Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 24 October 2000 (continued)

5.15 pm

All that is already in place and is up and running. I commend the Department on the work that it has done so far. The presentations made by Steve Aston and Jim Lamont from the Department on these issues were the best made to the Committee. They knew what they were doing and what the EU directives demanded of them, and they set themselves practical, deliverable targets. In dissociating our party from the motion and the amendment, I stress that the Department has its finger on the pulse of the issue and will have the support of our party and our Committee for as long as it is implemented and managed sensibly.

Mr A Doherty:

Just over a week ago the SDLP issued a call for a real debate on the important issue of waste management. That did not receive wide coverage; waste is not the hottest issue for the media or for the public. It has failed to register with them that we are living through a quiet, insidious ecological meltdown, the effects of which are seen most starkly in the far-off famines and other tragedies in what we call the Third World. In fact, there is only one world; we are part of it, and we are responsible for it.

I was pleased that the motion appeared on the Order Paper so quickly. Perhaps it was a happy coincidence. I read the motion with great interest and high expectations. In it, the Minister is called upon to

"agree a waste management strategy which would progressively work towards zero waste targets".

That is excellent, if rather vague and theoretical. Nobody could disagree that such a strategy, if successful, would do wonders for the future economic, environmental and social well-being of our society. So far, so good.

The motion also says that such targets are

"to be achieved within a generation, that is by the year 2025".

We would all love to see that achieved in 25 years, or even in 50 or 100 years. For thousands of years, mankind has had a culture of waste and destruction. We make, we package, we use a little and discard a lot. We cut and slash and dig. We create deserts, dust bowls and wastelands. We poison the air and pollute our waterways and seas. That is just what we do to our planet; what we do to each other does not bear repetition. When did it first dawn on a few enlightened people that we live in a finite world with limited resources? It was not long ago - a century or so, perhaps. Can all that destruction be undone in a generation? I wish that it could.

I do not want anyone to think that we do not take the issue seriously. It is a deadly serious matter, and nobody is more conscious of that than the SDLP. We have been castigated for being green - on this issue, we are greener than green. We are involved with councils and council groups in work to develop a realistic waste management strategy, not only for Northern Ireland but for the entire island. We are involved in joint North/South action and, beyond these islands, international co-operation.

We heartily endorse the principles of minimisation, re-use and recycling. We urge a massive change in public appreciation of the role that individuals play in creating waste and can play in co-operating to solve waste management problems. That will entail a heavy commitment at all levels of Government: local, national and international. The implementation of waste management strategies will be a complicated and expensive process. Ratepayers and taxpayers will receive a serious shock. They must be persuaded that the benefits far outweigh the costs - costs that can be reduced if they are prepared to co-operate fully.

Before we can even begin to assess whether zero waste is an achievable end for such a process or just a noble aspiration, there is a mountain of work to be done. Every option at every stage must be analysed, costed and tested against the highest environmental standards. Currently, councils are heavily engaged in this work, with limited central government assistance. Neither their hands nor those of the Department should be tied at this stage by the adoption of any strategy, unless there is evidence that it has been fully tested and proved to be both superior and achievable. We do not have that evidence.

With regard to the Alliance party's amendment, we accept the need to set achievable targets. However, it is not right to pre-empt the councils at this stage. We should await their deliberations, rather than make policy on the hoof, as we are in danger of doing here. We ask Sinn Féin to take this motion back, take a close look at it, and put some meat on the bones of a rather spare skeleton. If they do so, we will be delighted to give their detailed proposals the fullest consideration.

Ms Morrice:

Zero waste is an admirable goal. I congratulate Mr Murphy for bringing this motion to the Floor of the Assembly and encouraging debate on what is, without doubt, an important subject. I also thank Mr Poots for providing information on where we stand today and the Committee's work in this area.

However much we strive to achieve zero waste, there will always be a certain amount of residual waste in society. Therefore any waste management strategy must place greater emphasis on waste minimisation. We agree that there must be a fundamental shift in thinking away from the management of waste to the prevention of waste. As Joan Carson said, the guiding principle should be to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover, with the disposal of waste as a last resort only.

It is also necessary to re-examine the ways in which waste is disposed of. We are all aware of the problems of landfill, which have been reiterated in the Assembly today. We need to encourage a move towards a reduction of waste processes in industry, business and the commercial sector. Businesses should be encouraged to rethink their design processes and recognise that producers have a responsibility too.

Partnerships were discussed today. Partnerships among the stakeholders in waste management are vitally important. We need to look at all the different levels. At the regional level, co-operation within Northern Ireland is a must. We welcome the coming together of local authorities on this issue. Co-operation on the island of Ireland is essential because of the potential for joint ventures, for example, in reprocessing procedures. We welcome partnerships at the cross-border level too - for example, the previously mentioned Donegal/Derry/Strabane partnership. Co-operation is also required on an East/West basis within these islands, in the European Union and on a global scale.

However, all this must be underpinned by investment at the first level to provide for what the householder can do. It is essential that people know what they can do on an individual basis, such as home composting and box schemes for the collection of paper and plastic. A healthy example of this is a pilot programme proposed by Bryson House, which some Members may not be aware of. It is a door-to-door, multi-recycling programme in partnership with three local authorities. Here we have an excellent example of something that is going to be up and running.

