The Poolbeg prophecy
I left my house in north Dublin one afternoon last August with directions to a site just off the N11 in County Wicklow. Somebody had dumped about a tonne of rubbish along a narrow and picturesque mountain road called Rocky Valley Drive, and I wanted to see it for myself. Not long after I got out of the car with a notebook and pen, a man pulled over to where I was standing and asked me what I was doing there. I said I was working on a long piece of journalism about waste management in Ireland. You’re a journalist? he asked. He had assumed, he told me, that I was an enforcement officer for the county council or the EPA, or at least somebody official. He told me it had been a long time since someone had dumped anything along this road, and it was depressing to see it had happened again.
I walked around in the rubbish for a little while, writing down what I saw and taking pictures with my phone. The dumper was probably an unlicensed waste collector. All waste collectors in Ireland are required by law to be licensed, but unlicensed collectors operate because there are plenty of people who are willing to use them. An unlicensed collector might come to a house with a full skip outside and offer to get rid of its contents for a fraction of what a licensed waste collector would charge. Licensed collectors charge more because they have to pay gate fees at landfills, whereas unlicensed collectors simply find a quiet spot by the side of the road.
At the site I was visiting, the contents of three super sacks – enormous square bags, made of thick woven polyethylene or polypropylene – had been dumped into a grassy laneway that led to a wide green pasture with horses grazing in it, overlooking a valley. In my notebook I wrote down some of the items I could see in the super sacks and strewn about them:
Cans & bottles, esp. alcohol esp. Bulmers
DVD player stereo
Bricks and stones
Hazardous waste? paint thinner, paint, oil
Clothes – shoes jumpers
Furniture – bed and bedding
Children’s toys – bicycle and tricycle, battery-operated toys
Luggage – two large empty suitcases
Nappies – soiled
Birthday card – To Mam Happy Birthday Cian Ciaran Caitlan
I had received directions to the site from Ian Davis, the head of a service called Protecting Uplands and Rural Environments (PURE), which co-ordinates the removal of illegal waste in County Wicklow and south County Dublin. According to Davis, the site he had sent me to would be cleared in a day or two, at a cost to the public of about €3,000.
One of the reasons I wanted to see an illegal dump site in its raw state was that in the weeks preceding my trip to Wicklow, as I began researching waste management in Ireland, I had felt myself becoming desensitized to the massive volume of rubbish that’s created by households and businesses. The reports I was reading spoke of tonnes of waste by the millions and hundreds of thousands. I also assumed that illegal dumping was connected to the most pressing waste-related question in Ireland – namely, how to reduce the amount of material we send to landfill. At the dump site on Rocky Valley Drive, the bottles could have been recycled. The wiring surely could have been reused. Everything electronic could have been disposed of at no cost at any electronics store. The clothes and furniture were in decent shape. So were the toys. So were the suitcases.
In the first half of 2010, Davis told me, nearly twenty convictions for illegal dumping had been made as a result of PURE’s work. However, he complained that the fines for those who hired the unlicensed collectors were too lenient in some cases – as little as €25. Another problem was that while large-scale dumping had decreased in Wicklow since the beginning of the recession, small-scale dumping – single black bags tossed on the side of the road – was increasing. In 2009, there was enough illegally dumped rubbish in PURE’s catchment area, Davis told me, to run a single continuous line of trash from Glendalough to Waterford, or about eighty miles.
What kind of person, I asked him, illegally dumps rubbish – or pays unlicensed collectors to illegally dump it for them? He shrugged. There is a long history of dumping waste in rural Ireland, he said, and for a lot of people waste is something they stop worrying about as soon as they can’t see it – so a bag on a mountainside and a bag in a landfill are rough equivalents.
