North/South Ministerial Council:  Environment

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 29th April 2002.

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Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP 12:00 pm, 29th April 2002

I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement about the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment that was held on 17 April 2002 in Dublin. Given the pressure of other business, the Business Committee has limited the time allocated to the statement and Members’ questions to 45 minutes.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

With permission, I will make a statement about the sixth environment sector meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held in Dublin on 17 April 2002.

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Denis Haughey and I attended the meeting on behalf of the Northern Ireland Administration. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for the Environment and Local Government, who chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed by Mr Haughey and is also made on his behalf.

The Council considered a report on the work programme of officials who were to identify ways of encouraging the expansion of waste recycling and produce a strategy for developing markets for recyclates. The group had gathered baseline information on waste streams and rates of recycling, North and South. It had also identified shared barriers to the development of a sustainable and widespread recycling industry, which might be better overcome by using a joint approach. These include small geographic size, low environmental awareness among manufacturers and consumers, lack of standards for recycled materials, and infrastructural deficiencies. It was agreed that, at the Council’s next meeting, the group should submit proposals for the development of an all-island strategic approach to developing markets for recyclable material, taking account of developments in Great Britain.

Ministers noted that it might be necessary to look beyond local markets to the wider group of islands, continental Europe or further afield for available viable markets for recyclates. The group will also recommend appropriate linkages between market development programmes that are being introduced in either jurisdiction.

The introduction of European legislation on the disposal of chlorofluorocarbon compounds (CFCs) contained in fridges and freezers, leading to their storage or costly export for destruction, has had a major impact in both jurisdictions. Given the economies of scale required for establishing a viable treatment facility to recover CFCs, the Council noted that officials are developing a joint approach in conjunction with local authorities, including the possibility of letting a single contract for an all-island service.

The Council also noted progress on the establishment of an all-island community recycling network, designed to encourage community involvement in waste recycling projects in partnership with local authorities and businesses. The Council awaits the outcome of an economic appraisal of the proposal.

Northern Irish officials have also given initial consideration to options for the introduction of arrangements similar to those in the Republic of Ireland for the collection and recycling of plastic waste from farms. The Council was informed that Northern Ireland does not yet have the necessary primary legislative powers to introduce a statutory regime. With the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and farmers’ representatives, officials will explore possible options for a voluntary scheme, taking account of any proposals that may emerge from consideration of the issue by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Whitehall.

The second item on the agenda was a report from the joint working group on water quality, which is tasked with co-operating on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive in respect of cross-border waterways. A technical advisory group supports the group’s work, which the Council endorsed. The Council also agreed that the findings of the group’s review of water quality management strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments should inform agreements for the implementation of the Directive.

Where river catchments span international borders, the Water Framework Directive requires that they be included in what are called "international river basin districts" to ensure their integrated management from source to sea. The technical advisory group has identified three core agglomerations of river basins that could form the basis for delineating international river basin districts for water quality management: the River Shannon catchment, the Lough Neagh/Carlingford Lough/Dundalk catchment and the Erne/Foyle/Swilly/Melvin catchment.

The Council requested that the working group make recommendations for delineations based on those catchment groupings, along with their associated coastal waters, and prepare proposals for public consultation. The group was also asked to produce proposals for joint funding of the cross-border activities required to implement the Water Framework Directive and for the financing of projects from INTERREG III funds.

The Council noted progress in the scoping study into the key environmental impacts of agriculture. The study had been commissioned with a view to developing co-operation on nutrient management planning and controls on the cross-border movement of slurries and spent mushroom compost. The final report of the scoping study will be presented to the next environment sector meeting in the autumn.

The Council was pleased to note that work on the North/South web site of environmental research had been completed. The web site uses the acronym "aNSwer" — the N and S are upper case to emphasise the North/ South element — and it contains a register of comprehensive information on environmental research carried out by the two environment agencies and by academic institutions. It will be an invaluable tool for those interested in, or involved in, environmental research. The web site was formally launched by Ministers after the Council meeting on 17 April.

