I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment. Deputy McManus, to the House. The Bill is long overdue, but when enacted it will provide a systematic approach to tackling the waste problem.
Irish society is producing an ever increasing level of waste, which is having a severe effect on our environment. We owe it to future generations to ensure that we control this problem. Ireland produces a massive 1.7 million tonnes of waste per year. The present recycling weight of 7.4 per cent or 124,000 tonnes is totally inadequate. We must introduce programmes to increase dramatically the level of recycling. I commend the Minister on his target of recycling 20 per cent within five years. This should be the minimum acceptable within that period and we should strive to be well in advance of 20 per cent. It is an achievable target and a worthy objective which can be facilitated by the Bill before the House.
We must make every effort to ensure that we reuse and recycle the maximum amount of waste. Our society must be educated to its benefits and the absolute necessity of achieving it. We must also educate the public to reduce the level of waste. People should be fully aware that two-thirds of waste produced can be recycled or reused. Some 25 per cent of all domestic and commercial waste generated in Ireland is connected with packaging. Plastic bags and other packaging are more than suitable for reuse. An immediate reuse of packaging alone would have increased dramatically the present recycling and reusage level of 7.4 per cent.
The same argument can be made in respect of glass and aluminium cans. Much development has taken place over a short number of years in this area. When I became a member of a local authority ten years ago, recycling of aluminium cans and glass was practically unknown, certainly outside the capital. There is an opportunity to recycle in any reasonable sized town. The figures show that it takes almost 20 trees to make one tonne of paper. There is a wastage of up to 400 tonnes of paper per annum, meaning there is a possibility of recycling the equivalent of 7 million trees in one year.
A welcome development over the past decade is the availability of bottle banks throughout the country. While these are available in most large towns, they are not easily available in rural areas. The area of refuse collection should be examined. An occasional special refuse collection for bottles and aluminium cans could be provided at a reduced charge. People in rural Ireland have accepted and understand that we must have charges for our services. In the area of recycled material, special collections should be made at a reduced charge as an incentive to assist and encourage rural people and give them the opportunity to recycle waste through the refuse collection service.
Thankfully, people have become environmentally conscious but it is important that a stronger link be forged between the need to preserve the environment and have a comprehensive waste management plan. At present, the only national approach is a blanket rejection of dumping sites. We need a realistic plan to develop our dumps. It will be necessary in the immediate future to have landfill sites and it will probably always be necessary to have them. These must be environmentally safe and the public must be educated as to the safeguards and how these dumps are policed.
In other countries, especially Switzerland, there is strong development in the area of incineration. I understand that, at certain levels of temperature, this is environmentally the safest way to dispose of waste. However, the introduction of such incinerators will require full research by the Department of the Environment as to their safety, the education of the public to accept it as a foolproof procedure and an assurance that there will be no accidents or shortcuts. About a year and a half ago, I read that a level of incineration has been developed which is absolutely safe. The problem is convincing people that it will be properly policed and that there will be no emissions into the environment. If one were to propose such an incinerator in Ireland, there would be absolute objection to it because people do not have confidence in the system.
We must develop people's confidence in such systems and assure them that they are safe, foolproof and properly policed. Under no circumstances should incinerators be under private control because there will always be an incentive to cut corners when money is involved. They must be under public ownership through the local authorities to ensure people can be confident that they are operated to the standard necessary to ensure they are environmentally safe and all procedures are in place. That is down the road but it is a future development which could be examined. I do not refer to clinical waste but rather ordinary domestic and industrial waste.
The problem of clinical waste also requires attention. In my area, a private organisation proposed to introduce an incinerator for clinical waste. We were extremely concerned about it and we would not accept that the proper policing would take place or proper standards kept. The community was backed fully by the local authority and An Bord Pleanála in their view that it was an unsafe and incorrect facility in the area where it was proposed.
I welcome the fact that the Bill provides for the devolution of powers to local authorities. The management of waste is a local as well as national problem. Local authorities have decades of experience in the area and they have the expertise to introduce successfully the provisions in the Bill. There is a cost element in an increase in the duties of local authorities. The standards contained in the Bill will incur both capital and operating costs to an unprecedented degree in most if not all local authorities.
The ESRI research paper of November 1995 estimated that, in 1994, total local authority expenditure on solid waste management was £65 million with an income of £18.5 million, showing clearly that the service is significantly under financed. The report states that the cost of providing the service in years to come will increase substantially. It estimates that the capital cost will be in excess of £250 million to which operating costs must be added. Exercises recently conducted in County Limerick estimate the capital cost of providing a new landfill facility in east Limerick at between £8 million and £12 million and the upgrading of the existing facility in the west Limerick area at £2.5 million. Capital expenditure on a transfer station, of which at least one will be required in the county, will be in the order of £2 million to £8 million depending on whether it is solely a transfer facility or contains a recycling capacity.
Government policy should suggest that 50 landfill sites will be required compared to 100 or so now in operation. How will these requirements bear on the present costs and charges? Currently, the costs and charges vary around the country. Some 40 per cent of houses pay no charges whatsoever. If the polluter pays principle is the goal — in other words, if the collection and disposal of solid waste is to be self-financing — then a change in the charging policy of local authorities is inevitable.