Finance should be provided for this, and at least a percentage should come from central sources for these projects and for ongoing research into new techniques in waste management. Funding should also be considered for existing non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and we must not forget the very valuable work that they do collaborating with community groups, local councils, local businesses and schools to promote waste management at grass-roots level. The work of conservation volunteers in this area is one example.

There is also a need to identify and invest in sustainable markets for recyclable products, and there is tremendous scope for innovation in terms of design, and so on, and in how we reuse our products. This can help to phase out, for example, peat-based compost by using waste-derived compost. Glass reprocessing is also important, as is the use of processed waste paper. An alternative application for reclaimed tyres is another example. This helps job creation and contributes to economic growth.

We should not forget the value of education, not only for the public but also for industry and business. The Minister should ensure that his Department establishes close working relationships with the Department of Education in this area so that the authorities responsible for the curriculum develop it with waste management issues included at all key stages.

The "polluter pays" principle, which has been mentioned, should be applied to waste management in Northern Ireland. Fees and charges should be set at appropriate levels in order to cover fully the cost of waste management and enforcement. The landfill tax credit scheme should be revised to focus on supporting the implementation of a waste management strategy. The use of secondary raw materials should be encouraged, possibly by levying additional taxes on primary sources.

Above all, central and local government must demonstrate leadership in sustainable waste management by immediately adopting green housekeeping and purchasing policies. To this end, we call for an audit of Stormont and all Government buildings regarding basic housekeeping practices in areas such as the use of recycled paper, energy-efficient lighting, heating, waste disposal and paper.

Waste management is not just about providing separate bins for household waste or about handling industrial waste. It is about changing attitudes, attracting new investment, creating jobs, and, most importantly, it is about protecting our health and environment.

Mr Wells:

I find it somewhat ironic that this motion should have been proposed by these two Members. Did they not think about the amount of waste that has been consigned to landfill as a result of their bombing activities the length and breadth of this Province? When they were blowing up Claudy, Enniskillen or La Mon did they stop and think about all the rubble, glass, and wood that would end up in landfill? If they had not created vast tonnage of waste by their own activities they might have a right to speak on this issue this evening. Of course, who could forget the ultimate waste - the waste of 3,000 totally innocent lives?

I noticed, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you were about to call me to order. I am totally in favour of waste management but not as advocated in this motion.

If we were to go on in the way we are going as a society, if everyone in the world were to use the world's resources at the rate that we in Western society are doing, by the end of this century we would need three planets to sustain us. The only thing that is saving the situation at the moment is that Third-World countries are using a fraction of the resources that we, as Western society, are using.

One quarter of the world's energy is used by one country - the United States. The average person in the EEC and in the United States uses between 60 and 70 times the amount of energy and resources that someone in central Africa or South America uses. We must grasp this problem, but in an achievable way. What is proposed in this motion is not achievable. Everyone would like zero waste but that will not happen by 2025, or even by 2125.

5.30 pm

For once I shall not criticise the Department of the Environment because it has grasped the issue and developed a waste management strategy. More consultation has taken place as part of this strategy than for any other. I have been invited to countless meetings about this strategy, and no Member can claim that he does not know about it or has not been consulted.

I am not a district councillor, but I understand that district councils were also consulted widely on this vital issue. As the waste disposal authorities, they had to be consulted. Members of the party proposing this motion sat in district councils along the length and breadth of the country, from Londonderry to Newry, and from Fermanagh to Moyle. They listened to presentations on the strategy and gave it their seal of approval. The proposal then went before a series of public meetings at which we, as public representatives, were entitled to express our views. I went to at least two meetings and heard nothing from those representing Sinn Féin/IRA at local government level. Its members sat placidly and accepted what was being suggested.

The proposal then went before the Environment Committee, which questioned Dr Aston and his colleagues closely. I am not on the Environment Committee, but I wish I were because I would like to have had the opportunity to question him too. After that vigorous questioning the Committee gave the proposal its firm seal of approval.

This document has been well and truly aired. One reason it has generally been accepted is that the targets in it are attainable. I wish that the targets were more stringent and that we could have greater waste reduction, but at the moment that cannot be done.

In a previous incarnation I did a study on waste disposal for a conservation organisation. One of the tremendous barriers to adequate waste management in Northern Ireland is the fact that we have 26 waste disposal authorities in the form of 26 district councils. Each authority tries, if at all possible, to run its own waste disposal site. The problem is that the huge capital resources required for waste management are spread among 26 authorities which, apart from Belfast, are relatively small. In Leicester, which has a population equivalent to that of Northern Ireland, all waste is disposed of at two sites. Northern Ireland has about 40 publicly managed and private landfill sites. The Department faces enormous problems and must therefore set targets which are realistic.

We must give the Department the resources, encouragement and political support that it needs to ensure that it not only meets but tries to exceed those targets.

However, the Assembly must put its own house in order. Its use of resources is absolutely disgraceful. How many forests have been chopped down to provide paper for this institution? Where is the so-called paperless office that we were promised? Day after day the postman groans under the weight of paper from the Assembly. Does all our paper come from recycled sources? Is the paper that is thrown into the bins in our offices and outside our buildings recycled? I have been asking those questions, and no one can give me the answers.

