This Bill is before the House because the Government wants to force through a waste management strategy based on incineration. It is in this position because in its four years in office it neglected the waste issue and failed to provide the necessary leadership to deal with it. When it came into office, it knew that there was a serious waste problem. Not until my colleague, Deputy Howlin, introduced the Waste Management Act, 1996, did the country face up legislatively to this problem. We are unique in Europe in landfilling over 90% of non-agricultural waste. It is now a crisis. The number of landfills is reducing. EU directives and legislation limit the material that can go into landfill. As the Minister stated, we are being taken to the European Court and may be fined, which the taxpayers will daily pay, because of non-compliance with EU waste legislation. Every county has a difficulty over waste management.
In response to the crisis, the Government pursues a two track approach – a public policy and a private plan. The public policy is contained in Changing Our Ways, published in 1998, and hauled out in various statements issued by the Minister and speeches made by him in which he subscribes to what the Minister of State calls the international accepted hierarchy of waste. We will, in theory, minimise waste and reuse, recycle, recover and do all the things dictated by good environmental practice. There is no disagreement about this. The problem is, however, that the Government does not believe in doing that. While it mouths a public policy position which subscribes to the waste hierarchy idea, in practice it pursues a private plan based on the acceptance at official level that the way to deal with waste is to incinerate it.
While various statements are being made publicly by Ministers about the waste hierarchy, recycling, Changing Our Ways etc, there is a cold view taken at official level, both centrally and at local government level, that all this old guff about recycling is great for ministerial press releases but the way to deal with the waste problem is to gather it all up and put it in an incinerator. That is the reason the regional strategy is being pursued and the Minister ordered that local authorities should combine in regional groupings to adopt regional waste management plans. It was not that he had any great commitment to the idea of regional policy but these waste regions were constructed on the premise that there would be an incinerator in each. That particular plan has now come unstuck because some local authorities will not roll over and do the Minister's bidding. The reason we have this Bill before us is because the Minister, faced with that situation, wants to force the issue. He wants to force local authorities to pursue a pre-ordained plan based on incinerating waste.
Much has been said about the concerns of many about the health and environmental implications of incineration. Those concerns cannot and should not be dismissed in the light and facetious way that they are being dismissed by Government and official sources. People are tired and weary of official reassurances. They were reassured before about the quality of blood, food and a whole range of matters. Now they are getting an official assurance in relation to the so-called safety of incineration. It is quite understandable that people, particularly in areas where it is proposed to locate incinerators, are concerned about the health and environmental implications of incineration. They have a right to voice those concerns and structures established for local governance should be capable of dealing with them. They should not be set aside as they are in this Bill.
Apart from the health and environmental concerns there is also the question as to whether this is the right strategy to pursue in relation to our waste management. If we give priority, as the Government does, to developing an end-of-pipe solution to waste based on incineration, we effectively neglect the necessary investment in infrastructure needed to underpin recycling and recovery.
The Labour Party is the only political party to have produced an alternative to the Government strategy on waste. Earlier this year we published a comprehensive document, outlining and costing an alternative strategy. We pointed out that it is possible and desirable to develop a strategy based on recycling. We took the target, contained in the Changing Our Ways document, of 35% for the national recycling of municipal waste and the targets set out in the various regional and local waste management plans drawn up mainly by the consultancy firm M. C. O'Sullivan and accepted them. We said if we could achieve those targets for recycling, recovery and reuse, that would make a huge impact on reducing the scale of the waste problem to be addressed here. In order to meet those targets we have to do more than issue ministerial press releases about recycling. We have to invest in a recycling infrastructure.
As Deputy Deasy and other Deputies said, it is all very well to talk about recycling but it must be physically done somewhere. We can talk about recycling paper but the recycling and reprocessing activity must actually be physically performed. To do that we have to invest in recycling infrastructure. What passes for recycling here is pilot schemes, experimental projects and the odd bottle bank in the corner of a supermarket car park. That just scratches the surface. The amount of waste collected for recycling at those centres is just a tiny fraction of the total amount available for collection. We have to develop the infrastructure, the separated collection system and markets for recycled products. We are aware that there is a problem with markets for recycled products.
Instead of legislation designed to facilitate a fast-track approach to incineration what we need is an alternative strategy where we take and accept the targets set down in official documents and policy statements, invest in the infrastructure to provide recycling facilities and provide the collection systems designed to facilitate recycling. The various wheelie bins, etc., being provided in our major urban centres are not designed for recycling. If they were, they would provide for separated collection. They provide for a system of collection where everything goes into the wheelie bin, gets tipped into a lorry and is eventually taken away and burned. That is the system being developed and invested in. We need a different approach.
The Labour Party's opposition to this Bill is based on two matters. It is based, first, on its undemocratic nature, the effective standing down of local democracy and the normal planning process for waste facilities. Second, it is based on our belief that the strategy being pursued by the Government, which is essentially based on incineration, is flawed. It is flawed environmentally and economically. We should pursue an alternative strategy based on recycling for which the Labour Party has already set out a blueprint in its waste management document published earlier this year.