Benefits of recycling may go up in smoke if Poolbeg is not reviewed


OPINION:Incinerator threatens jobs and limits consumer choice – but taxpayers will lose most if it proceeds as planned, writes BRENDAN KEANE

UNDER THE terms of its contract with Dublin City Council, Covanta will benefit very significantly from the development of the Poolbeg project. It is therefore not surprising that Scott Whitney, president of Covanta Europe, paints a very benign picture of the development while criticising those who have raised genuine concerns about the project (“Poolbeg waste plant can only be good for Ireland”, Opinion and Analysis, April 6th). The reality, however, is different. The incinerator threatens jobs, recycling and consumer choice. However, it is the taxpayer who will be the major loser if the incinerator goes ahead as planned.

The supporters of Poolbeg ignore vital facts and Whitney’s recent article is no exception. The assertion that we have or need to incinerate 700,000 tonnes (2008 landfill data) of waste in Poolbeg is untrue. By 2013, of this amount only approximately 200,000 tonnes will be available from the Dublin local authorities for incineration.

The balance will be treated by diverse operators in facilities that they have developed or are developing, including composting, energy from waste and mechanical biological treatment. By 2013, all Dubliners will have three bins for collection, which will ensure that waste segregation occurs.

It’s nonsense, therefore, to claim that Irish Waste Management Association members are wedded to landfill. Association members have invested €500 million in the last 10 years in a range of waste management processes. This diversity of solutions and competition in the waste sector has led to lower costs for the consumer, has been good for the environment and employment, and was confirmed in a High Court judgement in December 2009.

Covanta’s assertion that Poolbeg will create 50 jobs is true but at the expense of many more. Poolbeg threatens a range of alternative facilities, including mechanical biological treatment, where waste is sorted and recyclable and compostable elements are removed. Some 1,000 jobs in these facilities are under threat due to Poolbeg. In addition, proposed levies will ensure that incineration and landfill are more expensive than more sustainable recycling, re-use and prevention.

Whitney rubbishes concerns regarding the contract between Covanta and Dublin City Council. This “put or pay” contract means that the local authority must supply 320,000 tonnes of waste to Poolbeg, each year for 25 years, or pay a penalty.

However, with developments in recycling as outlined above, the local authority will simply not have this much waste to send to Poolbeg. Independent estimates show the authority will have approximately 200,000 tonnes of incinerable material by 2013. The 120,000 tonne shortfall between this amount and the higher level agreed under the contract will have to be paid for by taxpayers or Dublin ratepayers, a point that the Minister for the Environment has also confirmed.

In glossing over these concerns, Covanta asked the public to trust their “experience and expertise”. However, many of the concerns that the association raised have come to pass in locations where Covanta operates.

In Lake County, Florida, the local authority must deliver waste to their Covanta-operated incinerator under a “put or pay” contract or face significant penalties. The authority has to obtain waste from outside their area to meet the demand of the plant, as local waste generation levels fall. Recycling has also dropped to a low level of 20 per cent. We should pay attention to this case, as in Dublin we have targeted a 60 per cent recycling rate and yet the Poolbeg project is similar in scale to the Lake County facility.

Of even more concern is the incinerator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a local authority may apply for bankruptcy protection to deal with the huge repayments arising from the Covanta-operated incinerator.

If Poolbeg is constructed as planned, jobs will be lost, recycling will decline and the local authority will end up subsidising the operation of the plant with taxpayers’ money. In addition, there will be less choice and less competition in the waste market, which is bad news for consumers and taxpayers.

The alternative is to yield to common sense and resize the project. The incinerator was conceived in the 1990s. Times have changed. Waste is valuable.

We can generate employment and valuable revenue from what we throw away, we can have healthy competition in the waste sector, and we can become a European leader in recycling. Or we can let these benefits go up in smoke.

Brendan Keane is spokesman for the Irish Waste Management Association