This is my Irish Examiner column from this weekend...
WHEN I was a child growing up in suburban Galway in the late 1970s and early 1980s, disposing of our waste was a relatively simple matter.
The mindset back then was encapsulated by the catchy slogan of one of the private waste disposal companies: “Let O’Brien do the shifting”.
You threw the lot out. Except for milk bottles, which you left out each morning, and soft drink bottles for which you got a tiny deposit back.
But everything else went out to a dump in Carrowbrowne in the north of the city. And by everything I mean everything.
I remember my father loading up an old fridge on a trailer and us making the journey out the Headford Road to dump it at the tiphead.
Even then, like the milk bottles, there was a form of recycling taking place as Travellers made a living by sifting through the rubbish for copper, other metals and reusables.
The mindset changed in Galway during the late 1990s when the city went mad for recycling. Every time I made the trip home, members of my family seemed to have added yet another for-recycling container to the dolly mixture of bins outside the front door. Where Galway led, everyone else has followed since then, except for Carlow and Mayo.
The latest figures, released in August this year, showed that both counties had shamefully low recycling rates of less than 7% each in 2005.
By contrast, Galway city’s rate for 2005 was an impressive 47%.
Dublin city lagged behind at 13%.
Best of all was Longford with 57%.
The good news about the sea- change is that the recycling target of 35% set for 2012 has already been surpassed. And so it is likely that the new recycling target for 2012 of 50% will be achieved.
That means that of the projected 3.4 million tonnes of waste that is projected to be generated in 2012, only half, or 1.7m tonnes, will go onto the next stage of the process.
There is bad news though and it also applies to another shift of culture.
During the 1990s — when it became increasingly apparent that landfills and super-dumps were no longer sustainable — the Fianna Fáil-led government began casting around for alternatives.
They looked to Europe and what they saw was incineration.
The current national waste strategy set out ambitious plans for eight regional thermal treatment plants around the country.
Now there has been another fundamental change of mindset and that has coincided with the Greens arriving in government for the first time.
In opposition, the party was a fierce opponent of incineration, and I think it’s fair to say that John Gormley’s opposition was given an added intensity by the fact that the biggest facility of them all was earmarked for Poolbeg, the visual focal point of his own constituency.
The political headache for the Green Party is that the new political shift has arrived too late — nine years too late by most estimates. No matter how gargantuan his efforts, no matter how persuasive his arguments, no matter how potent his promise, time is not on Gormley’s side.
For a worryingly high number of their core issues, the Greens arrived minutes too late — the train had already left the station.
Within a short time of arriving at the Department of Environment, Gormley flurried into a series of different actions. He commissioned a review of the national waste strategy and a new one may see the light of day by early autumn of next year.
He also parlayed up the Programme on Government’s commitments in relation to waste management. If you look at the document that was brokered between FF and the Greens, you will see all the key phrases. The three Rs (reduction, re-use and recycling) would be cornerstones and for the first time there was a concrete commitment to the introduction of Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facilities.
Gormley took this and ran with it, as was his right as Greens’ leader and as Minister for the Environment.
He made a presentation to Cabinet and afterwards was emboldened to proclaim that incineration was no longer the cornerstone of Irish waste policy.
The assessment wasn’t exactly shared by Fianna Fáil or by Bertie Ahern, who has conceded we may have four or more incinerators.
Then in October, Gormley got experts within his department to estimate the amount of residual waste that would be left for incineration if recycling was at 50% and if MBT was fully operational.
The figures were startling.
Out of total municipal waste of 3.4m tonnes a year in 2012, you could whittle the incineration-only stuff down to a mere 400,000 tonnes.
Suddenly, we no longer need eight incinerators; no more than two.
The problem is that it has come too late in the day.
An Bord Pleanála said it could only rely on the written and extant policy and existing laws. It granted planning permission to Poolbeg. And within days, the Environmental Protection Agency granted it a licence, albeit with 109 conditions.
Despite this latest sea-change, despite MBT coming on stream, despite higher recycling rates, incineration is a reality that the Greens can only fight a fierce rearguard battle against.
Already it’s certain that four will come on stream — in Co Meath, Poolbeg and the twin burners in Ringaskiddy.
And unfortunately for them, the Greens’ continuing campaign against them may be as futile as Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills.