Ladies and Gentlemen
Why is there a Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment?
Governments and government departments change priority over time. My Department exists to address the connected challenges of a country, and provincial parts of the country especially, that are significantly behind where they need to be, in terms of modern communications infrastructure.
We are also a country playing catch-up on our obligations in relation to climate change. This obligation is as much an opportunity as an obligation. In any event, it is our children's future and a vital national interest.
The challenges are clear and they are many. What is less clearly developed is the economic opportunity in terms of jobs and investment for a country that is better connected in an information age – where the scarce and valuable commodity of energy is conserved, and where waste is a resources that should not be thrown away, right from homes, through reduction and reuse, to the waste industry where its recycled or has alternative uses.
The failure to recognise waste as a resource, (that we must eliminate through alternative use streams) comes at an economic cost, a social cost and an economic opportunity-cost. But we also need to change the perception of the sector from a problem utility to a valuable resources mining service sector.
Waste policy must become a model of resource efficiency – we have to use less to live better. It is a huge conundrum of our times that deprivation exists alongside wasteful practices in society and what we do about it. Older generations laid much store by the adage "Waste Not, Want Not". They understood the seasonal and cyclical nature of abundance and need.
In a modern society, where everything is available, all year round and at every price point, new insight is required as to how we can live within the capacity of our planet in terms of the materials we consume and the waste we must manage.
We are the first generation where we are more likely to see our children and grandchildren with fewer opportunities than we have had, unless we change fundamentally the way we use resources. It is easy to preach to people that our way of life is unsustainable. It is harder to convince them that it is possible to continue to live well but within the limits of our environment.
We have a long road ahead of us when currently:
- We discard 4/5ths of what we produce after one use;
- We recycle only 1 gramme out of every 100 of the valuable rare earths that we use in products.
Adopting reuse behaviours can help all of us cut down on waste. And there is a lot more to reuse than saving the material value of the item reused. Reusing or recycling resources has a positive social and economic value. By reusing items and materials, we support local training and jobs, in repair, refurbishment and retail. We reduce the costs of waste collection and disposal. We reduce the need to import costly virgin materials.
As well as the environmental and consumer benefits of reuse, there are strong economic gains to be made. For example, if it were easier to take phones apart, the cost of recycling mobile phones could be halved. If 95% of mobile phones were collected for recycling, €1 billion could be saved on material costs.
As a result of our throwaway culture, it would not surprise me that as Minister for Natural Resources & Exploration that we could soon see applications by mining companies to reopen landfills to recover valuable natural resources that we just threw away in the past.
Climate change is the defining challenge of our time and it is during our time that the obligation exists for us to take action. We need to act now and we need to think long term, while the waste sector directly produces just about 2% of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. There is scope to reduce those emissions by almost one-third through a range of measures including waste prevention, increased reuse, recycling and recovery through energy from waste.
However, when viewed from a life-cycle perspective, greenhouse gas emissions arising from material management activities are estimated to account for over half of emissions in developed economies. This suggests that there is a significant opportunity to potentially reduce emissions through modifications and expansion of materials management policies. The fact is using less resources means less energy to produce & less emissions.
One raw material we have in abundance is food, and it shows. Ireland generates 2 tonnes of food waste every minute of every day. The Stop Food Waste programme is funded under the EPA's National Waste Prevention Programme and is aimed at both householders and businesses, providing comprehensive information on preventing food waste. A range of other initiatives address the issue of food waste in Ireland, including Green Business (in collaboration with the Irish Food Board's Origin Green programme), the Foodcloud and Bia Food Initiative, the Green Hospitality Programme, Green Healthcare and Smart Farming.
But we have a long way to go. In the area of food waste alone according to the statistics, Ireland is the fifth worst in Europe. I want to see if we can make it the best country in Europe not just for quality food production but for food efficiency too, so I will be announcing an initiative shortly around this issue.
Ireland must be ready to avail of its share and move early to gain advantage. Research has estimated that if Ireland achieved a resource efficiency target of 1/50th reduction in domestic material consumption per annum, this would yield savings of about €928 million in the first year and increased annual savings thereafter. (By 2020, this could lead to a 25% improvement in resource efficiency, yielding a total saving of approximately €7,000 million over that period).
I recognise that the companies and organisations represented here today are at the forefront of waste management in Ireland. We have seen in the past few months just how crucial that role is. In 2010, there were 25 active landfills in Ireland; now there are just 4 active landfills.
This has been a challenging year for all of you and from a waste perspective, for me as Minister. Uncertainty has made it very difficult for us all to plan. My objective is two fold:
- Provide certainty
- Change perception of the waste sector to a vital resource management industry.
The household waste collection industry has been engaged with my Department and the regulatory bodies in relation to both planning and enforcement as part of a stakeholder engagement at a national level. We are all familiar with the events surrounding the rollout of pay-by-weight charging during 2016. There is plenty of evidence, from areas where weight-based charging is already in place, that incentivised charging is the single biggest driver to increase levels of waste prevention and waste segregation. It is important that this policy instrument is not undermined.
My Department is currently examining methods of how best to encourage households to prevent waste and to segregate their waste. Changing our individual behaviour will allow for a radical reduction in the volume of waste that we generate which has to be managed.
I recognise the challenges that presented themselves this year in terms of waste management and the response of the regulatory bodies and the industry. However, I was concerned at the emergency measures that were necessary to ensure household waste was collected this year. I want all stakeholders to work to ensure that such measures will not be required again. If it becomes necessary to look at such emergency measures again, it will have to be viewed as a failure. The waste sector needs to work without regular recourse to such measures.
I believe that stakeholder engagement will assist us in future planning and policy development for the sector. In that light, I want to acknowledge the crucial role industry has played and will play in supporting the polluter pays principle and improving our overall national resource efficiency.
I wish you every success today at your annual conference.