I thank Deputies Brendan Howlin and Eamon Ryan for bringing forward the Bill. I note that it is current Young Fine Gael policy to introduce a small refundable levy, similar to the one proposed in the legislation.
I am delighted to address the House on this important matter. I understand the importance of dealing with the problem of plastic wastes. It is horrific to think that between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the world’s oceans each year. The Department has engaged with relevant stakeholders around waste prevention and reduction for many years. Ireland has gone from being a poor performer in relation to packaging waste to being one of the best due to the combined efforts of stakeholders. In its most recent statistical report on waste packaging, the EPA estimated that over 870,000 tonnes of packaging waste was generated in Ireland in 2013. Of the total generated, 88% was recovered, including preparation for reuse, recycling, energy recovery and other recovery, and 70% was recycled. These figures put Ireland well ahead of most of our EU partners and considerably exceed our EU mandatory targets for treating this waste stream.
The potential for any ban on single-use non-compostable cups and other tableware to be in breach of either the packaging directive or the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union is a matter of some concern, as the Minister, Deputy Naughton has said, and will need to be examined before any move is made to introduce it. I am aware that our colleagues in France, notwithstanding this, introduced in 2015 a ban similar to that proposed by the Deputies which is supposed to come into effect in 2020. The original idea when the law was adopted was to cover all single-use plastic cups, glasses and plates. However, it turns out that in some circumstances those items were considered as packaging items when sold full with food or drink. This means the scope is limited to all plastic cups, glasses and plates falling out of the scope of the packaging and packaging waste directive. In practice, it means that the ban only concerns packages of empty plastic cups, glasses and plates that one would buy at the supermarket.
As the initiatives put forward in this Bill are not intended to be limited as I have outlined, the correct approach is for the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to look at this and other proposals being suggested to help us deal effectively with plastic wastes. The committee would also be a good place to examine whether instead of a ban on these items, a levy might be a better approach. The plastic bag levy worked very well in terms of behavioural change and this might be a possible approach to limit the volume of single use containers being used. Campaigns such as the “Conscious Cup” show that people are willing to change but need to be incentivised to do so. Such a levy could make a visible difference and encourage people to bring reusable cups when making a purchase. I am very much a fan of tea, but I could count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I have bought a plastic cup. I have tea in a cup at breakfast, lunch and dinner or while watching television. Others use plastic cups however. I do not drink coffee and it is possibly coffee culture more so than tea culture which has impacted in this regard. Environmental levies are not about revenue generation. They are designed to encourage behavioural changes and this might be an excellent way to deal with the issues raised.
Moving on to the Deputies’ proposal for the introduction of a deposit and refund scheme for drink containers, it must be 25 years since I was on Inis Mór on the way to Dún Aonghasa and was told on buying a can of Coke than I would get a refund on returning the empty can. That is the last time the offer of a refund was made to me. I appreciate the times were less recycling conscious 25 years ago. Packaging in Ireland is subject to a very successful producer responsibility compliance scheme operated by Repak. As part of the review of the producer responsibility compliance schemes in 2014, a wider examination of issues within the packaging sphere was undertaken and consideration was given to the introduction of a bring-back scheme for waste, including beverage containers. The review report did not recommend the introduction of a deposit and refund scheme, concluding that to establish such a scheme was inappropriate in view of the operation of the existing packaging scheme and policies concerning household waste collection plus the high administrative costs of introducing such a system. While I am not convinced of the merits of introducing such a scheme in Ireland for the reasons I outlined, I am not averse to considering a review similar to the review which is ongoing in Scotland.
Ireland has been very successful in dealing with waste prevention through the national waste prevention programme run by the EPA in conjunction with a wide variety of stakeholders. From the “Green Business” programme to the “Stop Food Waste” campaign, a lot of work is being done across a variety of waste streams to reduce the waste we generate and to deal effectively with the remainder. A plastics strategy is currently being examined at the EU in relation to the circular economy package. Any potential change to existing legislation could be looked at as part of the transposition of the circular economy package when it is agreed as this will necessitate redrafting of the packaging directive. This would allow time for the current proposals and any others to be examined.
It would also be possible to ask our national waste prevention committee, which includes members of the eNGO sector, to assess the necessity for a review of our current systems.