involved. In theory, there may be a good reason, but in practice Irish life does not always operate in that manner.
Further on, the Minister mentioned that the existing power to amend the rate of interest charged on unpaid levies is to be removed. Will he clarify the rate, who sets it and how it will change in future? At the moment we are in a period of high interest. In three, four, five or ten years time rates could be much lower. Is there a mechanism to lower that rate at a later date? Who does it? The only reference is to the effect that the power is to be removed to change the interest rate. Most of what I am saying in this regard is not by way of criticism, but rather seeking clarification. Those are just my comments in relation to the Minister’s opening remarks.
Moving on, the legislation, as the Minister has indicated, is a mechanism to increase the plastic bag levy which has been successful. Then it is a mechanism for increasing the landfill levy, which I have just dealt with. Doing this mid-year will cause commercial difficulties for operators. There will also be the power to introduce incineration facilities and amendments of penalties under the air pollution legislation.
I welcome the amendments in relation to the Freedom of Information Act. On one committee on which I served in the previous Dáil it was bamboozling to work out what could be asked for under the freedom of information legislation, there were so many exemptions, the majority of which were not justifiable. It is good to see the amendment of some of those exemptions that prevent public officials from issuing information they know to be all right. It does not mean they will issue commercial or personally sensitive information, but at least a request can be considered and the data issued, if appropriate. That is an improvement.
On the plastic bag levy, the Minister has said he will keep this under review and I seek further details on that. The most important feature of the plastic bag levy is that it changed customer behaviour. Most households have a few bags in the car for shopping purposes. I have had the same number of bags for several years. On occasion one can be caught in a shop without a bag, but definitely this initiative has changed customer behaviour, and this is very good. Commercial interests have copped on to its benefits and have the logos of shops advertised on the bags, so people can carry them up and down the streets. It works everywhere and is to be recommended. There have been real improvements since the Act came into force with the 5% of national litter then being carried in plastic bags down to a tiny 0.25%. We want to keep up the momentum as regards those real improvements.
I agree with the Minister’s intention to have the waste hierarchy enshrined in legislation, starting with prevention and minimisation, moving on to reuse and then recycling, energy, recovery and disposal. I am pleased that all reference in the legislation refers to incineration, that is, burning items that have gone through the proper recycling and segregation channels. When I served on a local authority we were dealing with regional waste management plans and the word “incineration” was banned from public use at that time. We used the phrase, “thermal treatment”. If one spoke in the council chamber about burning waste one would be told it was not that but thermal treatment. Therefore I am pleased to see practical lay commonsense coming back into the debate. It always was incineration although officialdom might believe it to be thermal treatment, whatever that is. It is just a nice term for what we all know to be incineration. We all agree with some element of recovery from that process in terms of electricity, light, heat, hot water and so on.
On waste management, there has been tremendous improvement in the landfill facilities around Ireland in recent years. In 1995 there were about 250 landfill sites throughout the country, and that is down to 48 or 49 at this stage. Most of those 48 or 49 which have been in place for the past decade or so are of a very high standard and are inspected regularly by the EPA. I am pleased the EPA has a role in this and believe it should be the authority to deal with these matters, more so than the local authorities.
I come back to my first point about local authorities being allowed to compete for the collection of waste if they are involved in issuing planning permission for waste facilities. I know the EPA will issue licences, but I do not believe the local authorities should be in the marketplace as well as partly having some role in the regulation of waste facilities. Waste management plans are approved by the local authorities, the locations are identified by them and I question the issue of their being involved in the regulation process while being players at the same time.
I am pleased that while Ireland landfilled about 90% of municipal waste in 2000, that is down to about 61% now, ten years later. That is a tremendous achievement and has primarily been brought about by the increased recycling. The landfill levies mentioned already were €15 when introduced, they are €30 currently and the Minister is proposing a big increase today. I do not say there should not be an increase. However, it could cause problems as regards introducing it during the year after all companies and some individuals will have already paid for their waste collection for the year. Those who did not pay up front will now have to pay a higher amount, so I suggest that has to be reconsidered.
I am not sure I understand the point about the landfill gate fees here in Ireland being quite low, although the Minister says this and I have seen it in official correspondence. The Oireachtas produced a chart showing the landfill gate levies, including the levy per tonne, in 2008, just over two years ago.
At that stage, the average landfill fee in Ireland was €112. The additional €20 landfill gate fee brought that to €132. This was one of the highest landfill levies in Europe identified in the research carried out by the Oireachtas Library. I have heard it said that our fee is relatively low compared with other countries and I am aware the library looked more broadly afield than the European Union. Sometimes Departments are great at citing EU statistics when it suits them, but the Oireachtas Library took a broader view and looked at New Zealand, Massachusetts, Singapore, Scotland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. It looked worldwide and I would ask people to consider the worldwide figures.
An important factor in the information produced for us by the Oireachtas Library was that although the published and official landfill charge in Ireland was €112, the rate in the marketplace was €90. Therefore, significant discounting takes place and deals are done with private sector operators. This happened some years ago in my county. The main operator stopped delivering to the local authority landfill site and held it over a barrel. It had the infrastructure built up, had the cost of maintaining the facility to EPA standards and had staff costs. This was dependent on a certain amount of material being brought to the site weekly. The stand-off continued for several weeks and could have caused massive difficulties for the local authority. However, an arrangement was made, but I am not aware whether it is disclosable under the provisions of freedom of information. I suspect deals are being done and the public is not being informed of them. Perhaps it is just a commercial issue.
Incineration has been mentioned. Will the Minister clarify in due course the position with regard to the Ringsend-Poolbeg site? In addition, when will the Ringaskiddy plant in Cork, which I understand is well advanced, come on stream? The licence for that plant was issued five years ago, but I understand there is some delay in the process, perhaps due to planning issues. The waste facility in Carlanstown in County Meath is also under construction. Will the Minister inform us of the situation with regard to all of these sites?
A new power plant in Offaly burns significant amounts of waste material as a source of fuel. Considerable incineration happens currently, but this is not reflected in the thinking on incinerators. These places are power plants and operate legitimately with proper licences from the EPA. I am almost sure that there is an arrangement for them to burn carcasses, perhaps even the specified risk material which has been a problem for storage. Perhaps I am incorrect on that, but I know a major power plant in Offaly has a licence for that material. It burns significant waste. I suggest far more incineration takes place than I suspect official statistics reflect.
With regard to increasing recycling of municipal waste, some 35% of our waste is recycled currently. This is about average in the EU area. A handful of countries, such as Austria and Germany, would recycle approximately 60% or 70%, but a significant number of countries would only recycle 1%, 2%, 5% or 10%. We are not in a bad position with regard to recycling. However, we do not match our European counterparts with regard to what we do with waste that is not recycled. We send 60% of that waste to landfill whereas most European countries incinerate a significant amount. Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg and France incinerate over 30% of their waste. They may have a different culture. Those countries probably have nuclear power also. They have long since had the debate about nuclear power and incineration. We have never crossed that Rubicon on either issue. I do not suggest we cross it in the case of nuclear power, because Ireland is too small a country to require a nuclear power station.
The biggest difficulty I see with regard to waste is the cost to the consumer and the wheelie bin charge. I pay approximately €350 for a wheelie bin service. I have raised the issue of the tax rebate on this charge on many occasions, including when Fianna Fáil was in government. However, the suggestion I made was not taken up. The rebate was probably introduced because somebody thought it was a clever idea. I get a 20% rebate on my payment every year as there is a rebate or tax concession allowed for waste collection charges. Although I am a top rate taxpayer, I get that rebate. However, my next door neighbours, both of whom are on social welfare, get nothing and must pay the full rate. This is wrong. It is a budgetary matter and I urge the Minister to get rid of the rebate. It is unfair, especially given that those on higher incomes get it. I only get my rebate at the standard rate now, although I used to get it at the top rate. That at least is some attempt to rectify the wrong. It is very wrong that people on social welfare or no income must pay the full rate. I appeal for equity in this area.
