Scrutiny of EU Legislative Proposals

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

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Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

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The purpose of today's meeting is further scrutiny of EU legislative proposal COM (2018) 340, which is a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. Briefing material on this proposal has been circulated to members. The proposal is listed under Schedule A. I welcome the witnesses to the meeting to discuss the proposal with our joint committee. We are joined by Mr. Matthew Collins, assistant secretary, and Mr. Kevin O'Donoghue, principal officer, from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I ask Mr. Collins to give us a brief on the proposal.

Mr. Matthew Collins

I will give the members of the committee a brief introduction to the proposal. As the Chairman knows, the European Commission published its proposal for a regulation on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment on 28 May 2018. This is part of the important agenda of Europe's transition to a circular economy. The main objective of this initiative is the prevention and reduction of plastic marine litter from single-use plastic items and fishing gear containing plastic by complementing the measures already envisaged under the EU plastic strategy. Ultimately, the proposal will further reinforce the EU's systemic approach to this issue. The proposal is designed to complement the EU's established legislative framework in the fields of waste and water. These include matters such as the waste framework directive, packaging and packaging waste directives, the marine strategy framework directive and a number of other waste directives, including those concerning wastewater.

The Department greatly welcomes the proposal to tackle the problems posed by plastic single-use items. The Minister had strongly urged the Commission to tackle this issue urgently. We believe that working proactively with our European colleagues, we will achieve a greater environmental benefit. The problem of marine litter is transboundary by nature as marine litter can originate in and affect different countries. Joint action is particularly effective in this context. Marine litter can be more effectively prevented and reduced through a coherent approach of policy and measures at EU level, while ensuring a single European market for the general public with high environmental standards and legal certainty for businesses.

Do members have any questions?

I was the one who raised this issue. I wanted the committee to engage in further scrutiny of the proposal, against the advice in the Department's note, or the wider advice note. The provisions contained in this European draft directive mirror pretty much exactly, if the key provisions are boiled down, the provisions we set out in our Waste Reduction Bill, which the Dáil approved on Second Stage over a year ago. We have done some very good, detailed research. The Library & Research Service has done a lot of good work that has been very useful in looking at the consequences. This is a highly complex issue, particularly the introduction of a deposit refund scheme. There are all kinds of complex estimates that must be worked out, including how much money would be raised from the plastics and cans that would be recycled, the level of recycling that would be achieved with the scheme and what the scheme would cost to operate. The Library & Research Service did really good work reviewing all the various international examples that give us the broad parameters of what would be involved.

I fundamentally disagree with the Department if I heard Mr. Collins right when he said this is a transboundary issue and that marine litter must be dealt with on a transboundary basis. In fact, it seems clear from the European legislation that they are looking for national governments to legislate. Anyone who has been out during this beautiful summer on any beach, canal or river will know we have a huge litter problem, particularly with plastic bottles and cans at the most sensitive sites. This is not just an international, transboundary issue; it is a local litter issue.

The Minister agrees with the provisions of our Bill relating to the banning of certain plastic items, which again mirrors what is in the directive. We agree with him on the introduction of a levy on plastic cups in an attempt to switch to the compostable variety. The only thing on which he disagrees with us is the introduction of a deposit refund scheme.

There is every indication the directive will be passed. I do not hear a single voice in the European Parliament opposing it. It will not be contentious. I do not believe a single voice in the European Council is against it. There may be, but it will be carried, it seems to me. It is hugely politically and publicly popular. There is an obligation within it that by 2025 we would have to have a 90% recycling rate for plastic bottles, for example. The Department's own note states that, if it is agreed within a year, we will have to have a two-year post-agreement before we then legislate, which again mirrors exactly the provisions within our Bill, which does not demand that the Department do something instantaneously, but rather provides for such a two-year period to process all the details. Given all this, and given that the industry representatives, who took a negative position on our Bill in our hearings here, have met me recently and said I was right that the European directive matches exactly what is in our Bill, why should we not proceed, or why would the Department argue we not proceed? How does the Department intend to achieve a 90% recycling rate and meet the estimates set out in the provision? This was debated at the Dáil reform sub-committee yesterday evening, where we sought senior counsel's advice on the idea that the only mechanism we may have is to take legal action with the European Union once this legislation is put through to show up the failing of the Irish Government to take seriously its obligations in respect of environmental legislation. This is why I wanted to bring the proposal before the committee for further consideration. I do not believe the advice that this does not have consequences; I believe it does. We should proceed to Committee Stage to tease out any differences of views on the introduction of a deposit refund scheme. In the absence of that, for the Department just to say we need more analysis and not to have any proposals itself as to how we might meet the 90% target rate we face would be a dereliction of duty on our part as a Parliament.