The Council was also informed of the completion of the project to develop a joint register of sources of environmental information. The environmental data sources site is accessed through the same aNSwer web site. It too was launched by Ministers after the meeting. The site will provide users with information about the availability and location of a wide range of environmental data and statistics. The Council will continue to receive periodic reports about the development of the site.

The Council approved a work programme for the development of co-operation on information exchange and environmental awareness. Ministers recognised the value of sharing expertise and resources to raise public awareness of environmental issues. The programme includes the production or revision of a range of environmental literature, shared use of exhibitions, staff exchange and local authority network meetings, including a waste management colloquium for local authority environmental education officers and recycling officers.

Finally, Ministers agreed the text of a joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment would take place in November 2002 in Northern Ireland.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

The Minister will know that the public consultation exercise for the three local waste management partnerships is soon to end. The groups have consulted with the Northern Ireland public on the future long-term management of the enormous amounts of waste produced here every year. While minimising the volumes of waste produced must be a major part of the strategy, it is clear that recycling is important. The Minister referred to a report that identified options on waste recycling and the development of suitable markets for recyclates. I am sure that he will agree that the proper consideration of all available information is the key to making the right decisions. Will the Minister, therefore, make that report — or an interim report on the ongoing work — available to the Environment Committee and each of the three partnerships in Northern Ireland for consideration?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment pointed up, correctly, the waste management partnerships and the necessary consultation for this aspect of waste management.

The Committee has initiated a strategy from which the three groupings in the 26 district councils are implementing three plans, which is a sign of the necessary partnership. Partnership is needed between the district councils, the Assembly and, as the Chairperson rightly said, the Environment Committee.

The Chairperson referred to the importance of recycling. Recycling is important: reuse, recovery and recycling are the three Rs. Recovery means using waste without its having been recycled. All those aspects are important, and the Department will identify the options.

The Chairperson also referred to suitable markets, and I support his views on that. There are four key elements, of which suitable markets is just one. A key issue, which I have identified through dealings with the North/South Ministerial Council and the Environment Committee, is that we must make people aware of what is happening. For that reason the Department has implemented a campaign to make people aware of the different aspects of recycling such as the necessary machinery and, as the Chairperson said, sustainable markets.

I wish to share information with the Committee, and I am on record as having sought more regular meetings with its Chairperson. I want to keep the Committee fully informed, in writing and orally, as and when I can. However, when we implement the strategy, we must be conscious that we are not simply dealing with the island of Ireland. The key limiting factor is finding a market for recycled goods, and in order for the Committee to give me its thoughts, I hope to keep it well informed. Given that we are all part of the problem, we must all be part of the solution.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 29th April 2002

I welcome the fact that the Minister has made recycling number one on his agenda. The Council noted the progress of an all-Ireland community recycling network, which includes businesses and local authorities. Can the Minister give us the timescale for the economic appraisal?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

The Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee is delighted that I put recycling at number one on the agenda. We are trying to reduce waste, and that may be more important than recycling. Waste that cannot be reduced will be recycled or recovered. The most limiting factor is whether markets for recycled produce can be identified. There is little point in educating those who create the waste — which all of us do — if we cannot identify markets. If markets are identified, that will motivate entrepreneurs to become involved in the industry. Only then, as the Deputy Chairperson would like me to do, can I make recycling my number one priority.

Ms Lewsley mentioned all-Ireland recycling. We are all part of a local community, and we are all responsible for the problem, so we are all responsible for finding a solution. The Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee said that we have been considering the all-Ireland dimensional map and asked when it will be available. I hope that the final appraisal will be completed by the end of May 2002. The economic appraisal will assess the costs and benefits, financial and otherwise. It is difficult to put a price on the benefit of having fewer landfill sites, although we can assess how much pollution filters into the water system. When I went to Queen’s University two weeks ago, I was fascinated to see the flow of water being assessed. Believe it or not, water that fell as rain 4,000 years ago is being drawn from the rock— such is the timescale involved in the process.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

What are the key factors to consider when drawing up waste management plans?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

I mentioned the key factors in my answer to the Chairperson of the Environment Committee. Waste management plans are the second stage of the strategy. Northern Ireland recycles only 6% of its waste. That compares poorly with countries such as the Netherlands, which recycles up to 42% of its waste. However, to be fair, other countries such as France and Spain recycle only 3% of their waste. We should never be complacent, but nor should we undersell ourselves and our efforts.

