I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of this Bill is to provide a legal mechanism to bring the current waste management planning process to an early and satisfactory conclusion. This is essential for us to meet our national and EU obligations.
The waste planning process has been taken forward systematically since the enactment of the Waste Management Act, 1996, and while local authorities generally have sought to address their responsibilities in this area, a minority have not adopted plans. As a result, we have not made the progress that we all accept is vitally necessary and long overdue towards the provision of efficient and cost effective waste services and infrastructure. Our waste arisings continue to grow at a conservatively estimated rate of 3% to 4% each year. At the same time, there is an increasing scarcity of disposal options as landfill facilities throughout the country are being closed on reaching the end of their life span.
We need to act to tackle these difficulties. Continued debate is not an option as we have already lost very extensive time. The legislative measures proposed by the Government will ensure the early completion of the planning process and rapid movement towards the implementation of proposed waste management plans.
In bringing forward amending legislation, the Government is taking the opportunity of providing a statutory basis for a number of other important waste management and anti-litter measures, including the following: a new environmental levy of up to 15p on the supply by retailers of plastic shopping bags and, potentially the extension of the levy to other products that are problematic in waste management terms; a levy on the landfill of waste at an initial rate of not more than £15 per tonne; the establishment of an environment fund through which the proceeds of these levies will be disbursed to finance beneficial environmental initiatives in a range of areas, including waste management, environmental education and awareness; an increase of the on-the-spot litter fine to £100 and provision for future changes in the level of the fine and a number of technical amendments to the Waste Management Act, 1996, to bring legal clarity to the licensing, by the Environmental Protection Agency, of certain waste related activities.
Strategic planning is fundamental to good waste management. The failure, until relatively recently, to develop comprehensive and modern strategies in this area has left us with an unenviable legacy. We landfill about 90% of our municipal waste, often in small, inadequate landfill facilities. We have a limited recycling infrastructure, almost no biological treatment capability and no means of recovering energy from waste. Our waste recycling rate is among the lowest in the EU and that is simply not sustainable. The Government is committed to a planned and integrated approach to waste management based firmly on the internationally recognised hierarchy. The proposed plans focus firstly on prevention and minimisation and place high emphasis on waste segregation, reuse and recovery. They advocate a range of technologies to deliver a more sustainable and effective recycling and recovery performance and significantly reduce our reliance on landfill. My Department and I strongly support a regional approach to the making and implementation of the necessary waste management plans. The great majority of local authorities are committed to the making of joint or regional plans in line with our policy statement of October 1998 entitled Changing Our Ways. Considerable financial and human resources, including EU grant assistance towards dedicated strategic studies, have been allocated to this process, which entailed significant public consultation throughout.
However, we have encountered ongoing problems and delays in the formal adoption of regional plans. Three out of 15 local authorities, in three regional groups, have refused to adopt the proposed regional plan before them. In effect, these authorities are obstructing any prospect of progress on the part of the majority and they have severely impeded the overall planning process. Even in the two regions where all the local authorities concerned decided to adopt their regional plan, some did so subject to potentially significant qualifications. My Department has received clear legal advice on the issue. A proposed regional waste management plan must be adopted on the same substantive basis by all the authorities concerned or none can be considered to have a valid plan. We cannot allow the current drift to continue. We have to meet national and EU targets for waste recovery and the diversion of wastes from landfill. More immediately, we see pressing waste management problems on the ground, in Clare and Galway for example, and the European Commission has taken a case against Ireland to the European Court of Justice because of the ongoing failure to respect waste planning obligations. A judgment against Ireland may be unavoidable, particularly if authorities persist in their refusal to adopt the balanced and comprehensive plans before them.
The Government must act in the overall national interest and take steps to facilitate the satisfactory completion of the planning process. That is the basis for addressing all aspects of the waste hierarchy and advancing the provision of a vital element of our infrastructure. The legal options have been considered and we have concluded that the existing regulatory powers under the 1996 Act are not enough to ensure a decisive and satisfactory outcome. Accordingly, the Government has decided the power to make the waste management plans – now before local authorities – should be transferred from the elected members to the relevant manager. The Government also proposes to make other supporting legislative amendments. This will allow local authority management to conclude the planning process and remove any perceived obstacles to the effective implementation of regional plans. I emphasise that this will clear the way to deliver on all aspects of waste modernisation such as segregated collection services, higher recycling and recovery performance, and a dramatic reduction in disposal to landfill.
Last April when the Bill was debated in the Seanad much of the debate focused on two issues. Those were the implications of these proposals for the local decision making process and concern regarding thermal treatment, which is an integral part of most of the proposed regional plans. I do not accept that these proposals undermine the local government process. A small number of local authorities clearly have difficulty in addressing their waste planning obligations and Government is compelled to respond. The proposed changes will not affect the substance of the waste management plans adopted by the majority of local authorities. It is clearly undemocratic that a few authorities can hold up the implementation of important regional plans and, far from eroding local democracy, the proposed Bill will allow the wishes of the majority of local authorities to be implemented. It is telling that, to date, there have been no practical alternatives offered to these proposals. Indeed, the thrust of public commen tary has been to recognise the inevitability and urgency of these proposals.
The second point of contention involved thermal treatment. The proposed regional waste management plans are not just, or even mainly, about thermal treatment. They are concerned with better integrated waste management services for the regions, delivering a much higher recycling performance, recovering energy from waste which cannot be recycled and using landfill as the last resort for residual wastes which cannot otherwise be treated. Thermal treatment, whether by incineration or other technologies, is envisaged as only one component of an integrated infrastructure which will facilitate recycling and biological treatment of 40% to 50% of waste. Opposition to thermal treatment proposals centres on perceived risks to public health and a perceived conflict between incineration and materials recycling. However, there is an informed consensus that modern municipal waste incinerators, employing modern technologies and subject to compliance with strict environmental standards, do not present a significant risk to the environment or public health. All significant waste facilities are subject to full environmental impact assessment, planning controls and a rigorous environmental licensing system operated by the EPA which must take the precautionary principle into account.
The EPA is specifically and legally precluded from licensing a waste facility unless, among other considerations, it is satisfied that the activity concerned will not cause environmental pollution. The agency, which is statutorily independent in the performance of its functions, considers municipal waste incineration, operating to the best modern standards and incorporating energy recovery, to be preferable to landfill from an environmental point of view. While it is now common to decry the advice of experts, rational decision making requires that we, as decision makers, take expert views into account. However, we must also address a wider public demand for good information and assurance. I accept there are many people who have real and genuine concerns about perceived health threats from thermal treatment or incineration. These concerns arise in no small measure from misinformation and misrepresentation. We clearly face a challenge in countering negative public perceptions and the need to disseminate reasoned, well founded information and advice to the public will be addressed in the coming months.
Incineration and high recycling levels are not mutually exclusive. I accept they could be if incineration were prioritised and insufficient effort was put into composting and materials recycling. However, the regional plans clearly do the reverse. They first provide for maximum achievable recycling, with targets of up to 50%, and only then do they give consideration to thermal treatment and landfill of the remaining waste. Under these plans, the proportion of waste which may be disposed of by proposed thermal treat ment is deliberately limited. Argument that the provision of thermal treatment means incinerators would have to be fed, thereby reducing efforts to recycle, are not valid. We are committed to and must meet specific EU and national recycling targets. Throughout the EU the most environmentally progressive member states combine an impressive recycling performance with a significant reliance on thermal treatment as part of an integrated approach to waste management. Unfortunately, the focus of debate on incineration detracts from the very positive minimisation and recycling elements of the proposed plans. Local authorities in the regional groups are being asked to prioritise those elements of the plans dealing with waste minimisation, the delivery of segregated collection services and waste recycling infrastructure, public education and awareness and to prepare a clear programme of action to fast track the implementation of these aspects of the plans.
To support these initiatives the Government intends to publish a comprehensive policy statement on waste prevention, recycling and recovery. That will address in detail practical considerations associated with the achievement of our policy objectives and targets in this area and will outline specific proposals in relation to waste prevention, market development for recyclables and the provision of greater infrastructural and reprocessing capacity.
I will deal with the substantive provisions of the Bill. Section 4 amends section 22 of the 1996 Act to provide that the making of a waste management plan will become an executive function. Where a local authority manager considers that a waste management plan is invalid because the purported decision of the relevant authority was subject to qualification, the manager will adopt the said plan. The variation or replacement of a waste management plan will generally remain a reserved function, but a local authority may not, without the consent of the relevant manager, vary or replace a plan within a period of four years of its being made. This is to ensure a period of stability during which local authorities can focus on the implementation of plans.