The main purpose of this Bill is to provide a legal mechanism to bring the current waste management planning process to an early and satisfactory conclusion, in accordance with our EU obligations.
This process has actually been under way since 1996 and, while local authorities generally have sought to address their responsibilities in this area, a minority of them throughout much of the country have brought about an impasse. Regional waste management plans have not been adopted by all of the local authorities concerned. As a result, we have not made the progress that we all accept is vitally necessary and long overdue regarding the provision of effective and cost-efficient waste services and infrastructure. All the time, the problems associated with proper waste management continue to grow.
Action is clearly required to address our current difficulties – continued debate is not an option, and we have already lost too much time. Accordingly, the Government has decided that immediate legislative measures are necessary to ensure the early completion of the planning process and rapid movement towards the implementation of proposed waste management plans.
In bringing forward amending legislation, I am also 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 15 p 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 ton; the establishment of an environment fund, through which the proceeds of these levies will be disbursed to financially beneficial environmental initiatives in a range of areas, including waste management, environmental education and awareness; and an increase of the on-the-spot litter fine to £100 and provision for future changes in the level of the fine. I also propose 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 waste management planning is the foundation of progress. The failure, until relatively recently, to develop comprehensive strategies for the modernisation of waste management services 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. This is simply not sustainable.
Accordingly, I have promoted the concept of a planned integrated approach to waste management, utilising 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 supported a regional approach to the making and implementation of the necessary waste management plans in our policy document of October 1998. The great majority of local authorities committed to the making of joint or regional plans and considerable financial and human resources, including EU grant assistance, 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. Currently, three out of 15 local authorities in three regional groups have refused to adopt the proposed regional plan that is before them. These authorities are, in effect, obstructing any prospect of progress on the part of the majority and have thrown the overall planning process into disarray. 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.
The legal advice available to me is extremely clear. A proposed regional waste management plan must be adopted on the same substantive basis by all of the authorities concerned, or none can be considered to have a valid plan. As I stated to this House last week, it would make a mockery of my environmental stewardship to 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 are seeing pressing waste management problems on the ground – for example, in Clare and Galway. We must also recognise that the European Commission has taken a case against Ireland to the European Court of Justice because of our ongoing failure to respect our waste planning obligations. A judgment against Ireland seems inevitable and is probably imminent. We have to act now to put a modern and efficient waste management infrastructure and improved waste services in place.
As Minister, I have to act in the overall national interest and take steps that will facilitate the satisfactory completion of this planning process. I have considered the various legal options open to me and have concluded that the existing regulatory powers under the 1996 Act are not in themselves enough to ensure a decisive and satisfactory outcome. Accordingly, the Government has decided that the power to make a waste management plan should be transferred from the elected members of a local authority to the relevant manager, and to make other supporting legislative amendments.
This move will allow local authority management to conclude the planning process and remove any perceived obstacles to the effective implementation of regional plans. It will clear the way to deliver on all aspects of waste modernisation – segregated collection services, higher recycling and recovery performance, and a dramatic reduction in disposal to landfill.
The broad thrust of these key proposals was debated in this House last week, and that debate focused on two main issues – 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 pro posed regional plans. I want to deal with those two issues.
In the first instance, I do not accept that these proposals undermine local government in any way. I am addressing my responsibilities, as Minister, in the overall local and national interest. A small number of local authorities clearly have difficulty in addressing their planning obligations and I am compelled to respond. The proposed changes will not affect the substance of the waste management plans adopted by the majority of local authorities. I do not consider it democratic that a few authorities can hold up the implementation of important regional plans. 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, I have heard no practical alternatives being offered to my proposals. Indeed, the thrust of public commentary has been to recognise the inevitability and necessity of these proposals.
My commitment to a vigorous and more relevant local government system is as strong as ever. I have worked continually to drive forward a major programme of local renewal, which includes my introduction of the Local Government Bill, 2000. My belief in local democracy has not faltered; if anything, the improvements that have been achieved in the local government system since I became Minister have convinced me that we are on the right track. I will not be deterred from this route.
The second point of contention during last week's debate 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 two issues: perceived risks to public health, and a perceived conflict between incineration and materials recycling. I can only reiterate, for the benefit of those who have an open mind on this matter, that 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, that is to say will not, to a significant extent, endanger public health or harm the environment. The EPA, which is statutorily independent in the performance of its functions, considers that municipal waste incineration, operating to the best modern standards and incorporating energy recovery, is 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 these expert views into account. However, we must also address the wider public demand for good information and assurance. I accept that 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, because of 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 general public will be addressed in the coming months.
Incineration and high recycling levels are not mutually exclusive. I accept that they could be, if incineration was 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 capacity of the proposed thermal treatment facilities is deliberately limited. The 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. Accordingly, I am asking local authorities, in the regional groups, to prioritise those elements of the plans dealing with public education and awareness, waste minimisation and the delivery of segregated collection services and waste recycling infrastructure, and to prepare a clear programme of action to fast-track the implementation of these aspects of the plans.
To support these initiatives, I will shortly publish a comprehensive policy statement on waste prevention, recycling and recovery. This will address in detail practical considerations associ ated 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 now deal with the substantive provisions of the Bill in greater detail.
Section 4 provides for an amendment of 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 shall 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 its being made. This is to ensure a period of stability during which local authorities can focus on the implementation of plans.