First, we must recognise the magnitude of the problem, which is simple: 6% of Northern Ireland’s waste is recycled, but EU Directives require that that figure be 25% by 2005 and 40% by 2010. Deadlines and budgets crystallise a situation and focus the mind. Proper budgeting is critical to ensure that the waste management plans are implemented. Last year, we provided approximately £2 million to assist district councils to implement the waste management plan. I hope that next year that will rise to between £5 million and £7 million. The money must be spent where it is considered appropriate.

The Waste Management Advisory Board for Northern Ireland has an important role to play in the development of waste management plans. The board is independent of the Administration and was set up to advise it. Its membership comprises public and private sector staff, and it is chaired by a lady who works in the waste management sector. When I first met the board members, I was asked whether I would take account of their views. I said that I would take any advice that they cared to give, but that I would also expect them to address my questions. Partnership is needed in the development of these plans. There must be co-operation between the Environment Committee, the Executive and the Administration as well as between the Assembly and local authorities.

I dealt with education, compartmentalising waste, attracting entrepreneurs to develop the industry and, above all, the limiting factor of markets for recycled goods in my answer to Mr McCrea. Waste management plans are important, and I have tried to highlight some of the key elements.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement on one of the most important issues we face. He mentioned European legislation and the possibility of heavy fines being imposed if the Directives are not implemented. Why does this report not concentrate on the reduction of waste production in manufacturing, reprocessing and retail businesses? Given that the South of Ireland Government have introduced a plastic bag tax, has this Administration any plans to do something similar?

The management of waste from farms, and particularly slurries and spent mushroom compost, is a major pollution problem. There does not appear to be a joined-up approach by either Administration, or even by one Administration, for dealing with this issue. Surely digesters should be used to create energy rather than going down the road of incineration, which seems to be what the Governments on both sides of the border are planning. Are there any plans to use digesters to deal with slurries and mushroom compost?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Mr Molloy made many points, which I will try to address. He referred to incineration, as did Dr McDonnell when he spoke about an incineration plant in Copenhagen that he found to be environmentally friendly. There is no plan, as yet, for any particular aspect. We are waiting for plans to be introduced. However, we should not duck the problem that too much waste is going to landfill. We must find ways of getting rid of it by recycling, reuse or by using it to create energy. Incineration is one way forward; it is not on the agenda, but it is certainly not off the agenda for consideration.

Mr Molloy seems to be saying that there is little joined-up approach North/South, never mind within this Administration. Believe it or not, there is much co-operation between the North and the South. He mentioned farm slurry. The North and the South have similar problems, and we compared notes on what needs to be done on farms in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. I am fully aware of the concerns of farmers on the storage regulations for silage and slurry.

I am also concerned about the Water Framework Directive and the possible extension of nitrate vulnerable zones and the impact that both could have on farmers. The Erne and Lough Neagh basins are being examined scientifically, and that could result in the expansion of nitrate vulnerable zones in Northern Ireland. Bríd Rodgers and I are working together on this issue. She knows that I have been in discussion with the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and I have also contacted the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA) to find out if it wants to speak to me or to my officials on this matter. Bríd Rodgers and I will not be trying to gold-plate this — we are not going for the super-solution. We will stick strictly to the scientific evidence, and my officials will collaborate with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the farmers’ unions.

Most of us come from a farming community; at least, we all recognise the importance of the farming community to Northern Ireland and share that community’s concerns at the current weakness of the industry. I refute the allegation that there is no joined-up approach. Collaborative work continues between the North and the South, within the Departments in Northern Ireland and with those involved directly such as the farmers’ union.

