Irish Times - 18-04-07
On the eve of the Poolbeg waste incinerator oral hearing, environmental consultant Dominic Hogg challenges some of the assumptions behind the plan and suggests an alternative.
Nearly a decade on since incinerators were first proposed as the solution to Ireland's waste woes, not one has yet been built on the island. While lengthy time-lags are not unusual where the development of incinerators is concerned, there are suggestions that the lack of progress so far might be a symptom of deeper problems. Government policy, including national and regional waste management plans, remains largely focused on incineration as the primary disposal method for non-recyclable or recoverable waste.
As the incineration debate continues and Ringsend residents, politicians and interest groups gather in Croke Park tomorrow for the start of the Bord Pleanála oral hearing into the proposed Poolbeg incinerator, it seems an appropriate time for Ireland to take a step back and ask "Is the incineration strategy the right one?" and "Do we need a Plan B?"
In many ways, Ireland has made enormous strides over the past 10 years. Targets for recycling set in 1998 for 2013, for example, are already being met. The time is right to reconsider what were regarded back then, by a nation taking its first strides towards sustainable waste management, as ambitious targets. The confidence already gained should inspire policy-makers to take the nation further than those targets initially envisaged.
Doing more in this regard, and seeking to prevent waste in the first place, will contribute to reducing the quantity of waste to be disposed of.
The objective of reducing landfilled waste is crucial in the context of European Union policy. The clock is ticking, and Ireland needs to make rapid progress over the coming years if it is to meet the first of the EU's landfill directive targets (for reducing the quantity of biodegradable municipal waste landfilled), which falls in 2010.
Failure to meet these targets may leave the taxpayer with fines running into millions of euro. In the UK, the level of fines being discussed is between €0.5-0.75 million per day. The implications for Ireland are equally serious.
Although improved recycling ought to be central to achieving these targets, this still leaves the question: "what shall we do with what is not recycled?"
Given the time taken to develop incinerators and the lack of time available to meet EU targets, it is appropriate to give consideration to alternatives. Ireland needs to consider and adopt proven technology solutions that are flexible, can be tailored to Ireland's dispersed population base, have relatively low capital costs, and have the prospect of commanding public acceptance.
The facility proposed for Poolbeg fails these tests. Even if it could be built in time to help meet the EU landfill directive targets, Poolbeg would require constant feeding over the decades ahead if it is to be operationally and commercially viable and, from the increasingly important perspective of climate change, the contribution of mass burn incineration is obviously not a positive one.
Poolbeg's 400,000 to 600,000 tonne capacity also needs to be set in context. If Ireland's households achieved the same rate of recycling as the Flemish region of Belgium, the proposed Poolbeg facility, at its upper end, would have sufficient capacity to deal with the remaining waste from every household in Ireland.
This raises all sorts of questions regarding the area over which waste would need to be transported to supply the facility if Ireland was to raise its aspirations in terms of recycling in the years ahead. Incineration on such a scale is not the answer for Ireland. Options that are oriented to serve local populations, and allow for future improvement in recycling and waste prevention, are.
Mechanical Biological Treatment techniques (MBT) have lower capital costs and shorter lead times than incinerators, and need to be given proper consideration as a viable alternative. MBT facilities include sorting and composting-style processes, and are increasingly widely used to deal with waste remaining after segregation at source in countries with progressive waste management systems such as Austria and Germany.
MBT can produce a range of outputs depending upon their configuration, and one of these may be material which is destined for landfill. Because of the way it has been treated, this material is less problematic when landfilled and has a reduced biodegradability. Several countries have already implemented regulations recognising this - Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom - but the regulatory environment that would allow such facilities to contribute to meeting Ireland's EU landfill directive targets is not yet in place.
If the Irish Government was to put clear guidelines in place showing how MBT facilities could contribute to meeting EU landfill directive targets, and if regional waste management plans were less emphatic about the need for incineration, the private sector would be more ready to invest in and bring such facilities to market. This could be done in a relatively short space of time and make a real impact on the country's waste infrastructure deficit - even ahead of the 2010 deadline.
For Ireland, availing of alternatives to incineration - such as MBT - would seem to make sense. Without enabling regulation, however, it will remain underutilised, increasing the likelihood that Ireland will fail to meet EU landfill directive targets and, most likely, entrenching the existing position on incineration despite the time taken to implement the approach and the lack of public support from host communities.
Irish waste management has made enormous strides over the past decade and has led the world with initiatives such as the plastic bag levy and the Race against Waste campaign.
Ireland can use its late-mover position to its advantage by learning from experience elsewhere to leap-frog into international leadership in this critical area of environmental management. The time to act is now.
Dr Dominic Hogg is the founder and director of Eunomia Ltd, a leading European environmental consultancy that has worked with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the British government, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. He is the author of the recently launched report, Waste Policy, Planning and Regulation in Ireland , which was commissioned by the Irish waste management company Greenstar and written in association with TOBIN consulting engineers.
© 2007 The Irish Times
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