On many counts, people could rightly say that we are setting a target for them but that the Assembly needs to put its own house in order. I support what the hon Lady for North Down (Ms Morrice) said about the creation of an environmental audit committee. The Assembly needs a committee to consider what it is doing with its own waste and to make recommendations to the Executive about cutting down the vast amount of waste that is so evident in all Government Departments in the Province.

A practical measure that we could take from next week is recommend that the Assembly sign up for the eco tariff for electricity. All the electricity that is used in Government offices in Northern Ireland would then be purchased from an energy pool that comes from sustainable sources, such as wind and wave power.

That would send out the most enormous signal to the community that the Assembly means business as far as the future of our Province is concerned. The world simply cannot sustain the way in which we are currently going. The people are looking to us for an example. We should give the Department the political support and resources it needs to implement the plan. That is the way forward.

If, by doing that, we feel we can increase the targets, increase the amount of recycling and control over the use of energy and waste, all well and good. However, it would be nonsensical if the Department, having gone through that lengthy process - which unfortunately generated a lot of waste paper in its own right - said "Everyone has agreed that policy and we are happy with the targets, but we are scrapping all that. We are going for a zero waste strategy by 2025." That is not practical.

The Alliance Party - in particular, Mr Ford, who is normally a sensible individual - is not prone to the "Dallat factor". Most of his motions are thought through, but there is a wee bit of the "Dallat factor" in this one. Mr Ford knows that this issue is too important to be clouded by political dogma, and Northern Ireland is a big enough unit to deal with the waste strategy by itself. We produce so much waste that the economies of scale are such that we can tackle this problem as a Province. We do not need to run to Dublin to establish cross-border bodies - there is plenty of waste to be going on with in the Province.

Mr Ford:

I am not sure whether the Member was present for my speech, but I said that the motion refers to joint actions. I referred specifically to cross-border initiatives in the north-west and said that I was not discussing an all-Ireland issue.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I must remind Members of the time. Many Members wish to speak. I would like to see this as a family-friendly as well as an environmentally friendly Assembly.

Mr Wells:

The Member knows our deep suspicion of proposals for any form of cross-border bodies - we know the hidden intent behind them. The concern is not about waste, but the gradual absorption of the two parts of Ireland. Needless to say, we are not interested in going down that route. We can solve this problem ourselves. We should give the Department the support it deserves.

Ms Hanna:

I wish to question the sense in tabling a motion that, for the most part, is unrealistic. Unfortunately, the motion is framed in absolutist, all-or-nothing terms. The proposer should know that those who demand all often end up with nothing. I strongly support the concept of a waste management strategy that will achieve the highest possible waste recycling targets. No society in the world recycles 100% of its waste, including countries such as Germany and Switzerland, which have been far more environmentally proactive and aware than us for decades.

The Department of the Environment published a waste management strategy for Northern Ireland based on wide consultation with a large number of environmentally-interested groups. It was able to obtain a large degree of consensus in formulating the strategy. More importantly, it is now up to the 26 district councils to co-operate, working at the sharp end of waste management, in producing and implementing a strategy on the ground, based on the strategy document.

No one has questioned the general thrust of the strategy, although there is room for debate over the target being set. I believe the target is too low. The motion does not make it clear what zero waste means. Does it mean that by 2025 our society will produce no waste?

It may be a pious aspiration, but it is unrealistic. The danger of adopting such an unrealistic target is that it may be counter-productive and undermine the development of programmes to deal with the grubby reality of the waste problem.

In Northern Ireland there is a 3% increase in the production of waste each year, and we recycle less than 2%. There is evidence that there is a linkage between economic growth and increased production of waste. We need to develop the creativity and ingenuity to break that linkage. We are a throw-away society, and a massive education programme and culture change are needed to persuade the population to face up to the implications of what they are putting in their bins every week. People need to start taking responsibility for the environment.

We need incentives to encourage recycling, and deterrents to make the polluter pay. But in the meantime what are we doing with all this rubbish, bearing in mind the EU regulations on landfill? We are still putting batteries, fluorescent tubes, paints, adhesives, medicines, weedkiller, insecticides, polish, detergents and oil into our landfill sites. We have a long way to go. What are we doing with our waste in this Building? That question was asked earlier, and we need to tackle that issue and lead by example.

We need to set serious, challenging, realistic, but achievable, targets, and make sure that they are pursued vigorously. At present there are very low levels of recycling of household waste. We need to develop programmes for the more sustainable management of that waste. There is currently a very low demand for recycled material. Developing new, economically viable and stable markets for recycled material is a massive task.

Mr Wells:

Does the Member agree that if we, as an Assembly, along with the 10 Government Departments, decided, from a certain date, that we would only use recycled materials, it would give an enormous boost to the recycled material market in Northern Ireland?

Ms Hanna:

I will consider that, but in the meantime I will finish my points. We will need help from many bodies, operating at a more global level, if we are to develop sustainable markets. We must foster a society preference for recycled goods and a culture of repair, rather than replacement. The SDLP is, of course, committed, through the Annex to Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement, to North/South co-operation on environmental protection, pollution, water quality and waste management. I acknowledge that polluters do not recognise borders or separate jurisdictions. The SDLP is in favour of establishing an all-Ireland environmental protection agency and all-Ireland markets for recyclable materials to cover what is, after all, a small island of 32,000 square miles and five million people.