There is a way to deal with this issue and the Minister mentioned the public service obligation. The Minister for Social Protection might freak out at this idea, but I suggest that the management of waste should be included in the household benefits package. We provide free telephone, free TV licences, free electricity and free travel. In the interest of public health and safety, managing waste should be included in that package. Caution will be required when dealing with this and the provision on waste should only apply to certain categories of people. I urge the Minister to include this in his consideration. I do not see any reason I should get a tax rebate when people on minimum social welfare receive no benefit in that regard.
A more important aspect of waste in Ireland that is not reflected in this legislation or departmental statistics relates to a review carried out recently in the midland region. This review showed that 47% of households do not have a wheelie bin. We need to address that issue. The simple reason they do not have a wheelie bin is cost. If the annual charge is €350, that is approximately €7 per week. A person on an old age pension, social welfare or minimum wage will not pay €7 a week for a wheelie bin. Ten years ago when I would drive into my local village on a Thursday night, I would see a wheelie bin outside every house, but now there will only be a few wheelie bins out. People are not using the service anymore because it is too expensive. The elephant in the room on the issue of waste management is the number of people who are not included in the official statistics on waste because they are not part of the system.
This is the problem with legislation. It deals with what can be measured, what is in the system, what is captured and trapped, and what is delivered and paid for. However, almost half of our waste is not part of the system. We have all seen an increase in roadside dumping and dumping in our bogs and on back roads. There has been a phenomenal increase in this kind of dumping since the recession started. I deplore this dumping and support the efforts made by councils in pursuing culprits. The councils are effective, diligent and thorough in that regard and use significant time and resources following up in this area. Sometimes judges take these matters too lightly when they get to court. It is important that further consideration is given to this matter.
Recycling is the way forward and is a good commercial business. I am aware of two recycling companies that operate in Portlaoise. One of these is Atlas Oil, which collects, cleans and reuses old engine oil. It also deals with contaminated soil. It uses anaerobic digestion to clean up contaminated soil from building sites polluted by diesel, petrol and other chemicals. There is a long process involved in this and significant space is required, but the company is doing that. The other company is CUINAR. I was amazed last year to walk into that plant to see dirty, smelly, black silage wrap come in on the pallets on one side, go through a process, machines and a distiller and come out as pure, perfect diesel for trucks. One would not know if one drove past the building what was going on. It is an outstanding process and we should follow up on it.
We must look at the export of waste and what happens to it. We have used the export of waste to say that collected waste does not go to landfill, but it may have gone to landfill in China. Now China has stopped taking some of our waste. Exporting waste is not a sustainable way of doing business. Most of the waste glass in Ireland must be exported, as must much of our hazardous waste. We need to develop sustainable ways of dealing with this waste.
I am pleased with the provision on packaging in the legislation and in the programme for Government. Repak has a good system in place and there is a parallel system allowing companies, including some of the fast food restaurants, which choose not to deal with Repak, to pay a fee to the local authority for each take-away outlet in the county. That happens with the best known ones in most counties, including mine. I am a former Chairman of the Joint Committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I know the Department did not have good information about businesses that had a contract with their local authority to collect their packaging as opposed to Repak. Repak is the main player but some of them are doing it through the local authorities and I am not sure if a sufficiently good mechanism is in place. The Department did not have an adequate handle on that.
The Bill introduces the power to charge a waste facility levy on incineration facilities and the Minister mentioned the Covanta situation. We all recall that there were eight regional management plans and every area was to have an incinerator at that time. I imagine that one consultant from Dublin probably got the job to produce them all. I do not know how much he charged each local authority — all he changed was the cover and the map on the front page and he produced a 300-page report. People might think I am being unfair but I am very fair in what I say on that because I saw some of the other reports. Even on some of ours, some of the words from Ballybay and different places appeared on our ones, indicating that the word processor did not get it right and someone did not proof-read it. It proved to me that these reports were being recycled and reused at great expense to the taxpayer and somebody did very well out of it.
There was logic that every region with a population of 250,000 should have an incinerator. My main argument was that such a level of population does not justify an incinerator. Ireland needs three or four. We do not need one in every region. Most people accept that we cannot have smelly landfill sites, upsetting neighbours. I know they are well managed but there are still fumes, leachate and methane being burnt off. There still can be an overpowering smell on occasions and for the people who live near them it is not a good scenario. The debate has moved away from landfill, which was the easy lazy option for many years. I ask the Minister to provide clarity on when we expect to be able to meet our incineration target which can only happen if some of these new plants are opened. I ask the Minister to do what he can. There is one in Cork, Meath and Dublin, and there may be more.
The EPA is a good organisation that could do with more resources. It does not have adequate powers and is constrained if taking a big operator to court. Waste is big business and large waste operators will take a State agency to court. Sometimes a State agency will not care that it is spending taxpayers’ money, but on other occasions the EPA was being very careful not to waste taxpayers’ money and might not have been as aggressive as it should be in some of the cases it dealt with. There were many cases of people feeling the EPA did not act strongly enough. As part of the overall waste management strategy in coming years, I encourage the Minister to strengthen the role of the EPA.
Deputy Brian Stanley: While Sinn Féin favours any move that furthers environmental protection, there are many aspects of the Bill with which we would take issue as they heavily penalise the ordinary working person while not addressing the amount of waste which is produced by manufacturers and wholesalers, which is unreasonable. If we are to stop illegal dumping we need to get to the source of it. This Bill should be used as a mechanism to compel manufacturers and wholesalers to reduce the amount of waste they produce. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Bill to increase the fines for illegal dumping, which is a major problem in Laois-Offaly.
Sinn Féin is committed to the promotion of a zero-waste strategy that rejects incineration, keeps landfill to a minimum and supports waste reduction, reuse and recycling, closure of all unsafe landfill sites and full remediation of contaminated sites that are not operating properly. We continue to oppose the environmentally destructive policy of incineration even if it is called thermal treatment.
Sinn Féin takes a rights-based approach to the environment. Having a clean environment is a right that must be upheld to achieve a better quality of life. The Bill represents a lost opportunity for the Minister to set progressive time-framed targets to minimise waste going to landfill. There must be legislative provision to compel industrial and commercial producers of waste to reduce waste production in a planned, targeted and accountable manner, but the Bill in its current format does not do that. Instead, it introduces a provision to allow a Minister to set a plastic bag levy as high as 70 cent. The plastic bag levy has been progressive and has now been introduced in the other part of the island, in the North. It has been a good measure that has reduced the amount of waste from plastic bags. A few years ago the hedgerows and ditches were decorated with plastic bags that were blue, yellow, green and every other colour. The provision allowing the Minister to set the plastic bag levy up to 70 cent is not a good measure. It leaves too much leeway and will penalise people. While it may be designed to be in line with the consumer price index and allow for inflation over a few years, can any Government be trusted to not hike it above what would be reasonable? If it thought it was another opportunity to make money out of those who are already strapped for cash, it would do it. This provision is something nice for the Minister to present so that he can say he is doing something about waste reduction but it does not matter that it will not do what it needs to do.
The provision will have no impact on manufacturers and wholesalers who wrap their products in layers upon layers of plastic. We are committed to robust environmental protection and we believe this necessarily involves the use of legislation that challenges the attitudes and practices of businesses and consumers alike and promotes behavioural change. The introduction of the plastic bag levy was effective in promoting behavioural change, but such measures should not only be directed towards the individual consumer, they also need to be directed towards businesses. Less plastic and waste would be good for them as it would be a cost-saving mechanism for businesses. Easter is coming and we know that there will be plenty of Easter eggs sold. The wrapping on Easter eggs is a good example of what I am talking about.
The previous Government did not have a good record on this. There was promotion of incineration and illegal dumping owing to high charges — the whole thing was a disaster. The previous speaker made the point I wanted to make. The problem lies with the waste that is not in the system. Between 30% and 40% is not going anywhere that we know of but when one walks down country roads one can see where it is going — it is going into ditches and hedgerows. This Government will be doomed to repeat this if it does not take a different direction.