Ireland is currently in the middle of a high-stakes struggle over waste in which all of the key players recognize that there are, in fact, huge differences – environmental and economic – between the various ways in which the contents of a bin-bag may be disposed of. More than a decade ago, in 1999, the European Council introduced a directive setting limits on the amount of biodegradable municipal waste that could be sent to landfills. Biodegradable municipal waste is a significant subset of municipal solid waste that will degrade within a landfill; it includes compostable waste, non-compostable food waste, paper waste and biodegradable plastics. The Landfill Directive, as it came to be known, was transposed into Irish law three years later, in 2002. Article 5 requires that member states reduce the amount of landfilled biodegradable waste relative to a 1995 baseline, in three stages: to 75 per cent of 1995 totals by 2006, to 50 per cent in 2009, and to 35 per cent in 2016. Countries that historically over-relied on landfill – defined as those that buried more than 80 per cent of their biodegradable waste in 1995 – were eligible for derogations of up to four years. Ireland, which has long over-relied on landfill, took advantage of this and got its first two deadlines moved to 2010 and 2013. Unofficial figures, based on an assessment of the monitoring returns submitted electronically by landfills in 2010, indicate that Ireland is likely to meet its Landfill Directive target for 2010. Subsequent targets are going to be much harder to reach, and all signs point to Ireland seeking a derogation for its third deadline as well, from 2016 to 2020. Governments that fail to meet the limits set by the directive will be liable for fines.
What’s wrong with landfill and why is the EU working to reduce member states’ use of it? Conditions at landfills in Ireland have significantly improved following EPA steps to enforce minimum standards, so the problem is not that currently operating landfills are rat-infested, stinking, groundwater-poisoning dumps – not any more, anyway. But even if operated according to best practice, landfill is still regarded as the most environmentally harmful method of treating waste. The biodegradable component of what is buried in landfill produces methane, an aggressive contributor to global warming, as it is broken down in the absence of oxygen. Methane-recovery systems at landfills can reduce emissions by half, and flaring, or burning, methane, gets rid of most of it but leaves carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, as a by-product; either way, greenhouse emissions remain significant. According to the ‘waste hierarchy’ enshrined in EU law, the best approach to waste is to take measures that prevent it from being created by households and businesses in the first place. If it is not possible to prevent its creation, the amount of waste created should be reduced. As much as possible of what remains should be reused or, failing that, recycled. Any waste that remains should be treated in a way that allows for energy recovery – this includes composting, mechanical–biological treatment, and incineration. Landfill is the last resort.
Until very recently, I had never thought about what happened to waste once it left my house. I do bring glass bottles, metal cans, and clothes to the bring bank for recycling. I wash plastic food containers, dry them, crush them, and throw them into my green bin – but not always. I throw compostable material into my grey bin with non-compostable waste, even though I have a brown bin, which was delivered to my door a few years ago with some instructions, because I am afraid of maggots. My green bin is picked up by a private waste collector called Greyhound. My grey bin is picked up by the local authority, Dublin City Council. My brown bin is supposed to be picked up by Dublin City Council, I think, though I have never seen the truck go by. In fact I have never seen a single neighbour on my street use a brown bin – even though the Council charges less to lift a brown bin than a grey bin. Although the public has become increasingly conscious of the importance of recycling, there is clearly no general awareness of the importance of separating biodegradable waste for composting, which involves dramatically lower greenhouse emissions than anaerobic decay in landfill, and is a source of useful compost (and sometimes energy).
Collection services vary across the country, because each local authority makes its own arrangements for the collection of domestic waste in their area. Many authorities arrange for private companies to collect waste and recyclables. They must adhere to a rule established by the EPA in 2009: only 47 per cent of the municipal waste that arrives at a landfill site can be biodegradable. The percentage limit was pegged to the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill, on average, in areas where brown bins are provided for such material. In areas where no brown bin system exists, the figure is 63 per cent. Only about 20 per cent of Irish households have brown bins. Waste-management companies – some of which both collect waste and operate landfills – have complained about the limit, claiming there are insufficient recycling and composting facilities to which biodegradable waste can be diverted.