We need to take the issue of waste management very seriously, but realistically. We are always aspiring to achieving higher targets of reducing, reusing, recycling and recovering.

Mr Hussey:

I support the thrust of the amendment as it represents a much more realistic approach to the growing problem of waste management than the original motion, which I regard, and I gather others regard, as an unobtainable, idealistic expression. The zero waste idea may come more from a possible electoral threat in the Republic. I understand that a zero waste group may be fielding candidates there, and perhaps the proposers of the motion are more concerned about that.

However, I feel that Mr Ford, in his amendment, might have been better looking at EU targets for waste production and, indeed, the proposals coming from the Environment Committee, as outlined so well by Mr Poots. Mr Wells has referred to the number of authorities with responsibility. Again, through the discussions this afternoon, Members will be aware of the establishment of a number of council consortia to address the waste management strategy requirements. I heartily welcome such co-operation.

5.45 pm

My own council is one of the constituent bodies in the north-west region cross-border group of councils, which includes Donegal, as has been mentioned. I welcome the proposal's recognition that waste management may need to be addressed, where appropriate, on a cross-border basis.

There is a recognition that a proper strategy to deal with waste requires a critical mass to ensure economically effective outcomes. I trust that all Members can agree that the aim of any option on waste management under consideration is to target the least environmental impact within the bounds of economic viability. I sincerely believe that a balanced option of prevention, reduction, re-use, recovery and disposal is appropriate and can deliver targets while focusing resources to minimise costs.

The motion partly addresses tools that can be used in the recovery process - namely, recycling and composting. There will still be a residual, unusable waste, and I believe that the proper recovery tool here is energy from waste, thus utilising residual waste and further reducing that which will have to go to landfill. Despite the prior extraction of many materials, new processes and energy-to-waste ensure clean burn of residual unusable waste, notwithstanding its reduced calorific value. One has only to look at Denmark, where, I understand, there are about 30 energy-to-waste plants there.

There are many issues for consideration such as waste generation and reduction at source. Mr Murphy suggested that manufacturers should take a lead role on that and I totally agree with him. Mr Ford dealt with separation at source, and again I agree with him. Education was mentioned by Ms Hanna and Mrs Carson, and nobody can disagree with the fact that people need to be educated. Markets for recovered materials and research and development were mentioned, and the suggestion was that there needs to be some sort of Government intervention in these areas. Perhaps this Assembly should suggest - and I totally agree - that we should be using recycled materials. Members will note that I am using a recycled notepad.

Mr Wells:

Hear, hear.

Mr Hussey:

Thank you. Unfortunately, time prevents me from going into that, as I realise that there are others yet to speak.

Whatever way we go forward, investment will be required, and I contend that it will be necessary for additional funding from the Government to ensure an effective and acceptable solution to the problem of waste management in the future. Was landfill tax an environmental tax or a revenue-raising tax? If additional funding to ensure efficient and effective waste management strategies cannot be made available via a greater level of support from landfill tax credits, we will then know the answer as to whether this Government at Westminster was a green or a money-grabbing one.

Mr Dallat:

At this late stage in the proceedings I could be accused of recycling many of the ideas that have already been mentioned. I was particularly interested in Mr Wells's contribution and his frustration at the volume of paper he receives. I suggest that that may have something to do with the success of the Assembly.

Developing a waste strategy is not a problem. The problem lies in persuading the public to pay for its delivery and achieving the targets set in it. To do that, there would have to be significant changes in public attitudes. People would have to pay significantly more in taxes, so there could be greater financial input and fundamental revisions of the existing planning regime. Without these elementary principles, the aims and aspirations for a national waste strategy will never be realised.

In Britain and Ireland there is significantly less investment in waste management than in other European countries. To date the producers of waste are but bystanders, not directly responsible for the serious amount of waste they generate.

In Northern Ireland the arrangements for waste disposal are hopelessly inadequate, even piecemeal. The problem can only get worse for local authorities that provide disposal facilities as opposition to waste disposal sites intensifies. We may not have even started to win the hearts and minds of the public, to change its attitudes to waste minimisation and waste recycling. This is elementary and should begin at school, be brought home to the family and carried on to the work place. The Government's national waste strategy focuses on household waste, which accounts for only 5% of waste production. It is unclear whether the targets for commercial and industrial waste are purely aspirational, or even legally binding. Many other key areas are addressed inadequately, if at all.

As members of the public, we may ask "What can we do?" And the answer is one word - "Plenty." Every year over 400 million metric tonnes of waste is generated in the UK, and it is estimated that an average household produces over a tonne of waste per year. If every family were to start a compost heap at the bottom of its garden and give its backing to recycling, we would have begun to create the ethos for a much cleaner environment.

The Government have set a target for 17% of household waste to be recycled or composted by 2004. Is this achievable and who will verify it? Municipal waste is increasing at the rate of 3% per annum. Over 60% of our personal consumption is on food and alcohol. Satisfying this demand leads not only to materials being prepared, packaged and transported, sometimes for thousands of miles, but also to the increasing use of take-aways, which has resulted in packaging being disposed of on the streets. If everyone works together, we can tackle this throwaway society. How will we achieve it? The Government have made available £25 million over three years towards the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP). However, this money will be wasted if there are no long-term sustainable markets and end uses for recycled material. Even if all funding for waste management is added up, we will find that we will still spend no more than £1 per person per year over the next three years, which is not a lot.