Mick Murphy raised the issue of plastic bags recently. I repeat that it is not for Northern Ireland to legislate about plastic bags, as has been done in the South. I replied to Mr Murphy that we would wait to see whether it would be successful, which I have tried to ascertain since then. The removal of plastic bags from our overall environment, where they are seen to be detrimental, seems to be a success. Therefore, I will have to examine closely what can be done about plastic bags in Northern Ireland. That issue will now exercise my mind greatly.

Mr Molloy’s second point concerned the reduction of the production of waste. I agree with him. However, as I said to Patricia Lewlsey, that is only one element. We must reduce waste and recover waste that can be used again easily and recycle it. None of those actions will be viable unless or until we have markets for the recycled goods.

Infraction proceedings, European Union Directives and potential fines are important. That is why we want to ensure that all EU Directives are brought in as quickly as possible. We must meet those EU obligations. I am not doing this simply for the sake of it. I am doing it because the environment needs it; the European Union has directed that it be done; and we will suffer severe fines if we neglect to do it.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP 12:30 pm, 29th April 2002

I do not want to eat into the time available, but I remind all Members and the Minister of the advice about time constraints that I gave at the beginning of the debate.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I welcome the Minister’s statement, which appears to show some progress on some important matters. I also welcome his response to William McCrea about his willingness to meet the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment. However, I remind him that this is not a substitute for the Minister and his officials meeting the entire Committee and taking our concerns with a spirit of openness.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I note that the Chairperson agrees with me, and I have no doubt that the Deputy Chairperson would also agree if she were present. In that spirit, I welcome the fact that the Minister has taken on board my comments about the recycling of farm plastic waste when he last reported from the North/South Ministerial Council. The Minister said that there are no relevant legislative powers, but a farm plastic waste scheme in Northern Ireland would require subsidy from his Department towards the basic costs. Will that be in place before silage is unwrapped next winter, so that it will cease to be a problem after this season?

What is the timescale for the introduction of the necessary legislation domestically to deal with the EU Directives on the disposal of fridges and freezers, an issue that is starting to cause a considerable problem across all parts of these islands? It is an area that we need to be rather more proactive about than we have been so far.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

First, I stress that I do recognise the Committee’s position. When I made reference to the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson, I was reminded correctly that there is an overall Committee. I often liaise with the Committee through the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson. I see that Mr McCrea acknowledges that that is the case. I do not want to put the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson above the full Committee, and nor would the Chairperson himself.

Mr Ford referred to plastic farm waste, or "farm film" as it is called, and asked if we would have something in place before silage is unwrapped next winter. The position is clear in the Republic of Ireland. Farmers are offered a deposit or refund scheme, or they can participate in an approved recovery scheme.

The story I will tell is similar to the story of the plastic bags: it is working in the Republic of Ireland. The recovery scheme is financed by a 100-tonne levy on sales, established in 1997, and 6,000 tonnes of farm plastic a year is being recycled — that is 40%. We are examining the feasibility of that. However, we would need primary legislative powers in order to do that, and that would take time.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is considering whether a voluntary scheme would be helpful. We will monitor that scheme, and, as with the other matters, we are in preliminary discussion with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That is another example of working together in joined-up government in this Administration. The key consultees — if or when it can be done — will be the farming unions.

We are exploring the possibility of an all-island approach to fridges and freezers, and officials North and South are working closely on that issue. It has nothing to do with politics, but rather with the reality of dealing with fridges and freezers, so that they are not being stored at council expense. Mr Meacher from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has provided £40 million to deal with that in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we will have to deal with it in the coming months.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

I was interested in the Minister’s reply to the Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee. Will the Minister explore the issue further? The dominant principle in Europe is that the producer of pollution pays. What efforts has the Minister made, in conjunction with the United Kingdom Government and European manufacturers, to ensure that pollution is reduced at source? Massive efforts made to handle the huge tonnage of waste are futile if a serious effort is not made to reduce it at source. In Germany, Coca-Cola and other manufacturers of mineral waters and drinks are not allowed to use plastic containers and must use recyclable bottles. What efforts has the Minister made to reduce waste at source?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Given what I have already said, I will not elongate this reply: I will be brief. We want to see pollution reduced at source, wherever that may be. I use the word "pollution" as distinct from "refuse" and "recycling", so I assume that Mr Gibson is referring to pollution of water. That takes longer to deal with. I accept that there are times when industry can create something immediately. However, there have not been many water pollution incidents in Northern Ireland, and no serious cross-border incidents either. However, safeguards are in place. Key officials are on 24-hour call to take action. The impact of the pollution to which the Member refers depends on its nature, its location and how soon it is reported. In that sense, water pollution is difficult to treat.