The Minister needs to takes a constructive approach in creating an environmentally sound, sustainable future for all of Ireland. This should be anchored in the promotion of a zero-waste strategy that rejects incineration, keeps landfill to an absolute minimum and supports waste reduction, reuse and recycling. The danger with the Bill is that if levies are set at too high a rate it will merely have the effect of encouraging illegal dumping — the Bill does not increase the fines for illegal dumping. Our recycling infrastructure is poor and the Minister must address this urgently.
We must consider the viability of the landfill sites in my constituency of Laois-Offaly at Kyletalesha and other locations. We must also investigate the incidence of illegal dumping in areas such as Clonreher Bog. We support strong environmental regulation at all-Ireland and EU levels as the only way to protect the right to a clean environment. The Minister has a responsibility to legislate and regulate proactively to safeguard the air, rivers, lakes, wetlands, boglands, remaining forests, coastal zones and seas. That means actively tackling and combating illegal dumping as part of a range of environmental measures. We support the polluter pays principle, but it must be applied in a manner that does not disproportionately penalise those on lower incomes or small businesses against big businesses.
There are two waste management facilities in my constituency. I am alarmed at the announcement by the Minister that landfill charges will increase in September to €50 per tonne and next year to €65 per tonne. I recently stepped down from the county council, but I am aware that the viability of these landfill sites is hanging in the balance. The Minister has indicated that the average rate of landfill fees is approximately €112 per tonne. Local authorities are doing deals far below that level to try to keep the tonnage going into landfill sites to retain their viability. The good news is that they are trying to ensure these landfill sites have cells that are properly lined and that leachate and methane gas are being handled properly. That all costs money. I am concerned that if the levy is increased without other measures being in place, we may go over the tipping point in terms of the viability of landfill sites. The Minister has announced today that he will go ahead with an increase, but I urge him to take the point into consideration before he imposes an increase in charges.
In general, the State’s environmental record has been poor. We failed to meet the European Union’s carbon emission standards and the waste reduction targets. There have been increased incidents of flooding as a consequence of the failure to protect flood plains from development, as well as consistent violations of EU water quality standards. While I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the environment, it is not enough. Robust action must start at home with each person in the community. That means ensuring all of us are guaranteed as a right a safe and sustainable environment and the facilities to make that happen.
The Minister must ensure local authorities fulfil their obligations in areas for which they are directly responsible and also that businesses and others comply with the relevant regulations dealing with environmental protection and waste management. Part of this must involve devolving as much power as possible to locally elected representatives and the community. The previous Government removed these powers. Deputy Fleming and I debated at local level the issue of county managers being given powers to handle waste in the regions. We in Sinn Féin believe that was a retrograde step. It is important that local representatives who are elected by the people have that responsibility. In turn, that would put responsibility on the people who elect them. It would make us all take personal responsibility. Previous Governments have removed too many powers in this area from local authorities and transferred them to unelected managers or a Minister. That has had serious implications for waste management and resulted in unnecessary incineration plans, overdependence on landfill, the imposition of double taxation service charges for waste collection and also an increase in the incidence of illegal dumping. That is the big issue with which the Government and all of us must come to terms and address.
As part of a progressive movement away from landfill towards reduction, reuse and recycling, we are supportive of a landfill levy, but the polluter pays principle must be applied consistently. There must be sufficient funding for recycling infrastructure and widespread provision of public recycling amenities. What is in place works well. We would also support measures to eradicate illegal dumping, including increased enforcement and penalties. The law in that regard must be re-examined. Sinn Féin welcomes the intent of the Bill, but much more must be done. I will table amendments in an attempt to rectify some of the matters I have raised.
There is a need for a waiver scheme for low income households. We must factor in the implications of continuing on the same road and what will happen if it becomes more expensive to dispose of waste. I urge the Minister to address the issue.
Methane gas is being burned off at some landfill sites. It is not being used for any purpose. Perhaps the Minister might examine the issue. Sizeable quantities of methane gas are being burned off with no benefit gained.
Reference is made in the Bill to sealing and labelling bags of fuel for sale. A previous speaker referred to bags of sticks. It is not practical to seal and label bags of firewood. It is totally unnecessary. I would like to see this provision excised from the Bill. Neither is there a need to label bags of turf or peat. People cut turf and sell it door to door or it is sold at the local shop. I urge the Minister to deal with the issue. The new regulation is totally unnecessary. One could ask who will implement it. In some cases local authorities are losing up to 100 staff each. There will not be enough staff to go around following people in pick-up trucks to see whether bags are sealed or labelled. I presume the intention of the Minister is to differentiate between smokeless and non-smokeless coal. I urge him to clarify the position on the sale of turf and firewood.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: I regret to say there are some provisions in the Bill that I could not possibly support. Even if incineration was the preferred method of waste disposal, the finances simply do not stack up. I have a serious concern about the level of regulation. My view is based on practical experience of how the waste collection system has played out in reality. I have used my area as an example. There will be an opportunity to improve the Bill and I hope there will be amendments to address my concerns.
The waste collection service has been liberalised, but there needs to be additional regulation which may be on a different tier. For example, Kildare County Council is one of eight local authorities which still retain a waste collection service, albeit one provided by a contractor. The county council is also the licensing authority which gives rise to a potential issue in terms of competition as the local authority cannot be seen to interfere. A court case was taken against the Dublin local authorities in that regard.
Dublin has the highest level of directly collected waste, with 88% of the waste collected by local authorities. That differs substantially from the position in other local authorities around the country where only eight collect directly or with the assistance of contractors. Deputy Lawlor will be familiar with the situation in Kildare County Council as it is an issue we have debated in a different forum. In my constituency a difficulty arises every single morning when six or seven contractors arrive one after the other to collect waste at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., thereby preventing people from getting a night’s sleep. Deputy Lawlor will know this having debated the issue in a different forum. We found this problem impossible to address, even through the introduction of by-laws. This is much more of an issue in urban areas where there is more acute competition. It demonstrates there is an element of cherry-picking in waste collection. It is much more expensive to collect waste in rural areas.
We need to address much more substantially the issue of regulation. When the waste collection service was liberalised in Britain, it was put out to competitive tender, but the authorities retained the landfill sites, the vehicles and relevant apparatus. What we have done is allowed a free-for-all arrangement. This is problematic in some communities, particularly where there is a greater level of competition than in others. A solution is needed quickly in order that the service can be managed in a way that respects the affected citizens.
In my area the local authority provides the most expensive service because it is the only one which provides waivers. Deputy Fleming has raised this issue. A sum of €188 per week is approximately the same as the annual cost of a waste collection service. It is not inconsiderable for somebody on social welfare, for example. As we all know, a serious problem arises over dumping and the public must pick up the tab if it is not controlled. A levy may need to be imposed on private contractors so as to have a universal waiver for all those on the lowest incomes. The current arrangement is not tenable and is costly. I have no problem with the fining of people who dump waste. I do not condone dumping in ditches and along roadsides, but we must also consider inability to pay at some point.
The EPA which, in theory, has a role to play works fine in circumstances where there is a compliant operator. However, the operator at Kerdiffstown dump, for example, was not compliant. The EPA estimates remediation measures at the site will cost €30 million. The problem, including smells and smoke from the fire which was ablaze for a very long time, has been an absolute nightmare for those who live beside the dump. The operator went missing after it had made its money, which is not good enough. We need proper regulation. This could occur in a reorganised local government system with a strong regional authority. The system could function at regional level rather than local authority level. I am sure reorganisation will happen in the context of the programme for Government. I await the reform of local government with bated breath. It has been sought since the foundation of the State.
The issue of finance at the Poolbeg station does not stack up. Dublin City Council must commit to delivering to the incinerator 325,000 tonnes of waste per annum for 25 years or else it will have to pay a penalty. Poolbeg may not be in my area, but this does not mean I am not concerned because the money will come from the public purse. The council cannot tell private contractors where to dispose of their waste; therefore, it cannot force them to deposit their waste at the incinerator; yet it will have to pay a penalty if an insufficient volume of waste is delivered to the incinerator. I suspect surrounding counties will be contributors to the facility if it is ultimately built. When one builds a very large incineration plant, the very concept of recycling and reusing goes out the door because a very large volume of waste must be incinerated to make it efficient.
