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Ireland needs to raise its game on recycling plastic

For the fourth year in a row, Ireland generated one million tonnes of packaging waste in 2020. New figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveal that while we’re meeting our recycling targets for glass, paper, cardboard, and metals, plastic recycling rates are low.

First, the good news. We recycled 84% of our glass, 78% of our paper and cardboard, and 71% of our metal packaging in 2020. Plastics, however, present a serious challenge.

Only 29% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2020, a long way off the 2025 EU target of 50%. The bulk of our plastic packaging waste is incinerated.

Most of Ireland’s recycling is done abroad, with just 18% of packaging waste (204,000 tonnes) recycled in Ireland in 2020, most of this glass and wood.

Homes and businesses aren’t segregating waste as well as they could be. In addition, the EPA says there are challenges in ‘finding financially viable markets for lightweight and low-quality plastics’.

It all boils down to this: If the current practices continue, Ireland won’t meet plastic recycling targets and the climate emissions associated with managing plastic waste will continue to go in one direction: Up.

Sharon Finegan, director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, says that change requires the rapid introduction of “fiscal and regulatory measures”.

“This could include enhanced recycling subsidies, a levy on incineration, introducing performance targets on waste operators, and the implementation of incentivised pricing to encourage Irish businesses and households to properly segregate their waste for recycling.”

Ms Finegan says that we also need to prevent packaging waste at source.

“Ireland’s generation of 1.1m tonnes of packaging waste per year represents a poor use of materials and energy and is a growing source of emissions,” Ms Finegan said. “Packaging waste can be avoided and reduced through better product design and by substituting single use for reusable packaging.”

Warren Phelan, of the EPA’s Circular Economy Programme, agrees, and says that despite the disappointing headline figures, there are some positive trends in packaging recycling.

“Examples of reusable packaging already in use in Ireland include wooden pallets, kegs, and various plastic bulk containers, trays, boxes and buckets,” Mr Phelan says. “While just 1% of the packaging placed on the Irish market in 2020 was reusable — approximately 8,000 tonnes — this avoided about 72,000 tonnes of single-use packaging.”

The implication is that 99% of packaging is single-use, and, as we know, plastic has a central role here.

Single-use plastic products (SUPs) are used once, or for a short period of time, before being thrown away. The impact of this on the environment and our health is global and can be drastic. Single-use plastic products are more likely to end up in our seas than reusable options.

The 10 most commonly found single-use plastic items on European beaches, alongside fishing gear, represent 70% of all marine litter in the EU.

Approximately 225kg of waste packaging was generated per person in 2020, down slightly from 229kg per person in 2019.

This included 91kg of paper and cardboard, 62kg of plastic, 37kg of glass, 20kg of wood, and 14kg of metal packaging per person.

In 2020, 62% of total waste packaging was recycled. While this exceeds the current EU target of 55%, it’s the same recycling rate as 2019. So, not much progress. Moreover, the recycling targets that will apply from 2025 (65%) and 2030 (70%) will be challenging.

And, as noted, plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are a particular problem. Carbon is built into them, and is released as carbon dioxide when incinerated at end of life. On average, as much as 2.7 kg of CO2 is emitted for every kg of plastic incinerated.

The longer-term aim is to create a stronger, circular economy. This is essentially a new way of talking about sustainability.

A circular economy is one where materials, including packaging, are recirculated and used again and again, with a minimum of waste. To facilitate the move to a more circular economy, the European Commission adopted the EU’s first Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015. It updated pre-existing European waste legislation, tightened existing targets, and introduced a range of new targets.

The EU’s second Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted in 2020, focuses on accelerating the transition. In line with that, the Irish government published a new national waste policy, ‘A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy’, last September.

The EU produces no less than 2.5bn tonnes of waste every year. Reducing that figure doesn’t mean simply trying to figure out what to do with things that have reached the end of their lives. It’s more about rethinking how we consume in order to avoid producing waste.

By reducing the amount of stuff we buy and use, we decrease the resources needed for manufacture, transport, and disposal. We also reduce our impact on the environment and save money by not buying stuff we don’t need.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breaks all of this down into five actions to support the circular economy and prevent waste: Rethinking, repairing, reusing, buying to last, and recycling.

First, rethink: Do you really need it? We’ve become used to replacing things automatically, whether they’ve worn out or not. Ask yourself if it’s possible to continue with what you have.

Next, repair: Things get worn down, parts can break, and the item may no longer be useful. But is a repair possible? Check repair stuff.ie, where you can search for your local repair service on goods such as clothes, home appliances, furniture, and more.

Third, reuse. Is it possible to borrow or hire it? Whether we need something or have something useful that someone else might want, there are great ways to source upcycled items or donate things that could be used by someone else.

Check out EPA partners Community Resources Network Ireland and the Rediscovery Centre to support reuse and upcycling near you.

Buy to last. When you do have to buy new goods, think about what the product is made of. Is it over-packaged? Does it contain hazardous chemicals? Choosing products that will last for a long time or can be repaired over single-use items is an essential component of the circular economy. And when it does become worn out, see if it, or parts of it, can be recycled.

Finally, recycle. If we can’t repair it, and if it can’t be repurposed or reused, check out www.mywaste.ie to learn whether it can be recycled and where you can bring it to be recycled.

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