There are twenty-four public municipal solid waste landfills currently in operation in Ireland, and five private. At the current rate of disposal, existing landfill capacity will last twelve more years. Building new landfills isn’t easy – it takes six to seven years to get one up and running – and it goes against the thrust of both the EU Landfill Directive and the government’s stated desire to reduce the total number of landfills to twenty state-of-the-art sites. There are currently 327 sites designated as ‘historic unlicensed waste landfills’ in Ireland, defined by the Waste Management Regulations (2008) as those that operated without a waste licence at any time between 1977 and 1997. Many closed immediately upon the commencement of the EPA’s licensing system, but others closed long before that. Many of these legacy sites, as the EPA calls them, were simply abandoned: somebody closed the gates and put padlocks on them and walked away. These sites present a far greater risk to the environment – through liquid emissions that contaminate groundwater – than the twenty-nine active landfill sites. According to the EPA, sixty of the 327 legacy landfills are high-risk sites. Though these sites represent a real environmental danger, and have for many years, the EPA can only require local authorities to identify sites and classify them according to risk; it is largely powerless to force local authorities to invest in environmentally sound closures or cleanups. So they sit, today, continuing to harm the environment.
In September 2010, Dara Lynott, Director of the EPA’s office of environmental enforcement, stated publicly that in order to reach the reduction targets set out in the EU Landfill Directive, ‘we are going to have to build more composting facilities, bio-mechanical treatment facilities and incinerators; a whole range of infrastructure’. His remarks – and specifically the reference to incineration – came at a politically sensitive time, following a summer of fierce debate over the planned construction of a municipal waste incinerator on the Poolbeg peninsula at the mouth of the river Liffey in Dublin.
The Poolbeg incinerator was one of three such facilities planned in a country that had hitherto never burned municipal waste. Lynott’s boss, the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, was locked in a very public battle with Dublin City Council and its contractor, Covanta, over the Poolbeg plans. It was clear that Gormley did not want the incinerator to be built. A lot of people were asking, however, if Gormley, the leader of the Green Party, was opposed to incineration in general, or to an overreliance on incineration (i.e. some incineration was fine, but not too much), or only to the Poolbeg facility, which would be located in his own Dáil constituency. That question was difficult to answer, because Gormley had, in comments to the media at various times, suggested all three were the case. The ambiguity arose, at least in part, from the tensions between Gormley’s various commitments: to Green Party policy, which prioritizes investment higher up the waste hierarchy (prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling); to his local constituents, who overwhelmingly oppose the Poolbeg incinerator (for reasons mostly quite different from the reasons environmentalists tend to oppose incineration); to his senior coalition partners in Fianna Fáil, who took no great interest in environmental questions; and to the need to meet the targets established by the Landfill Directive – something that will be very difficult to do, as Lynott noted, if Ireland does not begin incinerating waste. Under the Directive, Ireland must reduce its total landfilled biodegradable municipal waste to 916,000 tonnes by 2010, 610,000 tonnes by 2013, and 427,000 tonnes by 2016. The Poolbeg incinerator, running at maximum capacity, will, if built and put into operation along the lines currently planned, burn 600,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per year. The weight of the resulting ash, which will need to be transported to landfills, will be around a quarter of that. This is the basic equation that has driven the stuttering move towards incineration in Ireland.
The EU waste hierarchy, which views incineration with energy recovery as preferable to landfill, was officially adopted by the Irish government in 1998, and the state’s commitment to the EU hierarchy has been restated in a number of subsequent documents. But since the summer of 2007, when Fianna Fáil formed a governing coalition with the Green Party, the government’s preference for incineration over landfill has been less clear. The 2007 Programme for Government, whose environmental elements were largely driven by the Greens, affirmed a commitment to a waste strategy that actively discouraged incineration by announcing a goal of capping the percentage of municipal waste that could be incinerated, starting in 2012. Later, Gormley initiated moves towards the imposition of high government levies on incineration.