The plastic bag levy has been a success story. We no longer see as much litter on fences and in ditches. The waste we now see in ditches tends to comprise bags of domestic waste, which is very unsightly.
My area benefited from the move to smokeless coal. It improved air quality substantially. It is not difficult to notice the odd person burning smoky coal because the smoke cannot be hidden. Has anyone ever been fined €5,000 for burning smoky coal? The ban has been in place for in excess of ten years, but I do not know anyone who has received a fine. I do not know how the local authorities enforce the law. Very often the people who use smoky coal are those who cannot afford to pay for the more expensive smokeless fuel. Enforcement is a problem. It is not good enough merely to put legislation in place because we must consider its practical outcome and how it will be enforced. I do not know how local authorities can enforce the smoky coal ban practically in areas that benefit therefrom. Where there is an embargo, it is more likely to be in the evening that monitoring will take place. In winter it will be too dark to see the source of smoke, but one will certainly see it in the spring and autumn. I hope we will continue to have good air quality. The ban on smoky coal made a positive contribution, but there is still a deficiency in enforcement.
Deputy Thomas Pringle: The Bill provides for an increase in a range of levies and the introduction of a new levy on incineration. The plastic bag and landfill levies are to be increased. The increase in the levy on plastic bags, to 70 cent, is viewed by the Government as a means of using price to control the use of plastic bags. There is no doubt that the levy was effective when first introduced. It was a very efficient tax and raised €22.6 million in 2007 and involved a very low administrative cost of only €350,000. The increase in the levy to 22 cent in 2007 appears not to have slowed down the demand for bags because demand has begun to increase again. Increasing the levy can only be seen as a revenue generating exercise because plastic bag use is not sensitive to price changes above 22 cent. A study in 2007 showed there was significant positive consumer sentiment towards the levy and that consumers were happy to pay the charge in the hope it would reduce littering with plastic bags, a problem which blighted the countryside. Increasing the levy again will have the effect of turning consumers against it and probably lead to an increase in the usage of bags.
The landfill levy is purely a revenue generating exercise. The environmental fund is almost depleted and there will possibly be a deficit of €4.8 million by the end of this year. We can see that the need to increase the landfill levy is purely to add to the environment fund. A 2009 study by Eunomia claimed the relatively low cost of sending waste to landfill in Ireland has created an over-reliance on landfill. It is clear the Government will use the levy to increase the cost of putting waste into landfill which in turn will increase the cost to householders, which I believe in turn will create more fly-tipping and more illegal dumping in the countryside.
Over the years, the mistake we have made in Ireland is that we have tried to create a private market where none existed previously. We bought into the European model that waste is a commodity and that the market should dictate how it is used and how it develops. However, we should be looking at waste as a public good to be dealt with through public facilities and public means of collection and disposal.
In 2009, some 61% of municipal waste went to landfill. A total of 30% of municipal waste is actually organic and biodegradable, so a proper roll-out of the three bin system would reduce landfill requirements to 40%, which is the EU average. Only 24% of serviced households have a three bin collection. I remind the House that in Donegal only approximately 50% of houses have any collection and must dispose of waste by their own means. Nationally, 19% of houses do not have a collection. This means an increase in the levies will increase the cost to households. It will also increase the number of households without a service because people will withdraw from services because of affordability issues, and we will increase the amount of fly-tipping that is taking place throughout the country.
The regulation and control of landfills operated throughout the country by the EPA is having the effect of penalising compliant facilities because the cost of compliance is huge. Gate fees being charged for waste brought to landfills throughout the country have been reducing significantly. We must question this, as if a facility is reducing significantly its gate fee it cannot be completing its compliance requirements also. There is an issue in terms of enforcement through the EPA. We have a bizarre situation now where compliant facilities are being penalised through the costs involved in being compliant. I notice from the Bills digest that there will be a level of fees for unauthorised facilities and authorised facilities. This is an ironic admission that there is a huge number of unauthorised illegal landfills throughout the country. When we detect them we will place a levy on them also. We are encouraging non-compliance.
With regard to the incinerator levy, incineration is the wrong way to go and it is obvious from what Deputy Catherine Murphy stated about Poolbeg that we have planned for an over-capacity of incineration. The big problem with an incinerator is that once it is lit, it must be kept lit. We will see large-scale diversion of waste that could otherwise be biodegradable or recyclable to these incinerators to ensure they maintain the levels of waste they are built to manage and require to keep going.
We have never had a debate on the large amount of hazardous waste, approximately 10%, produced by incinerators for which there is no option other than landfill. This is significant and we should examine it. The Minister should consider this in his waste management policy later in the year. In the case of the Poolbeg incinerator, if Dublin City Council provides the 320,000 tonnes a year that are required, it will generate 32,000 tonnes of hazardous waste for which there will be no choice but landfill in a hazardous waste facility, which probably requires a higher standard than most of the facilities we have in the country at present. We are building up an environmental hazard by the burning of waste.
The idea seems to be that increasing the levies will stimulate the provision of alternative waste facilities by private operators throughout the country. However, in these times it will also increase fly-tipping and the withdrawal of households from availing of the service, which is of no benefit to the environment. The Bill is premature and should be left until after a waste management policy has been introduced. It is not an environmental Bill but a taxation Bill, and its purpose is to increase indirect taxation on households and artificially stimulate an unworkable private market.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and I look forward to engaging with him and the Department on many issues. We are told the plastic bag levy is an environmental waste measure in line with international best practice and that Ireland should be a role model. We should and could be a role model because we are a small country by any standard, and our waste issue should be dealt with in a far more pragmatic way. If we had proper waste regulations, compliance and management we would be able to market ourselves as green which would be a big boost to our agricultural and food exports. Therefore, this legislation is very important and there is no doubt the Minister is well aware of this.
I know from dealing with previous issues that the environment is a very sensitive and emotive area with tenuous and slow progress. I know this from my county, where there are major issues regarding landfill and the transfer of materials that should not go to landfill but do, and a fight to maintain and extend a landfill and to source a new one. For decades, there has been an issue with regard to Hardbog, a site in south Tipperary. The county council acquired a site but it has been in the courts as various actions and cases have been taken. Huge expense has been associated with the procurement of the site and trying to prove it would be safe and would not be an environmental hazard to water supplies and neighbouring landowners.
In fairness, the EPA’s hands are not clean either because it did not come up trumps when it was required to do so in support of the county council. It dragged its feet, and the situation has continued for years longer than it should and there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. The lifetime of the existing landfill is way over what it should have been and it has been extended again and again.
Meanwhile, the good collection service operated in south Tipperary by the county council is being blown out of the water. While we have to encourage competition and private sources are good, in neighbouring counties when local authorities were removed from the collection service it was not always good for the consumer because the less competition there is, the more expensive something can get. The county council has had a good track record and history of recording statistics on the amount of material going to landfill or elsewhere.
There must be incentives for reducing packaging, which is a huge issue. Anybody with a young family knows that when buying a little gift for a child, or buying household goods or everyday groceries, the amount of waste in packaging materials is sheer madness. It is totally unnecessary and overdone. Much of it is slick packaging to make products look better but stricter penalties should be enforced. The consumer should not be expected to dispose of this because 50% or more of the volume of material goes on packaging and better efforts must be made to try to deal with this.
I am worried that a number of households are withdrawing from the service, although I do not have the exact figures, and, as I said yesterday in the context of the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill, that there will be cherry-picking. The people concerned do not live in remote areas because they would not have received planning permission but they live on isolated or tertiary roads and the trucks, due to their sheer size, will not travel up those roads to collect waste. If the people are obliged to bring their rubbish a mile or so to a collection point, there is no incentive in that. There should be fairness and people should not be discriminated against because of where they live.
We must encourage people to come out of non-compliance. Education has a big part to play in that, and the education should be started in our national schools. April has been designated national spring clean month and most schools are taking part in all sorts of competitions as well as being involved in the Tidy Towns competition and the green flag awards. Some schools have up to five green flags. We should encourage them to get involved in the national spring clean. The education of our young people is important. People of my age and older got into bad habits. It was a different era so it is important to educate and encourage people to reuse and recycle. Education has a major role.