Does Mr. Collins wish to reply?

Mr. Matthew Collins

The Deputy raises a number of issues. To be clear, we greatly welcome this proposal. It is very valuable in providing the ability and powers for member states to take actions in this area.

It is not I who am saying this is transboundary. In terms of disagreeing with the transboundary nature, it is the European Commission that considers this a transboundary issue. The material we are talking about has been identified as the majority of waste litter arising in the marine environment. The materials can arise in one member state and affect another. It is not that we are arguing that it has to be a transboundary issue; the reality of the environment means that it is transboundary in nature, and the European Commission agrees.

One could say that it is both local and transboundary.

Mr. Matthew Collins

I was asked if it would be accepted in Europe. I certainly hope it would be accepted. Negotiations will have to take place in the European Parliament and at Council. I hope it will proceed quickly. I think it has already been prioritised by the Austrian Presidency as one of the issues it wants to progress as quickly as possible. I am sure there will be considerable support in the European Parliament. Member states have, at both official and ministerial level, been pushing this action very vociferously for a long time with the European Commission.

I was asked how we would respond. That is the normal way we approach much of the legislation that would appear. The Commission is very clear that it is open to member states as to how they reach whatever targets are set. The Commission's proposal is open in that sense. It could be an extended producer-responsibility scheme as we currently operate and which has been operating very successfully or it could be a deposit-and-return scheme. Both options are on the table. In that sense, it is slightly different from the Bill. I know we are not discussing the Bill, but the Deputy mentioned it. The Bill provides for it to be mandatory, whereas the Commission's proposal leaves it open to the member states to determine the scheme most suitable to their circumstances. They recognise that the same-structure schemes have different types of performance levels in different member states. We need to understand how to achieve that target. We do not have a preconceived view that it must be done in a particular way; we want to discover what options would actually deliver on the targets.

We have been working on this for a number of years; I am sure the Department has been working on it even longer. Our per capita plastic waste is twice the European average. We are facing a European tax system which may tax countries on the amount of plastic waste that is not recycled. This is not without consequence as well as being a local, environmental and transboundary environmental issue. Having done all this work on the issue, how does the Department intend to meet a target of having 90% of plastic bottles recycled as per the directive?

Mr. Matthew Collins

The circular economy package established a combination of targets and actions. We will not focus on a single item, we need to develop a new policy to address the entire remit under the circular economy package. This will be a key element of it, but a number of areas will need to be covered as part of that.

We do not disagree on the range of other measures. The Minister has made it clear that he supports the various measures in our Bill and contained in the directive. The only point of difference is on how to get to 90% recycling of plastic bottles. What does Mr. Collins believe is the best option in that regard?

Mr. Matthew Collins

More work needs to be done to decide on the best option. We are not in a position to say what the best option is at this stage. This issue requires more analysis. I do not think the Minister has said he has no objections; he has signalled that he is concerned about the cost of the deposit-return scheme, DRS, proposed in the Bill. We want to establish how we can achieve high-level targets in a cost-effective manner.

The Department does not have a proposal as to how we would do this.

Mr. Matthew Collins

We are examining it. We need to build up an evidence base before we come forward with a proposal.

We have been debating this issue-----

Mr. Matthew Collins

That is the approach the Commission has taken. The Commission is leaving it open to the member states to look at their own national circumstances and determine the best way of achieving the proposals. At this stage, it is a proposal and there are a number of stages involved. The Commission would never approach us at this stage to ask us how we will achieve it. The Commission has made a proposal that has to be approved by the Council and the European Parliament. There is a timeframe for implementation of the objectives thereafter. Then the objectives will be set with certain dates as well.

This cross-questioning is useful because we have been refused public debate. I would love to be able to sit down and work out various cost estimates or, indeed, any other proposals. Thereafter, the Bill could be amended. A lot of very good work has been done, particularly including two international examples.

While the Commission does not direct exactly which mechanism should be used, at various points in its circular economy package and directives it specifically puts forward the DRS as one of the very effective ways of doing it. Having talked to industry people and other experts in the area, having gone through this process in the past year, we know of no other mechanism that would achieve what will be an obligatory target when the directive goes through, as I expect it will.

