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'We need reverse vending machines in shops with a 25c deposit on containers'

As a kid I remember collecting old Cidona bottles from the hedgerows and receiving five pence from the local shop for each one that I returned, writes Ciarán Cuffe.

Ciarán Cuffe Chair, Dublin City Council’s Transportation Strategic Policy Committee

MAYBE I’M SHOWING my age, but as a kid I remember collecting old Cidona bottles from the hedgerows around where I lived, and receiving five pence from the local shop for each one that I returned. It kept me in sweets money and helped keep the city and countryside clean.

These days however we are saturated with rubbish from a throw-away culture of plastic packaging every time we go to the local shop or supermarket. This isn’t good for the planet, and it contributes to the increase in illegally dumped waste on our streets.

While levels of recycling have increased in recent years, there are big issues over contamination and confusion around what we can recycle.

Chinese ban

Up until now, much of what we recycled was sent abroad for recycling to countries such as China. Back in July of last year China told the World Trade Organisation that it will effectively ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste starting this January.

Until recently China allowed a level of 1.5% contamination of recyclable waste. They’ve now reduced this figure to 0.5% and this means that a lot of Ireland’s recyclable materials won’t make the grade from this January.

Something needs to be done, as China no longer wants to be the world’s dustbin.

Decisive action 

Countries such as Germany have a deposit on drinks containers, and have machines in supermarkets that allow you to bring back empty cans and bottles to get your money back. We need a deposit on drinks containers here.

We should require reverse vending machines in our supermarkets with a 25c deposit on beverage containers. It keeps the streets clean, and reduces the contamination that can occur when we place our recyclables into a mixed green bin.

Just over fifteen years ago Lowe Alpine employed hundreds of workers making clothing from recycled ‘PET’ plastic bottles, yet these jobs were lost when we started sending our recycling offshore. We could bring back jobs like these if Minister Naughten introduces the right regulations to create employment here at home.

Germany’s lead

Ireland needs to follow the lead taken by Germany and other Nordic countries. We need to exercise leadership in preventing a ‘China Crisis’ in the waste industry.

We are burning, dumping and exporting far too much of our waste. Much of our recycled waste has been exported in the past but as the door to China closes we have an opportunity to create more jobs and profits at home in reusing and recycling waste. China has taken away the easy option, and we have to up our game.

The government must rethink how we deal with waste. There is a real danger that the China ban will lead to more incineration and dumping instead of re-use and recycling. To prevent this there are several initiatives where Ireland could take the lead.

We could incentivise jobs in recycling by providing scholarships for the design of products for the circular economy. We also need to move more quickly to phase out toxic plastics such as microbeads that damage marine life. We should revise the regulatory approval under which Repak operates to ensure Ireland reaches the proposed EU target to recycle 75% of waste packaging by 2030.

Make better use of energy

We could also introduce an incineration levy similar to the landfill levy so that valuable recyclables do not go up in smoke in the Ringsend and Duleek incinerators. For the waste that is being sent for incineration, we need to make better use of the energy that is created, and provide district heating so that nearby communities can use this energy to heat their homes.

This requires new legislation from Minister Naughten to make this a reality, but it has not yet happened.

Now is the time for action, instead of waiting for the crisis to unfold. Already recyclable material is being stockpiled in the UK. These changes were flagged by China six months ago and yet we are still waiting for Minister Naughten to respond.

The same will happen here unless we take decisive steps. If he fails to act, the consumer will have to pick up the tab and pay more for burning and sorting through our rubbish.

A circular economy saves money

As the Environmental Protection Agency has stated we are wasting a significant amount of valuable material that could be reused. The promotion of a circular economy saves money and reduces pressure on the environment.

Rahm Emanuel once said a crisis represents: “an opportunity an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. In the Irish context our recycling crisis allows us to something that we did well in the past, and can do so again with the right incentives.

Our grandparents knew how to reduce, reuse and recycle their waste. We need to learn from what they did well in the past.

Irish consumers want to see what we discard creating jobs here at home, but this requires changes from the top.

Ciarán Cuffe is a Green Party City Councillor who sits on Dublin City Council’s Environmental Strategic Policy Committee and lectures in Environment and Planning at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

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About the author:

Ciarán Cuffe  / Chair, Dublin City Council’s Transportation Strategic Policy Committee

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