All of this took place against the backdrop of slow but steady moves towards the construction of a large incinerator at Poolbeg – a project whose origins long pre-dated the Fianna Fáil–Green government. In 1996, Dublin City Council, acting as lead council on behalf of the four greater-Dublin local authorities, hired consulting engineers MCOS to produce recommendations for the formulation of a new Dublin regional waste strategy. This was intended to allow the Dublin authorities to meet their obligations under that year’s Waste Management Act, which was Ireland’s first step towards a national waste strategy, as well as the National Recycling Strategy (1994) and the EU’s Draft Landfill Directive of 1991, which would eventually become the Landfill Directive that is driving so much of the debate today. In November 1999, following a feasibility study, MCOS recommended the commissioning by the Dublin local authorities of a waste incinerator with a capacity of up to 700,000 tonnes per year. When, in 2006, the authorities submitted their planning application for the incinerator, the proposed facility had a capacity of 600,000 tonnes per annum. Electricity generated by the incineration of waste would be sent to the national grid; this is the ‘energy recovery’ that partly accounts for incineration’s superiority to landfill in the EU waste hierarchy.
The entire process ran very slowly, and this has been attributed to the work of various forces – including local residents and waste-management companies other than Covanta – who worked hard to create obstacles to the incinerator at every turn. The non-enforcement of various targets set out in state policy documents may also have been a factor in the apparent lack of urgency (a factor the state itself recognized in a 2004 report); and Dublin City Council suffered from severe bureaucratic paralysis on the Poolbeg issue, one person who used to work there told me. A project team was appointed in the spring of 2001. In the autumn of that year, that team developed the procurement process. In 2002, after the procurement process was approved, the authorities advertised a tender offer for companies prepared to design, build, operate and maintain the facility. The selection process lasted through all of 2004. Four companies were, after expressing interest, deemed eligible to bid for the work. For reasons that are unclear, only two of those companies entered serious discussions with the Council after getting past pre-qualification: Elsam, the former national electricity producer of Denmark, and Veolia, a multinational private corporation. Veolia subsequently withdrew. Elsam, the sole entity submitting a plan, won the bid and signed an agreement with the Council. As a result, a new company called Dublin Waste to Energy Limited was created, in which Elsam held a majority stake and the Council held the rest. Around this time, Elsam was acquired by Dong, Denmark’s biggest energy company, and Dong decided to withdraw from the contract with Dublin City Council in an operational capacity. This left Dublin City Council with an entity whose sole purpose was to oversee the building and operation of a plant that was already designed, but without anyone to build or operate it.
In 2007, an extraordinary step was taken by Dublin City Council in response to Dong’s withdrawal. Rather than go through the tender process all over again, it transferred the contract to Covanta, a US-based company, which had not been involved in the tender process at any point hitherto. The Covanta facility, which had been designed by Elsam, received EPA approval, and in 2009 Covanta began to clear land and prepare to build. A molasses factory and a metal recycling plant on the Poolbeg peninsula were relocated to make way for the incinerator. The site was bulldozed, fences were erected, and then, in May 2010, work stopped. Two years earlier Covanta had applied for something called a foreshore licence, without which it could not proceed with construction of the cooling facility for the incinerator. Minister Gormley, whose department issued foreshore licences, said there was a backlog of applications, and Covanta would simply have to wait. Covanta’s president stated on national radio that Covanta, the largest incinerator company in the world, had never encountered anything like this before. The American ambassador got involved. Media commentary ran heavily against Gormley, who was seen as was stonewalling construction of the incinerator to save his political neck in a constituency where he had been elected only narrowly, and in a political context where the Greens’ coalition with Fianna Fáil was extremely unpopular.
In September 2010, the foreshore licence became irrelevant when the City Council issued a compulsory purchase order for the site; but construction has yet to recommence. The contract between Dublin City Council and Covanta had meanwhile expired. The Council, which had the option of severing the agreement, decided to defer the decision until May 2011, by which time, it was generally believed, the most serious obstacles to construction – namely the incineration cap and levy Gormley was threatening to introduce – would have vanished, along with Gormley and the Greens, after a general election that was expected to produce a new government. (The Greens withdrew from government in January, and a general election was called for 25 February, shortly after this magazine’s press date.)
