Ireland must not waste opportunities offered by cross-border deal
Regardless of what happens with Brexit, there is a need for all-Ireland co-operation to deal with waste
CHASE supporter Charlotte Cargin with her daughter Eliza protest the proposed incinerator by Indaver in Ringaskiddy, Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Indaver brought Ireland’s first large-scale commercial waste-to-energy incinerator into operation in Duleek, Co Meath, in 2011, following a significant battle.
Since then, it has processed more than 200,000 tonnes of household, commercial, industrial, non-hazardous and suitable hazardous waste every year, generating electricity that is fed into the national grid.
In its early years, Indaver was to manage hazardous waste for Irish-based pharmaceutical companies, ensuring the safe processing abroad of dangerous materials.
Believing Ireland was reliant on foreign solutions, Indaver believed an opportunity was being missed, especially since Irish businesses were vulnerable to changes in the market.
Since 2001, Indaver has sought to build a €160 million waste-to-energy facility at Ringaskiddy in Cork Harbour, processing 240,000 tonnes a year.
However, it has been fiercely opposed by a local environmental group, CHASE. Now, both sides wait on a verdict on the plan’s future from An Bord Pleanála.
If approved, Ringaskiddy would generate about 18.5MW of electricity for the national grid – enough to supply the power needs of about 30,000 households, Indaver says.
In Northern Ireland, Arc21 is a waste management group representing six councils: Belfast City; Antrim and Newtownabbey; Ards and North Down; Mid and East Antrim; Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council; and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.
Its origins date back to June 1999, when a small number of council representatives agreed that a joint approach was the best way to deliver an effective waste management strategy for the eastern side of NI.
So far, Arc21 has successfully awarded and is managing waste contracts worth £260 million (€294 million). Indaver, now owned by Flemish group, Katoen Nati, heads the Becon Consortium, set up provide Arc21’s residual waste treatment capacity.
The consortium plans to co-locate a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant, a waste-to-energy plant, and a bottom ash treatment facility at the Hightown Quarry site in Mallusk, Co Antrim.
The MBT plant, which will cost £240 million, will extract valuable materials such as metals, plastics and other recyclable products, has got planning permission, but it is subject to judicial review.
The organic-rich material remaining after recyclate extraction will be treated in bio-drying tunnels to improve its calorific value as a refuse-derived fuel.
The Antrim plant, if it is finally given the go-ahead, will divert up to 250,000 tonnes of waste from landfill per year and generate 14MW of renewable electricity.
The existing waste-to-energy plants and those planned, if built, will provide sufficient capacity to deal with all residual waste on the island of Ireland, says Keaney.
Waste companies have moved away from landfill, which she says is “a good news story”. In the Republic, there are now five landfills operating, compared to 33 before.
Policy encouragements and landfill taxes have created the right market conditions for waste-to-energy incineration, though planning delays can have an impact, she argues.
The decision that led local authorities in the Republic to merge their waste operations down from 11 to three covering the South, the Eastern Midlands and Connacht/Ulster, has brought about better management.
The ability to export residual waste “has been our buffer, that has allowed the State to make the transition”, Keaney argues, “But it now makes sense to have our own infrastructure.”
Besides Duleek, the other existing waste-to-energy plant is Covanta’s incinerator on the Poolbeg peninsula in Dublin, which opened latest year, processing 600,000 tonnes a year.
Meanwhile, a gasification plant is being developed at the Bombardier site in Belfast, where Full Circle Generation is spending £107 million to use waste to partly power the aircraft manufacturer.
Though progress has been made, the Republic’s National Hazardous Waste Management Plan 2014-2020 called for further investment, saying that waste exports “represents a lost economic resource”.
Keaney, who is president of the Irish branch of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, offers potential solutions to considerable challenges posed by Brexit.
Over recent decades, the waste rules in place in the Republic and in Northern Ireland have largely been driven by policies set at a European Union level.
Such rules have “significantly changed the approach to waste management for the better”, led to a fall in landfill usage and significantly increased recycling, she says.
Nonetheless, the long-sought circular economy will bring even more ambitious environmental targets and demands which on current trajectory may prove difficult to meet.
However, Brexit is the most immediate concern.
If the UK leaves the EU without a free trade agreement, a cross-border deal on waste may be key to sustaining strategic waste management practices across the island.
Such a deal would ensure that waste is first dealt with on the island “thereby ensuring associated revenue is not lost and exposure to volatilities in the export market avoided”, Keaney argues.
Need for collaboration
While both jurisdictions have separate waste management policies, both recognise the need for collaboration, particularly to deal with situations where incinerators may be temporarily out of action.
For example, Northern Ireland’s Management Strategy Waste Plan identifies the need for co-operation to stop illegal dumping – a problem that’s no respecter of borders.
Similarly, in Ireland, the EPA’s National Hazardous Waste Management Plan favours all-Ireland action to deal with all types of hazardous waste.
Furthermore, under the EU Shipment of Waste Regulation, which aims to ensure the environmentally-sound and efficient management of waste, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the National Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Office apply and enforce the regulation to transfers of waste across the island.
Should a ‘hard’ Brexit occur, Keaney warns, Northern Ireland could potentially have a different regulatory framework with fundamental differences in levies, controls and levels of regulation than the EU requirements and regulations being applied by Ireland.
“In this event, a bilateral agreement could be entered into between Ireland and Northern Ireland under the EU Shipments of Waste Framework,” she suggests. This mechanism could have tariff implications but would nonetheless permit the transfer of waste between the jurisdictions to continue.
Consequently, maintenance of current EU rules which apply across both jurisdictions is preferable. “This would be conducive to fulfilment of an integrated North-South waste management strategy, which is reflective of the common challenges that must be addressed if future EU targets are to be realised and sustainable and environmentally sound management of waste achieved across the island in the coming years,” she concludes.