Parliament has been considering this in real detail. It is not appropriate to shirk the responsibility and say that we will wait a few more years when the Department does not have an alternative proposal. If the Department had an alternative proposal with a better way of doing it, there would be a valid argument that we could debate on Committee Stage. After a year of extensive research, it is inappropriate for the Department to say it needs to do more research. I assure Mr. Collins that the research will come up with no conclusion. It is not possible to get an exact figure because it is such a complicated costing exercise involving multiple variables. For example, how can we apply a figure to the cost of the litter that is polluting our country this summer? It is very difficult to put a price on that. It is very difficult to debate it when the Minister is refusing to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage and the Department does not have an alternative proposal. It would bring shame on this Parliament if we were to wait for everyone else to legislate in respect of this matter.

Mr. Matthew Collins

I do not think there is any proposal to wait and let everybody else legislate first. It is not that we do not have a proposal. We have a fully-functioning and operational extended producer-responsibility scheme that is achieving and far exceeding its existing targets. That is the current status. We do not yet have a mandatory obligatory target. The Commission will admit that this is a proposal. We are very hopeful that it will be approved. However, no targets have been set yet. It is subject to negotiation at the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

Different countries have many varied experiences. We need to understand the dynamics within countries. For example, Belgium does not have a DRS and is achieving the current recycling target of 86%. Is a DRS the only solution to this problem? I cannot say that it is; we do not have enough evidence to say that is the current situation in Ireland.

Does Mr. Collins believe-----

I will let Mr. Collins finish and then I will let the Deputy in.

Mr. Matthew Collins

In progressing the concept of a DRS, we said we would implement a pilot to have a much better understanding of how such a scheme would operate in Ireland. As a result of discussions with the environmental pillar, it has been agreed not to proceed with the pilot. That is in accordance with the views of the NGO pillar, as I said. As a result, we will not be doing that. Instead, it has been agreed that we will carry out a national study on a full implementation of how a DRS would operate in Ireland. Those are the actions we are taking. At this stage, when we have examples of these schemes enjoying high and low performance in different countries and also examples of countries, including Ireland, that have good performance or high performance - as is the case with Belgium, which does not have a DRS - it is not really feasible for me to say what is the best or the only option with which we should proceed at this point.

I am glad the Department has abandoned the idea of the pilot scheme, which I thought was mad. I was in Cashel last weekend and I wondered how we could possibly get any sort of scientific results from it other than having some kind cordon sanitaire around the town whereby we would know that the plastic bottles used there would remain there. I am glad the Department has moved away from that.

Further to the agreement with Irish environmental pillar, when does Mr. Collins expect that research to be concluded? Given that we are all of the view that the legislation will be passed in Europe, do Mr. Collins and Mr. O'Donoghue believe that our current system could deliver the 90% target that the Department's information note indicates will need to be in place in two years?

Regardless of what happens in Belgium, does Mr. Collins believe the system here could deliver the more than 90% recycling rate we seek?

Mr. Matthew Collins

There would not be any value in me giving a personal opinion. I need to find the evidence to indicate the best way of achieving that target.

The best way is the DRS. I would like to debate that with the Minister on Committee Stage but he refuses to do so. The majority of Members of the House agree with that view but they are being blocked by a Government which refused to even debate the issue.

The Bill will be separate to this EU legislative proposal. I accept that the Deputy is raising it because there is an overlap in terms of reducing the impact of plastic products. Mr. Collins has to leave at 2 p.m. Is it agreed that there are no subsidiarity issues with this EU legislative proposal?

No. I cannot agree with it. There clearly are subsidiarity issues.

Is the Deputy saying that it requires further scrutiny?

I would not like the matter to be closed. I do not know how we could argue that it does not involve subsidiarity issues when it is clear that will be the case.

Is it agreed that this EU legislative proposal requires further scrutiny?

What are we proposing in terms of further scrutiny?

We could say that on 11 July the committee agreed to forward a report of its political contribution to Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, Mr. Antonio Tajani, MEP, President of the European Parliament, Mr. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten. We could further agree that in the interest of interparliamentary co-operation on EU matters, a copy of our report be forwarded to the appropriate committee in the national parliament of EU member states and each of Ireland's MEPs. The secretariat would have to draw up a report-----

I would appreciate it if we could take that course of action. I thank the Chairman.

Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank Mr. Collins and Mr. O'Donoghue for coming before the committee. We will suspend the meeting to allow the witnesses to leave and our the next group to come in.

Sitting suspended at 2.03 p.m. and resumed at 2.08 p.m.