Oil pollution is noticed more easily, because it lies on the water’s surface, creating surface booms. However, it is not easy to treat. We are working with the key officials and we shall also endeavour to take legal action where necessary.

Photo of Mr Arthur Doherty Mr Arthur Doherty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I refer the Minister to the group’s agreement to submit proposals to the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council for the development of an all-Ireland strategic approach to the creation of markets for recyclable material. Will those proposals include a firm timetable that outlines the practical steps that will make them a reality?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

According to the current timetable, we shall have the waste management plans by May, so that a decision can be made on them before the autumn. However, I have made it clear to officials that when those waste management plans are presented, I wish to see action contained in them, not merely words. There is no timetable as such to implement the plans. As I have mentioned, there are timetables for targets, which are based on EU Directives.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

It is appropriate that I should follow Arthur Doherty, a past chairperson of the north-west regional group. The Minister will know that that group has, for some time, co-operated with Donegal County Council. I agree with Mr Molloy and Mr Gibson on the issue of food production in the wholesale and retail sectors. One often wonders how many times they have to wrap a banana, when nature has wrapped it well enough.

The Minister said that he would deal with the issue of white goods. We need speedy action, not just words or endless consultation. Does the Minister agree that Government bodies, North and South, could do much more to encourage the development of a market for recyclates by instructing Departments and their agencies to use recycled materials? I think of the amount of paper that we use in this Building and wonder what the effect would be if Departments were instructed to use only recycled paper.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Both Governments could do much more by instructing Departments, although I am not sure that the use of the word "instruct" would sit well with the autonomous nature of those Departments. I am conscious, however, that we should lead by example. There is little point in this Administration asking the public to be mindful of waste if we do not give a lead.

The Member asked for speedy action on the issue of white goods such as fridges and freezers. In the autumn, we may be in a position to issue a contract for an all-Ireland mechanism to deal with white goods. Councils are storing them up and have asked me to take urgent action. I agree with the Member that speedy action is required.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, is there any way of harmonising the waste strategy so that householders will not be penalised? Secondly, with regard to the water quality working group’s recommendations for delineation, has a date been set for public consultation?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP 12:45 pm, 29th April 2002

I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I will have to ask Mr Murphy to repeat that question, because I did not get its drift.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

Has a date been set for public consultation on the water quality working group’s recommendation for delineating river catchment basins?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

More clues are required.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Thank you, Mr Poots. If I have heard that right, Mr Murphy is talking about catchment basins for the Water Framework Directive. First, I shall define "international river basin" in the North/South context. It has to be transposed by 2003. The plans must be operable by 2009, and the water aspect must be operable by 2015. That is a long time. We are trying, through the North/South Ministerial Council, to establish where international river basins exist. When the basins are established, we will develop the plan. I apologise for not understanding Mr Murphy’s question the first time. I hope I have understood properly, but if I have not, he will receive a written answer.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

I call Mr Poots. I would be grateful for a brief question and an equally brief answer, because there is very little time left.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Given that the Minister seems so keen on all-Ireland strategies and agendas, will he take a look at the all-Ireland clinical waste management strategy? Will he look at the tendering process, and can he say that everything was done correctly and was above board? Will that be the case for any future strategies?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

First, I would like to correct Mr Poots. He referred to "all-Ireland", but all my references have been to "all-island." There is an important difference. It is a geographical unit comprising two political jurisdictions. I am not a lawyer, but I can understand what is meant by "jurisdiction", by "geography" and by "politics". It should be understood that we cannot have a market in recyclates in Northern Ireland. Therefore, there should be a wider all-island market. I also said that Great Britain and further afield must also be considered. We will not do anything underhand in that way.