If completed as planned, what will Poolbeg mean for waste management in Ireland?

As the plans currently stand, the plant is to have a 600,000 tonne capacity.

And, according Dublin City Council, ten years from now, 708,000 tonnes of waste will still “be available” to Poolbeg. But critically, Dublin City Council has side-stepped the implications of rising recycling rates.

At the start of July this year the EU Commission adopted a new waste target which will “boost reuse and recycling of municipal waste to a minimum of 70% by 2030”. Already, Ireland is recycling more than 40% of its waste and is well on track to reach 50% over the next five years. It is a good news story. The Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, addressing the Environment Ireland conference in mid September, endorsed the drive for ‘zero waste’, which, as the term implies, involves reaching 70% recycling and then going well beyond it.

For many years now, work in Ireland and Europe has been aiming to ensure that material which can be re-used or recycled is not wasted or burned. The 70% recycling target is contained in a comprehensive document titled “Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe”, published this July. Another key policy, “Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe”, came out in September 2011. This policy asks member states to keep all material capable of being recycled out of incinerators. Even if an incinerator yields some energy – i.e. a waste-to-energy plant, and this is planned at Poolbeg, although many of the energy-related details are hazy – the 2011 policy document says that feedstock for such incinerators should be “limited to non-recyclable materials”.

Where does reaching the 70% recycling target leave Poolbeg? The 70% figure relates to 2030, and so we’re left to fill in the gaps: 50% by 2020 and 60% by 2025. These are reasonable targets, and achievable based on our current trajectory. If 60% of material is recycled in 2025, there will be 262,000 fewer tonnes of waste available to Poolbeg in 2025 compared to the figures presented by Dublin City Council to councillors.

Dublin City Council data misleads in two other respects. After being treated, certain non-hazardous waste can be used as a fuel in cement kilns, where it is typically used to displace coal. Solid Recovery Fuel, or SRF, is the name given to this material, post treatment. In its reports to councillors, Dublin City Council put SRF at 121,000 tonnes for 2012 – and went on to give the same figure for 2025. While accurate for 2012, SRF has already grown to account for 160,000 tonnes in 2014. With more cement plants currently being modified, SRF will account for at least 260,000 tonnes by 2025. (The figure will likely be higher but a conservative approach is adopted.)

Second, Dublin City Council essentially ignored the process known as mechanical and biological treatment, or MBT. The waste hierarchy sets out the best practice sequence in which waste should be treated. Because MBT involves sorting and recovering materials, it is positioned higher up in the hierarchy than incineration. Bord na Mona, which controls the waste company AES, is set to build an MBT plant in north Kildare. Allowing for a very gradual ramp-up, MBT will account for 100,000 tonnes by 2025.

After a more faithful review of the waste sector, what does the picture look like for Poolbeg? Factoring out the shortcomings in the information released by Dublin City Council, as recycling rises there are 262,000 fewer tonnes available for incineration, 140,000 fewer tonnes with increased SRF, and 100,000 fewer tonnes due to MBT. And so, with these reductions, the volume of waste available to Poolbeg in ten years time is not 708,000 tonnes but 186,000 tonnes. This is low, and possibly too low for Poolbeg to survive. However, once the further projected rise in recycling from 60% to 70%, expected between 2025 and 2030, is factored in, the case to continue operating Poolbeg is gone.

But perhaps the volume of waste might grow? In fairness to Dublin City Council, it doesn’t put much faith in this. And for good reason. From July 2015, pay-by-weight will be universal across Ireland. Home composting will further expand. Less packaging will be accepted from shops and the same goes for unsolicited mail. As this feeds back to suppliers, the future involves lighter packaging and less of it. Important work has been done in this area by the UK equivalent of the Department of the Environment. In a report published last October, it saw the level of waste declining gradually year by year.

What is the bottom line on Poolbeg? Poolbeg will only survive if those behind the project succeed in undermining waste treatment methods that are superior to incineration, particularly recycling and composting. If this happens, the future of Irish waste management sees national policy wagged by a tail of unelected officials at Dublin City Council, with public policy-making reaching a very sorry pass.

In such a sorry pass there may remain some questions regarding “who pays?” The details may be complex. But the broad answer will run along similar lines to the pattern that has emerged over the last five years or so: all of us will pay.

James Nix – Director of Policy & Operations at An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland.

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