Environment Minister Edwin Poots – just back from Copenhagen – says the Scandinavian nation holds the key to our waste management
My visit to Denmark was timely for two reasons: firstly, it coincided with the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen; secondly, it took place as we are about to embark on the largest waste infrastructure development programme ever undertaken in Northern Ireland.
The climate change and waste agendas are connected in that if we reduce landfill we will be helping to significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to climate change.
My responsibilities as Environment Minister make me very conscious that the decisions we take now will have long-lasting implications for both our environment and our children – not to mention our wallets. I am committed to ensuring that those decisions are the right ones.
For example, for too long waste has been seen as a problem to be hidden away in large holes in the ground and forgotten about. But what we call ‘waste’ is, in fact, a valuable resource and in the current economic conditions we can never again afford to turn our backs on this resource.
We have made tremendous progress in recent years in encouraging more recycling, increasing household recycling rates from less than 5% in 1999 to a figure of almost 34% for the year 2008/09. While we have a target to reach 50% by 2020, we have aspirations to achieve significantly higher rates over and above that.
What is more, the resources extracted from recycling are feeding real local companies who are producing real products from newspapers to packaging and plastic pipes. I am determined that the re-use and recycling of waste should be a top priority for all of us.
But this can not be achieved without significant investment. I am responsible for administering the £200m Strategic Waste Infrastructure Fund agreed by the Executive to help local government with the estimated £550m cost of this new waste infrastructure.
Current plans are for up to seven mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plants and three energy recovery facilities (ERFs), which include one incinerator and two gasification plants.
The MBT facilities will sort and prepare the waste to produce a refuse derived fuel (RDF) from the waste material which would otherwise have been sent to landfill. The fuel will undergo thermal treatment at the ERFs to produce electricity and possibly heat for a district heating system, or for use in heat-intensive industrial processes.
The good news is that being proactive is a much less costly option for ratepayers. This new infrastructure is essential if we are to meet national and European targets which, if exceeded, could cost Northern Ireland fines of £500,000 a day – not to mention the landfill taxes and other costs which will ultimately make burying waste a non-viable option.
In fact, I can see a day when no more than 5% of our waste will be landfilled. Does this mean I want to install chimneys all over the province? Absolutely not.
We will comply fully with the revised European Waste Framework Directive which sets out five steps for waste management including waste prevention, re-use, recycling, recovery (including energy recovery) and, finally, safe disposal. I am convinced, having talked to colleagues in the Danish ministry of the environment, as well as my ministerial counterparts in Scotland, England and Wales, that this balanced approach is achievable and that we can create an immediate positive impact, but we need to be prepared to learn from others.
Denmark is acknowledged to have one of the most sophisticated waste management systems in the world. By integrating high energy from waste production with high recycling rates and an almost total ban on landfill, Denmark has ensured that it will have no difficulty in achieving compliance with landfill directive targets.
It will do so, moreover, with one of the lowest waste-to-energy gate fees in Europe. New clean technology coupled with stringent pollution prevention control measures will ensure any emissions from energy-from-waste facilities will not compromise air quality, environment or health.
Some key statistics summarise the current differences between Denmark and Northern Ireland: Denmark landfills 5% of its waste; we landfill 71%. Denmark recycles 41% of its waste; we recycle around 34%. Denmark incinerates 53% of its waste; we incinerate 0%.
Can we achieve this in Northern Ireland? Yes we can. And we must.