John Gormley has not been the only powerful opponent of the Poolbeg incinerator. The waste-management companies – under the umbrella of the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA), their representative body – have also been strong opponents of the plan. At the centre of their quarrel is the question of who owns the waste that they collect from households and businesses and who decides what becomes of it. Companies that collect waste, many of which are now investing in alternative treatment facilities because of stiffened landfill regulations, want to be free to decide how to profit from the waste they collect. Under Dublin’s regional waste-management plan, however, they will be required to deliver at least a portion of the waste they collect to Poolbeg.
The purpose of this provision is to secure the economic viability of the Poolbeg incinerator for Covanta. It is linked to a controversial ‘put or pay’ clause in the contract between Dublin City Council and Covanta: a guarantee to Covanta that at least 320,000 tonnes of waste will be delivered to the facility every year for incineration, and that the City Council will compensate Covanta financially if the quota it not reached. If the Dublin authorities cannot compel waste-management companies under contract to them to deliver some minimum proportion of the waste they collect to Poolbeg, the quota in Covanta’s contract may not be reached.
In 2009, two private operators, Panda and Greenstar, took Dublin City Council to the High Court in separate but linked cases in which they claimed that the local authorities had used their dominant position to restrict competition in the market through the terms of their waste-management plan. Although the councils’ intention to compel companies to deliver a quota of waste to Poolbeg was still hypothetical in the absence of the incinerator, Panda and Greenstar sued over another contentious provision in the Dublin waste-management plan: that waste should be collected by a single operator in any given area, and that the waste would be owned by the council and not the companies that collected it. Panda argued that the plan was ultra vires, or beyond the powers of the councils, and that its purpose was to give the councils total control over domestic waste in the Dublin region – thereby allowing them to compel suppliers to take the waste they collect to Poolbeg. In the case brought forth by Panda, Mr Justice Liam McKechnie ruled that Dublin City Council’s aim to force Panda and other suppliers to dispose a portion of the waste they collect at the Poolbeg incinerator would restrict competition and that it would not benefit consumers. (McKechnie also said that if the case put forward by Greenstar went ahead, it too would be successful.)
Gormley, meanwhile, was pursuing his strategy of thwarting the incinerator through the imposition of a stiff government levy. In 2008 he commissioned the environmental consultants Eunomia to conduct a review of Irish waste policy. In its report the following year, Eunomia recommended that a levy of €26 per tonne be applied to incinerator operators. This would have the effect of driving up the price Covanta would have to charge suppliers, and of making incineration less economically competitive with landfill. Dublin City Council then commissioned a report from the ESRI, which, under the title An Economic Approach to Municipal Waste Policy in Ireland, took issue with Gormley and Eunomia on a number of fronts, including incineration levies. The ESRI report, authored by Prof. Paul Gorecki, recommended an incineration levy of about €5 per tonne – less than a fifth of the Eunomia figure. The ESRI’s recommended incineration levy was later raised to about €10 per tonne, after a bitter dispute in which the author of the Eunomia report pointed out that the ESRI had erroneously assumed that greenhouse emissions from incinerators would be included in the EU Emissions Trading scheme; but this revised figure was still well below the level recommended by Eunomia, and the two reports painted very different pictures of the environmental implications, and the economics, of incineration.
Last September I sat in Prof. Gorecki’s office for about an hour, and kept making the mistake of asking specific questions about the Poolbeg incinerator. Prof. Gorecki had no opinion on the Poolbeg incinerator, and when I asked if he would be interested in seeing the contract between DCC and Covanta, he said it might have been helpful before the contract was signed, but not any longer. ‘It’s signed and sealed. What’s the point? I’m not clear why we need to know what’s in the contract,’ he said.
But if Gorecki was reluctant to speak about Poolbeg specifically, he had clear views about the policy of the government and of Minister Gormley. He took issue, in particular, with what he saw as Gormley’s intention to use artificially high levies as a means of discouraging or preventing incineration. The Gorecki report states that levies imposed on incineration, landfill or any other form of waste disposal ‘should be set to reflect the externalities – environmental and other damage – which may or may not result in landfill paying a higher levy than incineration’. In Gorecki’s view, Gormley’s proposed levies were based not on a calculation of the externalities of incineration, but rather on the then Minister’s desire to make incineration economically unviable – with the consequence that more waste would go to landfill and the Landfill Directive would be ‘much harder and more costly to meet’.