This is a national issue that has to be addressed by everyone. For us, the issue is an all-Ireland one. Pollution in all its evil forms does not stop at the border, and there are many benefits should we adopt an overall strategy for the whole island.

Peering into the future is easy. In the nineteenth century we had the Industrial Revolution. The twentieth century brought a revolution in information technology. However, we are not sure what the twenty-first century will be remembered for. Waste and how we manage it is a serious challenge. At least we now have strategies and are attempts are being made to impose targets, but we still need to talk seriously about waste prevention and avoidance. Waste has been the Cinderella of the utility services for too long. We have seen fundamental changes in the way we deal with waste over the last 100 years, not least with the new technologies and the changes that are generally perceived to be best practice. Throughout the twentieth century there was a need to safeguard the environment and develop public confidence.

I support the spirit of the motion, but I doubt if its aspirations will be achievable. Much depends on the resources available and whether people are prepared to bear the increased costs. Much depends on how we educate society about waste disposal. Most importantly, we must develop a collective responsibility on this crucial issue. The motion has allowed the different parties to lay their ideas before the House. The next logical step is to have all the issues raised thoroughly examined and taken on board so that and our vision for a waste-management strategy can be achieved.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

There is no doubt that this has been a most interesting debate. I thank those who participated and those who have acknowledged our presentation on the waste management strategy. I am sure that this afternoon's discussion will not go to waste.

It is important to look after the environment. If the sun, moon and stars were in the predatory hands of the human race, they would probably not exist. Let us proceed with care. Let us not raise unrealistic expectations.

I was glad to be able to listen to the debate on one of the most significant challenges facing society, business, the Assembly, my Department and district councils. The challenge has major environmental, economic and social implications. Should our strategy for facing this challenge be based on a laudable but aspirational approach to increasing the amount of waste that is recycled and composted? Alternatively, should we place our hopes on the pragmatic, consensus-based waste management strategy published by my Department, with my endorsement and that of the Assembly's Environment Committee? Waste is an everyday fact, which will have unpleasant, long-term consequences if we fail to find realistic and sustainable solutions to it. We need to produce much less of it and manage much better that which we do produce.

We want less waste because the energy used to extract, transport and turn raw materials into products has a high cost. The money, production time and often scarce raw materials needed are precious commodities which no individual or organisation should squander.

A primary goal of sustainable development is, therefore, to minimise waste. That is why reducing waste is at the top of the list of options set out in the Northern Ireland waste management strategy. We should not lose sight of the aspiration to maximise recycling and composting activities. At the same time, it must be unrealistic to expect a transition from recycling less than 5% of household waste to 50% of all waste without identifying the practical and progressive steps that will lead us there. All our experience and consultation leads us to that conclusion. We must continue to aim for what is achievable. To reach that goal we must have a strategic approach which will ensure that all stakeholders, businesses, communities and individuals can share the responsibility for making the strategy work. It must be based on a high level of consensus and participation across the whole of society.

This was a fundamental principle that dictated the way the current Northern Ireland waste management strategy was developed. I will illustrate this by a short description of the process. The strategy was developed over three years through a programme of extensive consultation involving three distinct steps. That was referred to this afternoon - maybe this is a recycling process. The first step was the formation of a steering group to agree the scope of the strategy and an approach which would engage all stakeholders. The group comprised the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, the Confederation of British Industry and the Northern Ireland Environmental Link, represented by Friends of the Earth. An awareness campaign using television, radio and the press was followed by a series of open workshops. Everyone who might be affected, or who expressed an interest, was invited to discuss their ideas and to suggest how to overcome obstacles that might challenge the opportunity to make a real difference in how we tackle this vital issue. Participants from across Northern Ireland society ranged from community to corporate groups and from councils to college pupils. Their suggestions laid the foundations for change.

The second step was an intensive series of face-to-face meetings with industry sectors, together with officers and elected members from each of the 26 district councils. Their ideas were then built into draft policy proposals for change, and these were issued for public consultation.

The third step was to establish an independent advisory group comprising representatives from the private and public sectors, non-governmental organisations and the environmental professions. Their review of the stakeholder consultation led to 104 recommendations for further enhancement of the proposals. Of these, 98 were incorporated into the final strategy. The final policy proposals fully reflected the objectives and principles of sustainable development. They were also fully consistent with Northern Ireland's obligations under the relevant EC directives and international conventions, and were and are coherent with parallel initiatives in the rest of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland.

6.00 pm

The proposed strategy was examined and endorsed by the Environment Committee. The final, agreed waste management strategy was launched in March this year. The inclusive and extensive nature of the consultation that marked this development has led to wide support for the strategy across all major stakeholders. That launch marked not the completion of the process but its continuation. The strategy has in-built review arrangements that take effect after the first three years. That will enable all of us to assess the impact of the measures in the strategy and to refine the policies if there are any performance shortfalls. We will also have the benefit of the views of an independent advisory board, which will monitor and report on progress.

Northern Ireland is required to have a waste management strategy in order to satisfy the requirements of the European Waste Framework Directive. Not only does this current strategy meet these mandatory obligations, but it has also been designed to achieve other goals: to protect public health and the environment; to provide a secure platform for business growth; and to build public confidence.