A local authority will be precluded from making resolutions under sections 3 or 4 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, or section 179 of the Planning and Development Act, 2000, that would be contrary to, or inconsistent with, any provision of a waste management plan or would limit or restrict the proper implementation of such plans. Section 5 provides for a consequential amendment of the definition of waste management plan in section 22(1) of the 1996 Act.
Section 6 provides for a technical amendment of section 38(5) of the 1996 Act, to remove the perceived legal impediment and allow for the intensification of use of an existing waste facility operated by an urban district council. The 1996 Act empowers only county councils and city corporations to develop waste disposal facilities. However, a unique and problematic situation has arisen in Galway, where the only available landfill is operated by Ballinasloe UDC.
As this section now stands, the EPA is precluded from granting a waste licence authorising the expansion of this facility to receive waste inputs of the level required in the period to 2005, at which time the landfill will close and be replaced by a new facility within the regional framework. At current intake levels this landfill will reach its authorised capacity next year with no prospect of replacement in that timescale. Accordingly, this provision is a short-term measure to allow the necessary intensification of use of this facility where so provided for in the relevant regional plan.
Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 39 of the 1996 Act to allow for a prohibition or limitation of the recovery or disposal of a specified class of waste in specified waste facilities. This is an enabling provision that will facili tate transposition of certain aspects of the EU landfill directive which require certain wastes, such as tyres and liquids, to be prohibited from landfills but may also facilitate measures to support recycling.
Section 8 provides for the insertion of a new section 72 in the 1996 Act providing for the imposition of an environmental levy of not more than 15p or 19 cents in respect of the supply by retailers of plastic shopping bags; the subsequent increase of this amount in accordance with increases in the consumer price index; the possible extension by provisional order of an environmental levy to other products or articles, such order requiring to be confirmed by an Act of the Oireachtas before it has effect and related regulatory powers, including power to require that the net proceeds of the levy be paid into the environment fund.
Plastic bags are a visible and persistent component of litter pollution in urban, rural and coastal settings. They impact on ecosystems and on habitats and wildlife and they undermine Ireland's clean, green image. It is conservatively estimated that approximately 1.2 billion plastic shopping bags are provided free of charge to consumers at retail outlets annually. This equates to roughly 325 plastic bags per head of population per year, which is excessive and largely unnecessary. The primary purpose of the proposed measure is to directly influence consumer behaviour and to achieve a significant reduction in the consumption of plastic shopping bags dispensed at retail outlets. The levy will be imposed as a point of sale levy on the supply by retailers of plastic shopping bags to customers. It is intended under the proposed regulations that retailers will be required to pass on the full amount of the levy as a charge to customers at the check-out. The responsibility for collecting the charge will rest with the Revenue Commissioners.
Section 9 provides for a consequential technical amendment to section 7 of the 1996 Act in relation to provisional orders made under section 72(12). Section 10 provides for the insertion of a new section, section 73, in the 1996 Act to allow for the imposition of a levy on the landfill of waste at an initial rate of not more than £15 per tonne or 19 per tonne from 1 January 2002; the subsequent increase of this amount by not more than 5 per tonne annually and related regulatory powers, including powers to require that the proceeds of the levy be paid into the environment fund. The levy will be payable by the person who carries on the waste activity concerned, in most cases local authorities, and regulations made under the section will give local authorities powers to collect the levy from any private operator in whose functional area the waste disposal activity is carried on.
Historically, the relatively low cost of landfill in Ireland has contributed to an undue reliance on this option and has militated against other more desirable waste recovery options. The intention of a landfill levy is to encourage the diversion of waste away from landfill and generate revenues for the new environment fund that can be applied in support of waste minimisation and recycling initiatives.
Section 11 provides for the insertion of a new section 74 in the 1996 Act providing for the establishment of an environment fund to be managed and controlled by the Minister and to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Minister may pay money from the fund for a range of measures, including programmes to prevent or reduce waste, the establishment and operation of waste recovery activities, litter prevention, producer responsibility initiatives, environmental partnership projects and environmental awareness, education and training.
Section 12 provides for the amendment of the First Schedule to the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992, and section 39 of the 1996 Act to provide legal clarity and remove a potential duplication of licensing requirements for certain waste recovery and disposal facilities. A dual licence covering the requirements of both regimes, or two separate but similar licences, would lack the necessary clarity and enforceability. Accordingly, the section provides that waste recovery and disposal facilities will be licensable by the Environmental Protection Agency under the 1996 Act, except where the facilities are connected or associated with an activity which is or will be licensed by the agency under the 1992 Act.
Section 13 provides for amendments to the Litter Pollution Act, 1997, in relation to on-the-spot fines for litter offences. The section provides for an increase of the fine to £100 or 125 from a future date to be set by ministerial order. Further increases in the fine in the future are not to exceed 25% in any three year period. The section also confirms the Litter Pollution Regulations, 1999, which increased the fine to £50 or 60 from 1 January 2002.
The Waste Management (Amendment) Bill will provide a legal mechanism to satisfactorily conclude the stalled waste management planning process and to facilitate the delivery of improved waste services and the development of an effective and safe waste infrastructure. The Bill will also provide for a range of environmentally important and desirable initiatives to be undertaken in the near future.
I look forward to the debate on the Bill which I hope will range across its many full important provisions. I also look forward to taking on board, as far as possible, any suggestions Members might make during the passage of the Bill through the House. I commend the Bill to the House.