The new restrictions on landfilling biodegradable waste, and the continuing lack of municipal waste incineration in Ireland, have combined to create an incentive for waste-management companies to develop new and more efficient methods of reusing, recycling and recovering energy from waste. The processes used to derive energy and solid commodities from waste that would otherwise go to landfill fall under the general rubric of mechanical–biological treatment or MBT. Under existing MBT processes in Ireland, waste is transported to a facility, where it gets sorted. Recyclable goods are extracted, then transported to recycling stations (or bundled for export to the UK and elsewhere), compostable goods are taken to a compost site, and waste that cannot be recovered goes to landfill.
MBT is at the heart of the Green Party’s preferred alternative to incineration, and in this, as in other respects, its interests are more closely aligned with those of the waste-management industry in Ireland – Covanta excepted, of course – than one might expect. There is a natural tension between the environmentalist desire to reduce the amount of waste society produces and the private sector’s desire to profit from the recycling, composting, burning and burying of waste. Yet there is very little environmentalist agitation for the de-privatization of waste collection and treatment in Ireland. A Green Party spokesman told me that private waste collectors have shown – by being profitable in an area where local authorities traditionally lose money – that they work more efficiently. The spokesman also told me that private operators are leading the way in waste treatment alternatives. The secret, he said, to controlling a privatized waste market is regulation and enforcement aimed at making reuse and recycling as attractive as possible.
The problem with MBT is that by certain important measures it falls far short of incineration. A waste enforcement officer at the EPA told me that for every 100 tonnes of waste that goes through MBT, only 20 or 30 tonnes will be diverted from landfill. For every 100 tonnes of waste that is incinerated, by contrast, between 70 and 80 tonnes will be diverted from landfill. Incineration is cheaper, it eliminates a far greater total volume of waste – so there is less that must be landfilled – and the ratio of energy spent to energy recovered is better. It is, then, misleading to view MBT in itself as a direct alternative to incineration; but it is certainly possible to expand the scope and sophistication of MBT in Ireland – and all the more so if no large municipal waste incinerators are built. This is not quite a zero-sum game, but something pretty close to it: the more incineration capacity exists, the tougher it is to make MBT viable.
Environmentalists often oppose incineration in general, or particular incinerator projects, for reasons relating mainly to the role of incineration in the overall economy and ecology of waste production and disposal. If the incentives created by the existence of an incinerator tend to discourage the reduction, reuse and recycling of waste, then an environmentalist may view the incinerator as a bad thing, even if its purpose is to reduce the amount of material that goes to landfill. Such a position is complex and, not surprisingly, has little to do with the reasons that local communities often oppose incinerators: the noise and traffic of trucks bringing waste to be burned, and the perceived toxicity of incinerator emissions. The latter fear is unfounded. Waste incinerators do of course emit greenhouse gases, and a small proportion of the ash they produce – ‘top ash’ – is hazardous and must be buried in specially designed landfills. But if operated correctly, modern incinerators emit very little in the way of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. Sitting beside a peat fire is more dangerous than living near an incinerator, even a very large one – or so I was told by a few people I interviewed, including a committed environmentalist. This is not widely understood, though, and many ordinary people, fearing toxic emissions from incineration, are happy for waste to continue being buried in the ground. For Greens, who know that landfill emissions are more damaging and are aware of the capacity of incinerators to produce useful energy, the issue is much trickier.