Deputy Tom Fleming: I welcome the report from the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan. I also welcome the aspirations in the programme for Government. Much deliberation and thought is required to arrive at a proper formula to deal with the waste management difficulties in this country over the next few years.
As I am aware from my local authority in County Kerry, there must be clarification from the Minister regarding the implications of the European Union services directive for local authorities involved in waste collection. There are only eight local authorities, in conjunction with private operators, still involved in waste collection and I am aware that three of them are actively trying to get out of that service provision. Another two that are under the radar are seriously contemplating getting out of the service. That seriously reduces the number involved. Kerry County Council will continue to be actively involved but there is much uncertainty about how the policy will proceed in the future. I am open to correction but I understand the Minister stated prior to the election that local authorities should be encouraged to get out of the business and let it be privatised.
Perhaps the Minister will give further clarification because the counties that continue to provide the service require it. How will local authorities proceed in this area? Is there a future for them in the business if they stay in that market? They have their projected figures and business plans for the next few years and they need to know what the situation will be with regard to upgrading their lorries and machinery and the future of jobs for the workforce.
I agree with Deputy Mattie McGrath that there must be more awareness about our green school policy. I commend the Minister on the money he has made available for the forthcoming Tidy Towns competition. We must create a sense of civic spirit in our communities, towns and villages. The national spring clean was also mentioned by Deputy Mattie McGrath. These are wonderful programmes which we should promote to maintain a sense of community awareness and involvement.
There should be further promotion of recycling. Revamping is a new concept that has become popular in some counties. It originated over the past 12 months through local development groups. A large amount of furniture is now being refurbished and renewed and this is providing a form of employment. There is a social inclusion element in terms of involving people who have been out of the jobs market for many years and who would never otherwise get a job. The settled Traveller community is very much involved in it in Kerry, which is commendable. The people promoting the scheme are also to be commended. I ask the Government to maintain support for such schemes.
As has been said, the wrapping on products is overdone. It is a marketing ploy but it is a matter that must be examined by the major companies involved in the provision of groceries and so forth. There is also the issue of the paper disposal market. The market was fluctuating a couple of years ago and much of the paper was exported. We should recycle it here. There is inequity in the waste collection system throughout the country, particularly in rural areas such as mine. There is a very poor collection service available to people in rural and isolated areas.
Will the Minister encourage councils, particularly town councils, to investigate incineration in European countries. We are disposing of 60% of our municipal waste in landfill; it is only 1% in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. I have seen it in operation and it is very effective if there is a good, clean and efficient operation in filtering and so forth. There must be further investigation of it because it also provides renewable energy for heating.
Deputy Jim Daly: I wish to share time with Deputies Paudie Coffey, Eoghan Murphy and Anthony Lawlor. Ba mhaith liom sa chéad áit mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as ucht an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhactach seo. Mar is gnáth do dhuine a labhraíonn anseo don chéad uair, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na daoine in iarthar Chorcaí. This is my maiden speech and, as is customary, I express my gratitude to the electorate in west Cork for the opportunity they have given me to represent them and speak today on this subject.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well. I have no doubt that he will be very successful. The role, power and functions of the local authority are very important in this debate. It is something to which we often pay lip-service, particularly before elections. However, we then drift away and continue to ignore it. In the debate on this Bill we should take particular cognisance of the local authority and how we can strengthen its functions and role in the area of waste management. When I was on Cork County Council and mayor of the county, the council got out of the waste collection business. However, I do not consider that a negative and it is important that it does not preclude local authorities from involvement in waste management and particularly enforcement.
The management of waste is a challenging issue for this generation, but the single greatest challenge is enforcement. It is proving difficult on the ground to manage the enforcement of the anti-litter laws. I am a fervent believer that education provides the only solution to this challenge. Education must create awareness. The role of schools, with the green school initiative and flags, has been of considerable benefit but there is more to education than schools. Much education, in fact the most important education, is imparted in the home. Education on anti-litter initiatives must spread above and beyond the responsibility of schools.
We must also cultivate a sense of pride and bring about a sense of responsibility and ownership of our community, realising that the boundaries extend beyond our own garden wall, that we are part of a community and we have a responsibility to that community as a whole. This will lead into enhancing our own sense of well-being, and that completes the full circle.
My interest in this legislation is in the plastic bag levy. I am aware that there are no values as yet put on the levies, while a maximum of 70 cent is proposed. In March 2002, as has been alluded to previously in the debate, a 15 cent levy was introduced and everybody has acknowledged the success of that initiative. The levy increased to 22 cent in 2007 and therein came the decline in the matter. Unfortunately, with that increase also came an increase in usage. We must look beyond the levy because we cannot the continue the cycle. While it is a good avenue to generate income, it is not proving to be successful. The income from the levy was €10.4 million in 2002 and that more than doubled to €26.6 million in 2008 but the net result is increased usage of plastic bags. While we have increased revenue, it is clearly a counter productive measure if it continues in that spiral. It is not helpful to the overall objective, which is to decrease the usage of plastic bags.
The improvement in the countryside has been referred to already. We all acknowledge that the litter problem has improved but the fact that we are still using a significant amount of plastic bags is where the issue lies. No matter what kind of levies we impose on plastic bags, it will not address that aspect.
Deputy Jim Daly: Based on research in the city of San Francisco, it takes 16,380 litres of oil to produce 1 million plastic bags. The import of this for Ireland, where based on the revenue of €22.6 million in 2007 we used approximately 130 million bags, is that this broadly translates to 1.7 million litres of fuel used in 2007 to produce plastic bags. These figures speak for themselves.
It is time for us to learn from international best practices in levies on plastic bags. Italy, which previously experimented with a levy, has brought in an outright ban. San Francisco has also brought in an outright ban. They are proving successful. It is time that we in Ireland faced that challenge. It is the answer to the problem.
Deputy Paudie Coffey: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I, too, wish Deputy Hogan well in his appointment as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He faces massive challenges, not only in waste management but in many other areas as well. I wish him well in that regard.
The plastic bag levy, since its introduction in 2002, has achieved significant waste reductions. I welcomed it at the time. Many of the funds raised through the levy have gone into investment in areas of recycling and bring centres in local authorities throughout the country.
This new legislation will give flexibility to the Minister to utilise the levy in whatever way he sees fit where further resources are needed to encourage and support schemes and initiatives such as the green school initiative and infrastructure in local communities. It is important that we keep the waste hierarchy at the top of our priorities when we speak about waste management priorities. Packaging is an area that must be tackled in this regard.
Waterford County Council has shown exemplary leadership in this area where it developed the recycling centre in Dungarvan. It is a modern recycling centre that services large areas of the south east. This recycling centre is under pressure for viability reasons because waste streams are not reaching it as there are other cheaper waste stream options. It is a matter of which the Minister must take note.
There is over reliance on landfill. There are serious legacy issues, which will not go away and for which the State must pay. I welcome the Minister’s statement today on his intention that there will be clear direction on national waste management policy because over the past number of years there has not been a coherent, clear national waste management policy. In 2002, a number of regional waste management plans were introduced. Thermal treatment facilities were mentioned in each of them but they have been lying in abeyance for the past number of years because the former Minister, Mr. Gormley, started to introduce his own policies, which seemed personal to him but did not apply around the country. There is a need for clarity in that area. If there is to be direction and investment in waste management it certainly must be addressed and we need to look at all waste management solutions when we do so.
Thermal treatment must be looked at as an option. It is in use in many major European cities. We must have stringent monitoring and regulation if that option is to be taken up. I will not stand accused of declaring “Not in my back yard”, just because it is not in my area in Waterford because I grew up within 500 m of a municipal landfill with which there are legacy issues. At present, I live within 500 m of a modern sludge management plant with which there are odour issues but we live with it and we work with the local authority and the owners because we realise it is necessary. A waste stream goes in there and there is a general acceptance that it is needed.
One big problem, which is a legacy issue in the heart of my community, is the former site of Irish Tanners. It was a State-established company set up by Seán Lemass in the mid-1930s, where an old millpond was dumped with industrial waste for nearly 50 years. That still lies contaminated — three acres of it — in the heart of a community and adjacent to all the services of a town. It is not being addressed because the local authority does not have the resources or the capacity to deal with it. The EPA is investigating it but little progress has been made in dealing with the contamination issues that continue there.
