ENVIRONMENT Minister John Gormley presented estimates to his Government colleagues this week that seriously questioned the plan to build eight waste incinerators nationwide on grounds of “vast overcapacity”.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Mr Gormley got approval for an international review of the country’s waste policies, a key demand of the Greens in the Programme for Government.
The review is expected to be sent out to tender in 2008 and will take 12 months to complete.
As part of his submission, Mr Gormley included estimates produced by experts in his own department. These were based on higher recycling rates and the use of technologies that were not developed when the national waste plan was devised.
The figures show that the residual waste requiring thermal treatment will be closer to 400,000 tonnes than 2 million tonnes.
In that case there will be vast overcapacity and subsequently a need for just one or two medium-sized incinerators.
The basis for the projections is the introduction of mechanical biological treatment (MBT). This technology combines mechanical sorting and biological treatment of municipal waste. In addition, the current national waste plan projects a recycling rate of 35% of municipal waste by 2013. However, that target was reached last year and a more realistic target, suggested the minister, was 50%.
The estimates for 2012 project that there will be 3.3m tonnes of municipal waste each year. If 50% is recycled, about 1.7m tonnes will remain.
The MBT process will treat all but 400,000 tonnes of this, which can be easily dealt with by as few as two medium-sized thermal plants.
The practicalities of the alternative plan may take some time to sort out, however. Even with fast-track planning, it is arguable whether or not all could be in place by 2012.
Crucially, while Green ministers have been given great sway in the first few months of Government, the Irish Examiner understands that Fianna Fáil ministers believe some level of incineration will be required as an alternative to landfill.
That stance may lead to some clashes at Cabinet level when a policy is being drawn up in 2009.
Politically the Greens will face a formidable challenge in relation to the residue of 400,000 tonnes. The most convenient means of treating this may be by incineration. Greens may have no choice but to accept this.