In 2004, three years before it entered government with Fianna Fáil, the Irish Green Party launched its Zero Waste policy document, which set a twenty-year goal of ‘no municipal waste arisings’. Zero waste as an idea has been around for many decades, and the Green Party document – which conveniently reclassifies landfilling as ‘cleanfilling’ – reveals the limits of zero waste as a goal for society. Though the Greens may use a phrase like ‘no waste arisings’, the assignment of ‘cleanfills’ as places to bury inert waste that cannot be treated anywhere else along the waste hierarchy reveals that this is a misnomer. Zero waste might be more helpfully discussed as an approach in which nothing falls outside the waste hierarchy, i.e., nothing is recycled that can be reused, etc. A zero-waste approach demands that we eliminate inefficiencies in the way we use resources, at every level of society. Investment in incineration, Greens argue, comes at the cost of underinvestment in what they term more sustainable ways of handling waste. (A vivid example of this point of view was articulated in a letter to the Irish Times in February 2010 from Dr Michael H.B. Hayes of the Chemical and Environmental Science Department at the University of Limerick. Referring to the large sum paid by Dublin City Council to its consultants on the Poolbeg incinerator, Hayes wrote: ‘Had the €21 million been spent on well-directed research it is highly likely there would be available now a technology that could provide an equitable solution for the so-called “waste” issue.’) Investment in incineration might also stifle local waste-prevention programmes, which suddenly seem too expensive when it’s far cheaper to burn everything, and creates an assumption that all waste currently deemed unrecoverable will remain unrecoverable forever. Jonathan Essex, a Green Party councillor in Sussex, told me that recycling technology was improving rapidly, and that a lot of what we bury today may, in future, have value. Above all, though, environmental sustainability in waste is about reducing the amount of waste a society produces, not tweaking methods of disposing of it.
In New Zealand, zero waste has been adopted as national policy. The government sets extreme targets for waste minimization, and these targets demand innovation in the area of waste management consistent with the principles of zero waste. A 2006 review of progress made under the 2002 New Zealand Waste Strategy showed that progress was variable: ten of the thirty targets had been achieved. The language of the strategy does not sound too dissimilar from the language used to describe developments in waste here in Ireland. The difference is that New Zealand’s targets are far more radical. There is no incineration of municipal waste in New Zealand, only a handful of small-scale incinerators for hazardous waste, and use of these has decreased over the last decade. New Zealand is therefore attempting to divert all possible municipal waste away from its landfills through elimination, reducing, reusing, recycling, and non-incineration energy recovery processes such as composting. Similarities in population, population density and GDP make New Zealand an obvious model for Irish policymakers who are ambitious about reducing waste.
But the New Zealand model also deviates from the waste hierarchy that underpins EU law: waste that cannot be reused, recycled or composted is buried and not, as the EU hierarchy would dictate, burned. Although Ireland is nowhere near New Zealand’s level of sophistication and investment at the upper end of the waste hierarchy, the approach of the Irish Greens, like that of New Zealand, is effectively to prioritize landfill over incineration. In an ideal zero-waste world, where the state and the public would have a completely different approach to consumption, we would not need landfills or incinerators. But such a world is, in Ireland, a long way away, and further development of MBT – which is to be expected as long as the incinerators remain unbuilt and landfilling is discouraged by government policy – will not bring us there on its own. If incineration is defeated in Ireland, huge quantities of waste will continue to be buried in the ground for the foreseeable future.
In July 2010, while the battle over the Poolbeg incinerator played out in the national media (and just weeks before the EPA’s Lynott called for the construction of incinerators), Gormley introduced a Draft Statement on Waste Policy, which stated that ‘our aim is to move away from traditional landfill and mass burn incineration, towards higher levels of recycling and mechanical/biological treatment’. The Draft Statement, heavily influenced by the Eunomia report, was short on specifics; but it affirmed the government’s intention to treat incineration as an environmentally unfriendly disposal process – not preferable to landfill, but equally undesirable – and to attempt to minimize incineration through a cap and levies. The Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011, published just weeks before the Greens withdrew from government, did not include a cap on incineration; the Green Party spokesman told me more study was needed to determine the usefulness of such a measure. However, the bill does introduce an incineration levy, while not setting a specific figure. According to the bill, the levy for landfill fees would increase from €30 per tonne to €120 per tonne, and the levy for incineration, though it would have to be laid down by ministerial order, could reach €120 per tonne as well. Gormley sent a letter to his constituents, shortly before resigning as Minister for the Environment, in which he asserted that the Poolbeg project ‘cannot go ahead’ in the face of the levies provided for in the bill. But Phil Hogan – the environment spokesman for Fine Gael, which was expected to lead the next government – asserted that Gormley’s bill ‘won’t come in’. In a foretaste of the mixed signals we’re likely to get on waste policy from the next government, Hogan also said that Fine Gael had ‘always been against incineration’. The party’s election manifesto calls vaguely for a ‘coordinated and planned approach by Government’ to meeting EU waste targets and makes no reference to incineration. The position of the Labour party, which was on course at the time of writing to be Fine Gael’s junior coalition partner, is similarly nebulous. The Labour election manifesto calls for a ‘coherent approach to waste management that minimises the waste going to landfill, and that maximises the resources that can be recovered from it’; but it makes no specific reference to incineration.