As I have an interest in this area in 2007 and with the help of the Oireachtas Library I produced a research paper on landfills and remediation. I was horrified to note that in 2006, €18 million was spent on remediation. An EPA assessment at that time estimated that €142 million would be required to remediate the known landfills, not including the private landfills such as the one of which I spoke. There is a significant legacy issue. If we are to continue in the use of landfill we must bear the brunt and cost of the legacies they would leave. We as a State cannot afford that.
We must explore new ways of dealing with our waste. I would ask the Minister to explore ways of recouping the investment already made in the remediation of landfills, such as the municipal ones in Waterford and Tramore in my constituency where approximately €3 million was invested in remediation by the State. We no longer have the capacity to continue with landfill and putting our waste and our money into the ground. We need to bite the bullet on these decisions. We need clarity and direction and a proper waste management infrastructure. I call on the Minister to develop that.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy: I welcome this Bill and all that it aims to achieve. I note the proposal in the Bill to subject the non-disclosure provisions of section 16 of the 1987 Act to the Freedom of Information Act. This is welcome and overdue. I also note that the positive provisions on the plastic bag levy. This is something of which we in this country can be proud. In a small way, it underlines our environmental credentials.
Quite often when discussing waste management we find ourselves locked in something of a false debate. People tend to try to choose one option over another. They will push mechanical and biological treatment, for example, over incineration. It is natural to want to take sides but it is a false debate because when it comes to waste management, it is never about one solution. It is never about picking A over B or C, but about using those options together as wisely as we must. We have a matrix of waste management options, from incineration without recovery to incineration with recovery, to more simple solutions such as using less packaging at the point of production. It is up to us to use those options as best we can as a country to tackle our waste problems.
Some options are better than others and some are more environmentally friendly, are more efficient or are of greater benefit to the economy. There is a waste hierarchy, as set out by the European Commission in the waste framework directive. It is there to guide our policies at the national level so that when we come to making these decisions we try to move from that lower tier with the less desirable forms of waste management solutions to the upper tier which are more positive for the country and for achieving sustainability in how we do our business.
We will never fully move away from the lower tier in the waste management hierarchy but we can minimise our dependence on it. The Bill seeks to address that question, primarily by increasing the levy on landfill. Landfill is a waste management practice of the past and we have to confine it to the past. Increasing the levies on landfill will use market forces to put an end to the practice by making other forms of waste management more attractive. We can do this with other initiatives, such as social media, advertising or projects in the classroom, but at the end of the day market forces will dictate how we manage our waste. By increasing the levies on landfills we will move in the right direction.
I am not opposed to incineration with energy recovery as an element in our waste management matrix. It is necessary and much needed if we are to address our international commitments on moving away from landfill. However, there is no point in moving from a dependence on one form of waste management to another. That is what would ensue if we increase levies on landfill in the absence of levies on incineration, to the detriment of our waste management strategy and more beneficial processes further up the hierarchy. This Bill provides for the possibility of levies on incineration but it does not introduce them. The explanatory memorandum to the Bill clearly stated that if we do not impose levies on incineration we will draw waste down the waste hierarchy to the lower levels which are less suitable for this country and its environment. I urge the Minister to impose levies on incineration at the earliest opportunity once the Bill is introduced.
I represent a constituency, Dublin South-East, in respect of which controversy has arisen over proposals to construct an incinerator on the Poolbeg Peninsula. However, I am not supporting the introduction of levies on incineration in the hope of undermining the proposed incinerator for Poolbeg by dissuading the contractors from proceeding with their project for financial reasons. Others have attempted to do that in this Chamber in the recent past but I believe such behaviour is irresponsible. One does not make national decisions based on local or electoral considerations.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy: It leads to bad policy decisions and it is no way to govern a country. For the record, I do not support the construction of an incinerator in Poolbeg but the Bill is not concerned with that issue. In implementing the Bill, I ask the Minister to move quickly to levy incineration at the appropriate market rate so that it continues to be attractive as a waste management option without deprioritising options higher in the hierarchy.
Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Hogan, on his new role and wish him well in his work. I will speak to a number of issues related to the Bill. The legislation which introduced a levy on plastic bags was very successful when one considers that the use of bags decreased from 328 to 21 per head of population. However, even though the levy has increased from 15 cent to 22 cent, there has been a 50% increase in the use of plastic bags. I urge the Minister to reconsider his position with regard to the levy because it is a major fundraiser for the environmental fund and it supports the principle that the polluter should pay.
I ask the Minister to investigate the amount of wrapping used on products. In the past, we used to scoop a pound of sugar from a box and take it home in a paper bag. I recall buying sweets in paper bags from my local sweetshop. Nowadays, sweets are wrapped individually.
I am pleased that the levies on landfill have been increased. I live beside two landfills, Arthurstown, which has taken waste from Dublin for the past decade, and Kerdiffstown, which has been in the news recently. I hope the increased levy will divert waste away from landfills. If waste is put into landfill, it becomes a legacy for the children of future generations but incineration and thermal treatment deals with it in the present. A thermal treatment plant in the centre of Vienna has become a tourist attraction. The waste coming out of incinerators is now being well treated and has no impact on the environment.
I urge the Minister to investigate how the environmental fund is being spent. The money generated by these levies is invested in the fund. The most recent records I could find date from 2008, when approximately €12 million was allocated to one of the worst quangos in this country, the EPA. Some €10 million of that money was spent on research and development and €2 million was used for environmental enforcement. The phrase “environmental enforcement” is a bit of a joke in my constituency given that the EPA was the licensing authority for the landfill site at Kerdiffstown. The remediation of that legacy is going to cost the Exchequer between €60 million and €80 million. When I made a complaint about the site, the EPA took 18 months to respond. It asked me my reasons for making the complaint but given that I found it difficult to remember what I ate for breakfast that morning, how could I remember what happened 18 months ago? The Minister should review the operations of the EPA, either in the context of this Bill or under alternative legislation.
Problems arose when the landfill at Arthurstown was initially opened but the EPA must have used a bigger whip on South Dublin County Council because it is now being operated properly. The one problem I have with it is that the gas produced from the waste is laden with dioxins because it is not properly cleaned.
Deputy Sandra McLellan: I wish the Minister well in his new position. I support the position taken by my colleague, Deputy Stanley, on this Bill. While I agree with the polluter pays principle, it should not be applied disproportionately. A fee of 70 cent is an excessive amount to charge for plastic bags and it will hit working people at a time when they cannot afford any more costs. We need to start thinking of a new approach which shifts the burden away from ordinary people and on to those who produce the waste.
It is ironic that we are discussing this Bill on the day when the Government was given three months to clean up the site at Haulbowline. Ireland has the highest number of court cases in the EU on environmental issues. I welcome the European Commission decision to place a three-month time limit on the Government to begin the clean-up of the toxic waste site at Haulbowline. I salute the hard work of all those who campaigned for this decision over the past ten years, and particularly the voluntary groups from Cobh who took the case to the EU petitions committee and worked closely with their local authorities and councillors in the area.
While I acknowledge and welcome the positive role that the Fine Gael MEP, Seán Kelly, has played in the EU decision, it now comes down to whether his party in government will do the right thing and clean up the site or if it will follow the example of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party by denying and ignoring the problem. Fine Gael and the Labour Party have been vocal in the recent past in condemning Fianna Fáil and the Green Party for their failure to conduct a study of what was buried in Haulbowline and the Cork Harbour area. Cobh remains a cancer blackspot and this probably will not change after the Haulbowline site is cleaned up. The demand for a baseline study will not go away until it is granted and the time for half measures is past. The Fine Gael-Labour Party Government must fulfil the promises made before the election by offering the citizens of the communities of Cobh the protection and quality of life they deserve.
I very much welcome the Bill. The plastic bags issue has been covered extensively. I welcome the flexibility being given to the Minister to increase the charge as needs be because there has been a move back to using plastic bags. The levy has been effective in reducing usage, but we need to go a step further. A levy could also be used to deal with the problem of chewing gum which is a blight on cities throughout the country.
