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:
We will introduce competitive tendering for local waste collection services where the private sector and local authorities can bid to provide services in an entire local authority area for a set time frame. Tender bids will be judged and awarded by the new utilities regulator. Contracts would be required to stipulate a guaranteed service level to be offered. A public service obligation would include a fee waiver scheme for low-income households. Licences would be flexible enough to allow for localised waste management needs and opportunities.
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.
It is important that developers and operators of all landfill facilities are fully bonded. The Minister will be aware of the costs that were involved with regard to Kerdiffstown landfill.
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.