The key aim of the strategy is to achieve fully sustainable waste management. This means using material resources more efficiently to cut down on the amount of waste produced. Where waste is generated, it means dealing with it in a way that minimises impacts on the environment and contributes positively to economic development and social progress.

The strategy comprises a range of policy measures including leadership, planning, regulation, information and marketing. Good progress has been made in the first six months. My Department has introduced new controls and completed important data studies. District councils have done excellent work on the development of comprehensive waste management plans, which they are to submit to my Department early next year.

However, in the context of today's motion I want to focus on the strategy's key policy areas of waste reduction, recovery and recycling. The strategy attempts to change attitudes to waste by directing our attention to the full life cycle of materials and products. It helps us to stop consigning what are otherwise valuable materials to an expanding stream of waste. It allows us to concentrate on the strategy's policies and programmes to encourage everyone to realise the true value of these materials as a secondary resource capable of exploitation, and not as waste or "a problem". That approach is exemplified in the strategy's programme for market development and its proposals for best practice schemes.

In this way, and by setting out challenging and specific targets for different categories of materials - tyres, plastics, paper, glass - the waste management strategy sets us on the road to significantly increased recovery and recycling. Even more importantly, the strategy details positive, practical and realistic steps that could take us a significant way down that road, even if they do not lead to its achievement within the timescale envisaged by the proposers of this motion.

At its heart the strategy seeks to redefine how we view and handle waste and enable a progressive transition towards integrated resource management. It encourages waste reduction and improved product design. In the short and medium term this must be complemented by significant improvements in recycling and recovery. Therefore, an overall target to recover 25% of household waste by 2005 and 40% by 2010 underpins the strategy. These targets incorporate minimal thresholds for recycling and composting at 15% and 25% respectively.

Meeting these targets will bring significant environmental and economic benefits to Northern Ireland. To make sure that they are achieved, the strategy addresses the need to develop supporting infrastructure and markets for recycled materials.

However, to work successfully, the strategy will have to continue to involve everyone: from householders to company directors, from community groups to local and central Government. We must remember that the aims of sustainable waste management, and the obligations imposed by European waste directives, are common to all member states, including the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, one of the areas identified for enhanced co-operation under the North/South Ministerial Council is "the scope for improved waste management in a cross-border context". When I reported back to the Assembly after the first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council is environment sector, several Members expressed an interest in this topic. Both the North and the South will be faced with similar problems under these European directives. We will both need to divert increasing quantities of waste away from landfill sites and towards more sustainable waste management practices.

The north-west region's cross-border group has demonstrated the benefit to be gained from co-operation. This group comprises seven Northern Ireland councils and Donegal County Council. The group has reviewed what makes the best economic and environmental sense for the provision of waste services in its area. I am pleased that my Department has been able to provide financial assistance for this work.

Another good example of the cross-border dimension is NI2000, which gives advice to schools and voluntary groups on recycling. In conjunction with a group based in Dublin, it has produced an all-Ireland recycling directory, which will be launched in December. I hope to attend the event along with Noel Dempsey, my counterpart in the Republic.

As I said at the outset, waste is a matter of fact. It is not a matter of fiction, but an everyday truth that affects our daily lives at every level. We should continue to aspire to maximum use of that waste as a beneficial resource. However, more realistically, we need to acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be a substantial level of waste to be dealt with. Our task and our responsibility is to ensure that this fraction gets smaller and smaller every year. The Northern Ireland waste management strategy establishes a framework within which we can achieve that goal and establish Northern Ireland as a centre of excellence in resource and waste management.

By encouraging changes to product designs and by developing a recovery, re-use and recycling infrastructure, we can and we will continually improve our ability to extract value from materials previously wasted. We can and will build markets on a Northern Ireland, an all-Ireland and a UK-wide basis. These are crucial factors for change, and the strategy makes clear provision for them.

We have adopted widely-supported new policies which will make a major contribution to safeguarding the environment and promoting resource efficiency; these will also lead to significant job opportunities. No standard for the protection of the environment or public health will be compromised through successful implemention of the strategy; neither will this opportunity to do the right thing for present and future generations be lost.

The Northern Ireland waste management strategy is built on realism, consensus and best practice. It would be foolhardy to replace it with unrealistic aspiration. We need to allow the strategy to unlock the full potential for the development and improvement of waste management in Northern Ireland. The strategy sets targets, not limits, and people are welcome to exceed the targets. Nobody is trying to stifle them. If councils and others find a way to exceed those targets, they will have my most enthusiastic support. The strategy is not static. It will be subject to regular review, when we will all have an opportunity to take stock of the strategy and if necessary, to discuss it. I ask Members to reflect carefully on this when they come to vote and to confirm their support for the existing waste management strategy.

Reference has been made to the importance of education in waste disposal methods. I am pleased to announce that my Department, together with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, is organising a three-day international conference and exhibition in the Waterfront Hall next February. It will be directed at international designs for products made from recycled materials. For one day of the conference, entry will be exclusively for schools.

Mr Ford:

I will attempt to obey your injunction, Sir, and stick to a family-friendly short speech. There are three main areas. Some Members raised issues of housekeeping, particularly about the Assembly, but also about wider government functions. It may not be entirely appropriate to this motion, but I will ensure the Commission takes note. There were also some useful comments by Ms Morrice and Mr Wells.