Deputy Brian Stanley spoke about waste reduction, an issue at which we must look seriously. The way forward is to reduce the amount of waste created. We must take into consideration the number of shops using paper bags because that is waste and adding to the problem. The issue of plastic bottles should also be tackled.
I refer to remarks made by Deputy Seán Fleming about the former Minister, Mr. John Gormley, a constituency colleague of mine, that he had engaged in parish pump politics. I do not accept that any Minister acts on that basis. I thought, therefore, that Deputy Seán Fleming’s remarks about the former Minister, his former partner in government, were disingenuous. It seems Fianna Fáil is very good a discarding its partners. We need only look at what happened to the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party.
Incineration is not a parish pump politics issue; it is one which affects the entire country and how we deal with waste. It affects the area which Deputy Eoghan Murphy and I represent. Most politicians in that area have not looked on it as a parish pump politics issue. We have the largest sewage treatment plant, two major power stations, the largest metal recycling facility and two cement factories. It is not a case of not in my back yard. It may be a case that our back yard is full.
Incineration is at the same level as that for landfill and we must push it up in the hierarchy. The levy is too low and must be higher. The cap is not high enough. We need to consider this issue further. I am concerned there is no levy on emissions from incineration. The emissions levy must be included in the Bill.
The remark has been made that once waste is incinerated, the problem has been solved, but that is not the case. Unfortunately, we must deal with the toxic waste from incineration. We do not have a toxic waste landfill site and under the EU directive, we must deal with our own waste. We will have to move very quickly in that regard.
Neither landfill nor incineration is the way forward. They will play a role, but an incinerator with the capacity to deal with 600,000 tonnes of waste in the Dublin region is far too big. Before any decision is made, I appeal to the Minister to ensure the Hennessey report is published. Extracts from the report which have found their way into the media imply that it will cost the taxpayer up to €320 million over 25 years in terms of the “put-or-pay” contract. Will the Minister clarify last year’s media reports on whether there is a break in the contract for the incinerator on the Poolbeg Peninsula?
Deputy John Paul Phelan: I congratulate my constituency colleague and friend, Deputy Phil Hogan, on his appointment as Minister and wish him well in his task. It is one of the busier Departments and he has responsibility for many functions which he is well capable of fulfilling. I wish him and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose, the best of luck.
Deputy Kevin Humphreys spoke about Deputy Seán Fleming’s criticism of the previous Minister and his actions in regard to the proposed incinerator in Poolbeg. I agree with Deputy Humphrey’s that it is a bit rich to listen to a man who was part of a government which for four years supported the policies the former Minister pursued accuse him of engaging in parish pump politics on the issue. However, it is no surprise to witness that level of hypocrisy.
I welcome a couple of aspects of the Bill. Shortly after I was elected to Kilkenny County Council for the first time waste management and incineration became huge national issues. At the time the level of recycling being achieved by the local authority in Kilkenny, and I am sure by local authorities in most parts of the country, was very low. It is worth pointing out that we have witnessed a significant improvement in the past 12 years in the level of recycling among households and businesses. There has been a sea change in attitude among the public to waste reduction, their local communities and the plastic bag levy which has been an outstanding success in terms of its implementation. There is now room to look at the possibility of imposing a levy on other goods which cause serious litter problems.
Where I live in County Kilkenny is quite close to Waterford city; it is in the middle of approximately 5,000 acres of State forestry. However, it is the scene of the most horrendous dumping of household and business waste. I know it is not directly related to this legislation, but it is an issue that needs urgent action by local authorities in cracking down on the level of littering experienced.
Deputy Kevin Humphreys was right about extending the plastic bag levy scheme to cover chewing gum, glass bottles, plastic bottles and other items which are common among the litter on our streets. The Minister should consider the introduction of such a levy.
The Bill is a genuine attempt by the Government to reduce further the amount of waste going to landfill, the most harmful method of disposing of waste in terms of the effect on the environment. I welcome the fact that this is central to the legislation which is why I support it. Again, I wish the Minister and the Minister of State the very best.
I support the remarks made by Deputy Jim Daly about plastic bags. If we could get to a ban on plastic bags it would be a good thing. It is important to say that because some of what I say subsequently may appear to contradict this point. The legislation up to this point has greatly improved the situation. An increase in the levy is a good idea but it would be good if we got to the point where plastic bags were ultimately banned.
I do not remember who made the remark about packaging. The more we can encourage businesses to present products with the least amount of packaging, the better. Recently I took delivery of a computer and the amount of packaging was incredible. So many things are over-packaged and it adds to the cost and disposal problems. I would appreciate if that could be examined.
No other Member has referred to the following proposal in the context of this Bill, which I support. I ask the Minister to consider it. In public areas in my constituency and throughout the country, in parks, playgrounds and sports fields there is a problem of widespread consumption of alcohol at night time. Part of the problem concerns the consumption of alcohol but one of the side effects is the tremendous amount of litter left behind by those who drink alcohol. The major problem I have is that the alcoholic beverages are sold in glass containers. I appreciate that they are also sold in plastic and aluminium containers but I will focus on the glass bottles. The glass tends to be broken when it is left behind and this causes considerable problems in parks and other public places. It is difficult to deal with glass. Aluminium cans and plastic containers can be easily collected by citizens and council staff who do their utmost to keep places tidy. Smashed glass is much more difficult for citizens or staff to clean.
I receive complaints from people bringing dogs into parks about their pets’ feet being cut. Parents have difficulty bringing children into parks because of broken glass. People involved in the management of football teams frequently complain about the state of pitches due to the fact that broken glass is strewn all over the pitch. Before they go training or before they play a match, they must spend time walking carefully across the pitch to ensure there is no glass that will cause problems to players. It is appalling that people who organise football teams and GAA teams should be presented with this problem. In the view of most people, those involved in this voluntary activity are the true patriots of this country. They do so much for the benefit of young people that they should not have to contend with this sort of problem. Organising matches and training should be sufficient work. While councils should clear up these areas, there is a limit to how much they can do. For that reason, I hope the Minister seriously considers this unorthodox suggestion. The sale of alcohol from off-licences and supermarkets should be in plastic or aluminium containers. While that would not alleviate the litter problem, it would remove the problem of broken glass in public areas. Football pitches would not have to be cleared before every training session or match and it would be much safer for children and pets to enter parks. Encouraging the use of plastic is not a great idea but I do not know any way around this problem. It is important for those who want to use public areas that they can do so safely. Such a measure would help in this regard.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan): I thank the Deputies who made contributions on Second Stage, Members generally for their attendance over the course of the debate and their good wishes to the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, and I in regard to our duties over the next while. I note the matters raised and I will reflect on the contributions made by Deputies in the context of progressing the Bill through Committee Stage.
It is my intention to have this Bill enacted at an early opportunity and I hope we can work constructively through any issues arising from the debate when the committees are established in May. As I stated when presenting this Bill to the House, my principal aim is to provide clarity in the waste policy area. This Bill is the first step in providing that certainty but it marks an important step in the development of a waste policy that will be in accordance with the EU waste hierarchy, with the key focus initially being on the immediate and significant challenge of diverting waste from landfill.
Using the guiding principles I have outlined, the new waste policy will be completed by the end of this year. The core objective of this Bill, in conjunction with the forthcoming waste policy, is to ensure that Irish businesses and householders have sustainable and efficient waste services that comply with Ireland’s EU obligations. Furthermore, increased penalties and a new scheme of graduated fixed payment notices for offences under the Air Pollution Act will safeguard the improvements in our air quality which have resulted from the smoky coal ban.
Some Members referred to the increases in the landfill levy. These increases are considered necessary to make progress in meeting our EU obligations but they are only one element of waste management costs. There are programmes to support businesses and households to minimise waste generation and reduce costs. These programmes are administered by the EPA.
