Where’s the Environment fund spend gone?

Some members of Zero Waste Alliance Ireland recently had the pleasure of attending the Community Reuse Network Ireland (CRNI)  2014 conference in Dublin. Taking place during European Waste Reduction Week, the event promised interesting discussions on the role of reuse and social enterprise in the nascent Irish circular economy.

So, snugly installed in the beautiful Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park, we were treated to a series of interesting presentations from an assortment of international speakers on a theme of  ‘Reuse as a way of life: Living better, using less’. Naturally, all in attendance were of a similar mind. But, the absence of political leaders and decision makers from the 60+ attendees was an ominous early indicator of the importance the ruling political elite assign to the circular economy. This unease would grow by the end of the day.

About CRNI

CRNI is an all-Ireland umbrella body representing community-based organizations involved in reuse and circular economy projects. The small administrative staff cohort, who work tirelessly to promote the network, is fully funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the National Waste Prevention Programme.

Naturally, the EPA through DR Johathan Derham set the keynote for sustainability in our lifestyles. Dr Derham lives what he preaches and is a rare beacon within the state bureaucracy.

As we heard the various speakers urge the already converted audience to recycle, reuse, re-work and recover resources in a more sustainable lifestyle, it was very apparent that those who really needed to hear the news are those decision makers who were NOT there. The stories of the various projects such as Sunflower Recycling, Busy Bees, Recreate and Clondalkin Recycling were uplifting. Izzie Johnston: (Zero Waste Scotland) and Giorgio Rosso (LoWaste Project) gave an international window into successful projects.

Our Take Home message.

But the take home message that reverberated loudest was the final heart felt plea from the impressive Bernie Walsh of Sunflower Recycling. Bernie spoke from her vast experience of fighting against the odds and winning. Her message was very clear, however, that funding has effectively dried up for Community and Social enterprises engaged in circular economy activities. The current model is itself unsustainable without policy changes that will put the sector on an economic sound footing.

All the successful social enterprises needed funding to be viable. This was found through

  1. Funding from FAS and DSP ( Dept of Social Protection)
  2. Once off grants for specific pieces of work  from the  EPA ( Environmental protection agency) The Department of Environment and local government,  Charitable funds and foundations and philanthropic funds.

These are all short term funding for what are essentially very long term projects. Sustainability projects are future oriented. The supporters who provide Financial support believe in what they are doing (just like the staff and volunteers). But these are not long term funding streams and the continuation of projects beyond short time horizons is indeed  precarious. In addition the  good will of council officers is needed for the continuation of a lot of services and has become essential when making applications for any form of funding.

However, with the cuts in council budgets and the general decline in philanthropic funding it has become impossible to continue many of these supports.

The lack of government policy for this sector has left it vulnerable to ad hoc cuts by agencies, councils, financial backers and changes to state funding mechanisms.

Environmental Funding from the Environment Fund.

So where has the Plastic Bag levy funds gone?  The plastic bag levy was first introduced on 4th March 2002 at the rate of 15 cent per bag and has risen progressively since then. It generates a lot of cash for the Government every year.  Its primary purpose is to reduce the consumption of disposable plastic bags by influencing consumer behaviour.  All levies are remitted into the Environment Fund. The fund is ring fenced for use in Recycling and sustainability projects. These projects are quoted as ‘

  1. schemes to prevent/reduce waste
  2. waste recovery activities
  3. research & development into waste management
  4. production, distribution or sale of products deemed to be less harmful to the environment than other similar products
  5. development of producer initiatives to prevent/reduce waste arising from their activities
  6. implementation of waste management plans
  7. enforcement of the provisions of any enactment relating to waste management, prevention of litter or protection of the environment
  8. partnership projects, that involve local authorities, to improve the quality of the environment for particular local communities
  9. promotion of awareness of the need to protect the environment, including national and regional campaigns
  10. promotion /support of education and training to assist achievement of campaign objectives
  11. resources (human or material) to enable education and training to be carried out
  12. initiatives undertaken by community groups and others for protection of the environment
  13. such other purposes for protection of the environment as may be prescribed by the Minister in regulations.’

Item no 12 is the key issue here. Where is the money and why is it not reaching the community groups it was designed to support? The overall inflows of the levy was €203.4 million in the last 11 years. Where has it all gone?

Environment Fund spend.

The spend for 2012 shows that just  €1.1  (or 1.67%) of the €51.8 Million collected from landfill and the  €13.8 plastic bag levies was spent on NGOs, community and social employment sustainability projects  (Agenda 21 partnerships).

It is very obvious why Bernie Walsh feels aggrieved and we support her call for better funding to enable multi-year sustainability projects to be planned and delivered with a degree of financial stability.

If we seriously wish to expand the community, social enterprise and voluntary partnership sector in a circular economy direction we need to change our policies to enable these enterprises to succeed economically. This means looking at public procurement, purchasing policy, incentives and taxation changes to support the market for the products and offer realistic grant support to get the circular economy businesses off the ground. It simply will not happen otherwise.

The state derives many benefits from the work of community and voluntary groups of which Bernie Walsh is a key actor and it’s time to replace the platitudes with real tangible support.