The cross-border issue was raised. Mr Poots and Mr Wells knee-jerked too quickly, and they should have taken the time to read what was said, and listen to Derek Hussey about the practical benefits of the cross-border co-operation in which Strabane is involved. Hopefully we can get away from knee-jerking too much every time these issues are raised. They should note that there has been an all-Ireland strategy for clinical waste, which has not created too many problems for my Unionist Colleagues in Antrim who are involved in it. So, there may be hope yet.

The issue is about where the Assembly takes its opinion on existing strategy, and how we move on from that. Mr Poots attacked me on behalf of the Minister, although the Minister did not feel the need to do likewise, so I am grateful for that. My opening remarks supported the efforts of the Minister and his officials, notably Steve Aston, and I broadly support the strategy.

The Environment Committee approved the strategy in draft form, but it did so in a hurry immediately before suspension. That broad approval should not prevent those who sat on the Committee from making further suggestions that may be helpful, whether or not they are entirely in accord with the printing of that strategy.

Mr Wells:

The fact is that the hon Member's councillors, throughout Northern Ireland, sat at consultation meetings - I was at several of them - and agreed the broad strategy of the Department's proposals. It is a bit rich to try and amend it at this late stage.

Mr Ford:

Can I assume that the Member would be prepared to stand by every word spoken by every DUP councillor on other matters?

Comments around the Chamber suggested that the motion was unrealistic. My party was the only one to produce an amendment to make it - as others have termed it - "slightly more realistic", and that should not be a basis for criticising us. Others could have put down amendments but did not do so.

The amendment is not entirely in line with current strategy but is a nudge towards improvement. It is based on further information we received about what is being achieved in councils in England and Wales and we believe it is an entirely appropriate slight change to what was being said. We are not trying to stand the strategy on its head but are seeking to encourage the Department ever further in the appropriate direction. That is an entirely reasonably way to put an amendment to the House, and I commend the amendment that is being proposed.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It was a very interesting debate. I particularly thank the Minister and his officials for their courtesy and in demonstrating their interest and commitment by being present throughout the debate. My party recognises and acknowledges that.

The Members and the Minister have reiterated their concerns about the environment, and that reflects a broad consensus within our society. All have argued, with different emphasis, for reduction, recycling and recovery. Some have addressed the issue of the disappointing targets we have set ourselves. On a number of occasions, reference was made to the extensive consultation that has taken place. It is my view that there is, as a result of that consultation, a heightened awareness - the education process that was referred to - and also an expectation that we will do more. Given the reality of the impact on our environment we must do more.

This motion does not contradict or overturn the waste management strategy. It adds value to it, and there is no conflict in that. Guiding principles provide a measuring tool to ensure that these initial and modest targets in the present strategy can be added to continually.

6.15 pm

I am encouraged by two points in the Minister's comprehensive response. The first is the announcement of the joint action by two Departments - an issue of particular interest to me. It is very significant that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of the Environment should co-host a conference on these issues. Secondly, there is confirmation that the strategy is not static and that we will continue to develop it. The Minister made reference to the document on waste management strategy and he quoted from it a section which deals with the strategy's key aim of achieving fully sustainable waste management.

The same section of the document outlines the Department's role, which has guided our approach to the issue:

"The Department of the Environment will take the lead in implementing the strategy in conjunction with all major stakeholder groups. The challenge is to unlock the full potential of development and improvement of the waste management sector in Northern Ireland. This will make a major contribution to safeguarding the environment and promoting resource efficiency and economic growth."

This is an extract from the formal document. This is Environment Week and, therefore, a particularly good time to hold this debate. The motion reflects current and emerging legislation from Westminister, Leinster House and the European Parliament, while addressing the aspirations of the waste management strategy document. In relation to the amendment, because such modest targets have been set, as reflected in the broad remit of the motion, it has proved procedurally impossible to incorporate the argument. We argue in terms of generation and approach this issue on the basis of what can be achieved over 25 years. Members have indicated their concerns, and it is clear from their arguments that there has been a great deal of research and interest in this issue. This demonstrates what can be achieved. People were able to tell us what had been achieved in other areas, but I would have preferred it if they had explored what could be achieved in another 25 years.

Some municipal authorities have already achieved 50% reduction targets but where will they be in another 25 years? Using this as our datum point, where will we be in 25 years? The amendment does not address that, which is unfortunate given the unanimous concern for environmental issues which was expressed during this debate. It is a pity that people did not attempt to raise the threshold, our ambitions or our expectations, as this motion does. We could examine those waste reduction policies enforced by legislation, some of which is already emerging from the European Parliament, Westminster and Leinster House. This would enable us to address the powerful economic and environmental imperatives which demand waste streaming at source. This would also address the employment potential of developing the market for secondary materials via manufacturing through recycling. We should consider the benefit of an initiative taken by the Minister on behalf of the Executive. This challenge requires leadership to develop a zero waste policy, supported by enabling legislation.

We could then challenge other Departments and set a positive example by calling, for instance, for a social economy and jobs audit as part of every sub-regional waste management plan. This would ensure that the mid-term and the long-term economic potential and financial savings which could be derived from a zero waste strategy were fully recognised and pursued. Other Departments, such as Enterprise, Trade and Investment, are researching secondary materials market development, including export potentials. They are promoting research and development to identify synergies between the information technology sector and material recovery initiatives, seed-funding pilot programmes and seed-funding material recovery incubators.

The Department of Education could integrate into the curriculum a programme of education for sustainable development in the context of active citizenship and lifelong learning.

The Department for Social Development could usefully research the links between sustainable development and social development, including the social spin-offs from community-based solutions to waste management.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development could lead efforts to maximise composting by providing the appropriate infrastructure for materials recovery in rural areas, thus ensuring that Ireland's low dioxin content in farm animals remains a feature of our marketing strategies protecting the green profile that is available for the future marketing of organic produce as well.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure could stimulate the arts, culture and communications sectors to engage in the important task of popularising new attitudes to our environment in public places.

The Department of Finance and Personnel could implement a new incentive structure to support eco-modernisation and abolish perverse incentives for incineration.

Finally, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety could ensure that the best international research on the health implications of incineration and landfill are available to the decision-makers.

Clearly a policy-driven commitment from our Executive will address these and many other opportunities, to develop a zero waste programme. This motion provides an opportunity for the Assembly to take the first steps in achieving such a policy position. From the viewpoint of current waste management systems, the argument for incinerators is that the structure of the waste profession is unaltered, and innovation is limited to the provision of machinery. For large centralised institutions such as Governments, waste companies and machinery suppliers, these are often decisive considerations.

However, incinerators now evoke levels of opposition similar to those in respect of nuclear power, and the main reason is the health and environmental impacts of emissions. Because the input of municipal incinerators is mixed waste, it is difficult, if not impossible, to control the hazardous elements in it. It is generally accepted that the combustion process emits hazardous substances, such as dioxin, and as long as the materials being burnt are hazardous, or are made so by combustion, the plant itself will be a potential hazard through emissions into the atmosphere or the deposit of toxins in ash deposits.

Mr Hussey:

Will the Member give way?

Mr McLaughlin:

No, I will not if the Member does not mind. We had a broad discussion, and I have to pick up on some of the arguments that were presented. Perhaps the Member will excuse me.

What we do with our waste and how we process it is an issue that is at the core of many other environmental problems. Furthermore, it falls within the remit of this Assembly and the Executive, so we can do something about it.

If we, as a society, really want to solve the waste management problem effectively and efficiently, and above all in an environmentally sensitive way, then that will involve a complete reassessment of how we, as a society, respond to these issues. It will mean looking at the commercial packaging of the products we buy and consume; it will mean lobbing the Westminster Parliament to ensure that we can have effective legislation so that these problems can be addressed at source; and it will mean tackling clearly, at a national level, the issue of the recycling of all waste.

When talking about critical mass it is economic nonsense to argue that we could sustain such a market, particularly in terms of the initial start-up cost within the context of the Six Counties. This is an island-wide problem, and we can develop island-wide solutions. It will mean opening our minds to other options that are currently not being discussed at a local government or central Government level. The reality is that 50% of landfill waste should not be there in the first place - and, by the way, that is a Department of the Environment statistic.

The first question that comes to mind is whether the waste is reusable or recyclable. On the island of Ireland less than 10% of the waste dumped in local authorities' sites is being recycled. That is a statistic of failure and short-sightedness.

Many experts have contributed to the debate and have commented on it. Robin Murray has produced a very interesting book, published last year, called 'Creating Wealth from Waste', and he says

"all of this is now changing".

In his book he has highlighted three important factors that are turning waste and waste management into a dynamic, fast-changing, international economic sector. People might be interested to learn that waste management is already the second largest growth area in economic activity in the North.

There is growing concern about the hazards of waste disposal; there are broader environmental concerns, especially global warming and resource depletion. Economic opportunities are being created by new waste regulations and technological innovation. All that leads us to consideration of a programme for zero waste - here I address the detractors and the faint-hearted directly. California, the home of Silicon Valley, is now in the vanguard of environmental transformation. The Californian waste diversion law, the Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939), was passed in 1989, and within seven years nearly a quarter of all the municipalities in that region had reached the target of 50%. That is driven by a zero waste policy. Nova Scotia, a delegation from which is, as I speak, in this country visiting Galway, has a target to achieve it within the next five years. Holland has already reached 72% nationwide, a figure which continues to rise. This is the result of long-term planning and thinking and of achievable objectives.

Today's motion invites us to develop zero waste targets to be achieved in a 25-year period. Coincidentally, 25 years is also the length of an incinerator contract. Both options invite us to think in generations. The difference between the two is that the zero waste approach seeks to reduce with the aim of eliminating while the other promotes a dying technology and assumes a continuing or rising level of waste.

It is sometimes argued, by people who really should know better, that the rigorous safety standards now set down for the operation of incinerators are a reliable guarantee that the health of local populations will not be compromised. However, a 1997 survey in Japan found that only eight of 1,500 operating incinerators met international dioxin emission standards. In Germany more than a million people signed petitions against incinerators after similar scandals and disclosures. In France a Government survey of incinerator emissions in 1998 led to the closure of 20 plants, while others were put on probation. High dioxin levels in milk produced near an incinerator further heightened concern. In Britain itself, two of the most modern incinerators reported 183 emissions infringements between the years 1995 and 1998.


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