Other Members referred to the areas covered by the ban on smoky coal under the Air Pollution Act. These include Dublin city and county, Cork city, Limerick city, Drogheda, Arklow, Dundalk, Wexford town, Celbridge, Galway city, Leixlip, Naas, Waterford city, Bray, Kilkenny, Sligo and Tralee. Further information on the solid fuel regulations of 1988 are available on the EPA website.
The smoky coal ban applies to bituminous coal only, not other fuels such as wood or peat. Smokeless coal is widely available and is an effective alternative. The price difference between smoky and smokeless coal has reduced considerably since the ban. The price is dependent on the retailer but the difference can often be as low as 1% to 3%. The EPA recently reported that the impact of smoky coal burning in smaller towns, which remain outside the ban, is putting pressure on air quality in these towns. Ambient air in these towns can have a similar or higher level of pollutants than large cities, despite the much lower traffic volume. I will shortly be consulting on a range of options to ensure the smoky coal ban, which has played such a vital role in improving our air quality, continues to be effective in delivering improvements where needed. As part of this consultation, consideration will be given to extending the number of urban areas covered by the ban with the aim of improving ambient air quality in these areas. The ban is on the sale and distribution of rather than use of bituminous coal. The amendments which I propose to introduce to the Air Pollution Act 1987 are specifically intended to support the enforcement activities of local authorities. In particular, it will now be open to local authorities to issue a fixed payment notice for breaches of the ban. As the ban relates to the sale and distribution of, as opposed to use of, smoky coal, such penalties would typically be incurred by retailers or distributors and not householders. This measure will support more efficient and direct enforcement of the ban. Cork County Council brought a successful prosecution for breach of the ban in 2010. I encourage our partners in local government to take a proactive approach to implementation of the ban. The measures to be enacted in this Bill are intended to support them in doing so.
I indicated in my opening speech that the Government has agreed that, subject to the enactment of the Bill, the rate of landfill levy will increase from €30 to €50 per tonne from 1 September 2011, which allows a sufficient lead-in time for the waste industry to prepare for them. I take on board some of the suggestions in relation to this being an increase in cost. More important, it will ensure we will have a concentration of minds in regard to diverting from landfill. If we do not do so, we will not be able to meet our EU obligations in 2013. The levy will increase again next year and the following year. I want to provide certainty to the industry in regard to what is intended during the next few years.
The proposed rates for landfill levy are comparable to those applicable in the UK, currently at £56 per tonne and due to rise in increments of £8 per annum until at least 2014, when it will reach £80. We must urgently accelerate the move away from landfill and the development of alternative waste infrastructure. If we fail to comply with landfill directive limits in 2013 and 2016, Ireland will face daily fines for non-compliance which would fall to be borne by the taxpayer. Although I have inherited this situation of having to make up for time lost, I am determined to do everything I can to avoid the imposition of fines on this State.
In addition, the Bill will provide an opportunity for the development of new and innovative uses for waste which hitherto had been held back by the availability of disposal as the cheapest but most environmentally unsound option. It should be realised that disposal costs are just one element of the cost of managing our waste. In progressing the Government’s commitment to change the structure of the household collection market, other elements such as collection charges can also be addressed. Such an approach will also provide a means of addressing waste management provision for low-income households, in line with a recent Ombudsman report.
As I indicated in my opening speech, I have been examining measures in this Bill in relation to the waste facility levy against the background of the transposition of the waste framework directive into Irish law and will announce my decision in this regard on Committee Stage. While I have no immediate plans to increase the existing plastic bag levy of 22 cent, my Department will continue to monitor consumer usage. In addition, the national litter pollution monitoring system, NLPMS, reports on the proportion of all litter that is accounted for by plastic bags. I take on board the suggestions made by Deputies Dowds, Jim Daly and Kevin Humphreys who put forward some specific ideas I might consider in respect of dealing with other items that constitute litter. Amendments to the rate of the levy are limited to changes in the consumer price index. I am providing for more flexibility in regard to the imposition of charges on plastic bags in the future. The per capita usage of plastic bags was 24 in 2009. Data indicate that this figure fell to 21 in 2010.
Some attention was given during the debate to the issues that will arise for consideration on Committee Stage. Before outlining some of these, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of our educational system in assisting our young people in environmental awareness in terms of the littering and pollution of our countryside and so on. I am examining the role of local authorities, as regulators and service providers, in the context of the EU services directive referred to by Deputy Tom Fleming.
I also acknowledge the contributions made by Deputies Lawlor, Coffey and John Paul Phelan on issues not alone relating to the plastic bag level but to landfill legacy issues and the Environmental Protection Agency. An EPA review is under way, the report of which I hope to receive in the next few weeks. I am sure I will be appearing before an Oireachtas committee in the future to discuss that report and any recommendations it contains, at which point Deputies will have an opportunity to engage further on the matter. Deputy Coffey has a long-standing commitment to cleaning up Portlaw. I am aware of the many legacy issues there. It is hoped, through the Deputy’s membership of Dáil Éireann, that the Government will be able to assist him in addressing some of the problems in that area, in particular the legacy landfill site.
Other amendments that will be discussed on Committee Stage relate to the Aarhus Convention which obliges countries who are parties to the convention to meet requirements relating to access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters. The programme for Government contains a commitment to complete ratification of the convention. We are delivering on this commitment by addressing that matter in this legislation. Several pieces of legislation have been used to address requirements under the convention, with the result that Ireland is now largely compliant with its provisions. The Office of the Attorney General has advised that a number of further measures are required before the ratification process can be completed. I also intend to introduce a provision which will enable any person to challenge in the courts a breach of a consent or licence where such a breach has an environmental impact. Consent will be broadly defined and will include IPPC licences, waste water licences, GMO licences, and so forth. Amendments will be made to the Planning and Development Acts 2000-2010 to ensure the judicial review provisions under the planning Acts are fully compliant with the Aarhus Convention.
The Office of the Attorney General has advised that the insertion of a new Part into the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011 is urgently required to provide essential technical amendments to the Planning and Development Acts 2000-2010. The new Part will make essential technical amendments to the planning Acts, including the insertion of definitions of “operator” and “quarry”. Technical amendments are required to previously enacted amendments to sections 157 and 160 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 which provided that the existing seven year limitation on the taking of enforcement action for unauthorised development is removed in the case of quarrying and peat extraction. Other technical amendments will also be provided for, including a provision which will introduce a minimum threshold of 100 bed capacity to health infrastructural developments which should be sent directly to An Bord Pleanála under the strategic infrastructure consent procedure.
The Local Government Act 1998, as amended by the Local Government (Road Functions) Act 2007, will be amended to allow payments from the local government fund to the Minister for Transport to be expended on national roads and in the sustainable transport area. An additional amendment to the Air Pollution Act 1987 will be made to further support the implementation of the smoky coal ban. To ensure authorised officers are able to carry out their functions effectively, I will provide for assistance to be given by a member of the Garda Síochána where it is so requested by an authorised officer in cases where they are met with obstruction in exercising their functions. This amendment will also provide for a member of the Garda Síochána, who is of the opinion that a person is committing or has committed an offence under the relevant sections of the Act, to arrest the person without warrant. This is similar to existing provisions supporting litter wardens in carrying out their functions under section 23 of the Litter Pollution Act 1997. For the avoidance of doubt, the Waste Management Act will also be amended to provide legal certainty for the making of payments to international organisations from the environment fund. Amendments required to underpin certain transfers of functions arising from the reorganisation of ministerial and departmental responsibilities will also be brought forward.
Meeting our EU obligations in respect of waste policy is a priority for me. I want to ensure Ireland makes progress in the development of a sustainable waste management sector. There are opportunities and challenges presented by the need to reorientate the way we deal with our waste. Ireland has a number of companies and individuals with innovative ideas to create jobs from the changes required in the sector. By moving to restructure the household collection market, we can address some of the concerns in relation to service provision, quality and cost.
I have indicated that the Government’s waste policy will adhere to the waste hierarchy and will deliver for Irish householders and businesses. Such a policy cannot be about any one approach. It must be evidence-based and must be centred on delivering the best possible environmental performance and value for money. I thank Deputies for their constructive contributions to the Second Stage debate on this legislation, which I will carefully consider and try to address on Committee Stage.
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