A few days after the Greens withdrew from government, Gormley sent a letter to Éamon Ó Cuív, who would be covering his portfolio in the brief period before the election, informing him of a report he had commissioned from a senior barrister on the Covanta contract, and asking that the report be published immediately as a matter of public interest. This letter, which quoted parts of the report, was leaked. The report projected penalties ranging from €187 million to €350 million over the next twenty-five years in relation to the ‘put or pay’ clause in the contract, on the basis that Dublin City Council would struggle to deliver the 320,000 tonnes of waste per annum specified in the deal. A spokeswoman for Dublin City Council responded by calling the report’s findings ‘hypothetical’. She also said it did not take into account that, under the terms of the agreement, Covanta has the option to source waste from outside of Dublin. When, in the summer of 2010, I interviewed the enforcement officer at the EPA, I asked him what would happen if, in addition to Poolbeg, other large incinerators planned in counties Cork and Meath added to the national incineration capacity so greatly, with recycling efforts meanwhile reducing volumes of waste to be incinerated, that incineration capacity greatly exceeded national demand. Was it possible that Ireland could end up importing foreign waste to burn, in order to keep the incinerators’ owners happy? He said it was possible, based on what he knew – though he had not seen the contract between Covanta and the Council.
Almost everything about the proposed Poolbeg incinerator is a matter of dispute, but nobody disagrees with the notion that, if built to current plans, it will be big – very big. The average capacity of municipal waste incinerators in the UK is 246,000 tonnes per year – less than half that proposed for Poolbeg. The average capacity across the EU is 177,000 tonnes per year. These averages include plants built as long ago as the 1980s, when incinerators were much smaller; but the average capacity of incinerators built in the 2000s across all of Europe is still only 225,000 tonnes. The Poolbeg incinerator, if built, would be the largest in Europe by a margin of 100,000 tonnes per year. This would not be problematic if there were grounds for confidence that the capacity was required, and that the economic incentive to feed the available capacity were not likely to discourage the reduction, reuse and recycling of waste further up the chain – but neither of these things is at all clear. The IWMA has proposed that the facility be re-sized at a capacity of 300,000 tonnes. This might seem a reasonable compromise, but it’s not clear that Covanta would be interested.
One factor nobody anticipated, when planning Poolbeg, was the collapse of the Irish economy. Total municipal waste generation in 2009 was about three million tonnes, a decrease of 8.4 per cent from 2008. This followed a 5 per cent decrease in 2008. Until 2007, municipal waste generation had risen steadily with Ireland’s growing economy. According to the EPA, the 8.4 per cent decline in the generation of municipal waste between 2008 and 2009 mirrored the fall in GDP. While recent declines in waste are superficially good news, and may help Ireland meet its Landfill Directive targets, the EPA’s figures indicate that the effect of public policy on waste minimization remains modest – and that the link between economic activity and waste remains unbroken. Every government everywhere is committed to economic growth. Unless waste prevention is the goal of a national waste strategy, and unless this goal is supported with serious investment and regulation, the underlying association between wealth and waste will continue, with or without incinerators.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 42 Spring 2011