A recent submission by the Limerick County Manager states that while costs will increase, it would be wrong to assume they will be astronomical or unaffordable. Studies in County Limerick suggest that the cost of disposing of solid waste will increase to £30 per tonne due to the demands of this Bill. It is estimated that the average household of four to five persons produces one tonne of waste per annum.
In Limerick County Council's area a new wheel bin system will come into operation in mid-1996. The cost of collection will average £65 per household, giving a nominal annual cost for collection and disposal of £95. This will mean a considerable increase in the cost to householders. However, experience shows that householders demand a good service and many are opting to receive it from private operators at a considerably more expensive rate than Limerick County Council offers.
People require a good waste collection service which they are prepared to pay for, but there is a contradiction there which is difficult for those outside local government service to understand. People are willing to pay a considerable amount of money, perhaps £65 to £70, to have their refuse collected efficiently by a private operator. If the council provides the same level of efficiency, however, there is a different attitude towards paying the same amount. Councils have a role to educate people that they are providing the same service. If councils compete with other operators the same level of charges can be expected. Local authorities do not have a dependable buoyant source of revenue; but, hopefully, this will change following studies the Minister has initiated.
Even if the polluter pays principle is generally accepted, and the collection and disposal of waste requires no subsidy, there will be major financial implications for local authorities, particularly in the short term. For example, if a new sanitary landfill facility is to become reality, two stages must be gone through. First, scooping studies must take place along with tests, environmental impact studies, the provision of public information, official inquiries and land acquisition. This could take from three to ten years and could end up without any proposal being sanctioned. It will cost a local authority £500,000 to fully investigate a landfill site.
Second, assuming that the preliminary stages are successful, two years will still be needed from commencement of work before the site will be ready to accept waste. The cost of bringing a project to operational use must be borne by the local authority concerned, presumably by means of a loan, the repayments of which will be met in part by the gate fee. However, having regard to the time lag, the first instalment of this may fall due well in advance of the facility becoming operational.
I am sure the Minister is aware of the difficulties that would present to a local authority in the first two or three years of a loan, for example, of £7 million to £8 million. Such a loan, repayable over 20 years, would require an annual repayment of £1 million with no return because the facility is not yet available. Few local authorities could carry that scale of repayments in advance of the proposal generating income, so arrangements for a deferral of repayments might be borne in mind should circumstances warrant it. It should be understood that local authorities are not in a position to repay such loans without having any income from the service, and a postponement of repayments is obviously one way of dealing with that.
The need for training has been recognised by the County and City Managers' Association, FÁS and the Environmental Protection Agency. Provision has already been made for training courses and information services for householders, industry and local authority staff.
I have only referred to landfill, but regardless of developments in minimisation, reuse, recycling and incineration — all of which must be vigorously pursued in accordance with Government policy — landfill will remain the primary means of non-hazardous waste disposal for the immediate future. Traditional systems for disposing of solid waste belong to the past. Today's reality, both from an environmental and monetary position, must be accepted; and the sooner we face that, the better.
The high level of opposition from environmental groups to any proposal for better, more modern facilities is paradoxical because it prolongs older, inefficient sites whose operation is detrimental to the environment. Unacceptable proposals for landfill sites have been made by councils, but we have to have landfill dumps. If the present situation continues, in a short time no acceptable landfill sites will be available anywhere. That is unrealistic because it means inefficient and environmentally bad sites will remain in use contrary to the worthy objectives of many people who are protecting the environment.
Under the terms of the Bill local authorities, which are defined as county councils or corporations of county boroughs, shall prepare a comprehensive waste management plan. When the Bill becomes law they would have no choice but to prepare such a plan. Two or more councils may combine to do this for their collective area and the plan must be revised every five years. The adoption of a plan will be the reserved function of the council. The Environmental Protection Agency will prepare a hazardous waste disposal plan for the State and each local authority shall have regard to this in dealing with hazardous waste originating in its own area. Each major local authority shall collect or arrange for the collection of waste within its functional area and may collect or arrange for the collection of waste other than household waste.
I note that under the Bill the corporation of a borough, other than a county borough or an urban district council, may collect or arrange to have the collection of household waste. It is not obliged to do so.
Commercial collectors will be required to have a permit from the relevant local authority. I congratulate the Minister for introducing this welcome step because for some time there has been a concern about private operators starting up businesses, which are not under any control in a free-for-all area, to the detriment of a proper collection service. It is important for local authorities to obtain control. Some authorities have, unofficially, operated such permit systems without authority so it is good to see the practice now being enshrined in legislation.
The Bill allows for a right of appeal to the District Court in respect of a refusal to grant a permit. A waste licence must be obtained to dispose of, or undertake the recovery of, waste at a facility. The granting of a licence will be the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency. A waste licence will not be required for certain facilities. These include the recovery of sludge from a facility operated by a local authority, for the treatment of water or waste water, for blood of poultry origin, for foetal material of animal or poultry origin and natural agricultural wastes of a non hazardous nature as may be prescribed. While I welcome the Bill, local authority members should be in a position to implement it.