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More than one million tonnes of packaging waste created in Ireland for third year in a row

Our recycling rate has continued to decline.

IRELAND HAS GENERATED more than one million tonnes of packaging waste for at least three years in a row, with 1.1 million tonnes of waste in 2019, the EPA has found.

New figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that an 11% increase from 2018 saw 1,124,000 tonnes of packaging waste created in Ireland in 2019 – around 229kg of waste packaging per person.

At the same time, our recycling rate continued to decline.

62% of waste packaging was recycled in 2019, which decreased from 64% in 2018 but still exceeded the current EU target of 55%.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out if Irish recycling waste is ending up in illegal dumps abroad. See how you can support this project here.

However, recycling rates have been on a downwards trend since 2013, and the EPA expects that stricter targets in the near future – 65% from 2025 and 70% from 2030 – will be more challenging for Ireland to reach.

Similarly, specific targets for recycling plastic packaging of 50% from 2025 and 55% from 2030 will be “extremely challenging”.

Paper and cardboard were the most common packaging type recycled in 2019, followed by plastic.

Of the nearly 320,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste generated in Ireland in 2019, only 28% was recycled – though we are on track to reach targets for recycling other types of packaging like glass, wood, and ferrous metal.

Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Sustainability Sharon Finegan said that businesses need to put less packaging on the market. 

She said the findings “highlight the need for Ireland to implement measures at policy, industry and individual level to halt the rise in packaging waste”.

“We need to rethink how we make, transport and use products and move to a system where unnecessary packaging is avoided and any remaining packaging is designed either for re-use or recycling,” Finegan said.

“Policy commitments to support this shift such as those outlined in Ireland’s Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy need to be implemented without delay”.

To reverse the negative trends, the EPA outlines that targeted measures are needed to phase out the use of packaging that is difficult to recycle, like implementing and enforcing bans or restrictions on certain single-use plastics.

Additionally, the government needs to implement policies like the Waste Action Plan and the upcoming Circular Economy Strategy and the list of materials accepted for recycling by waste operators needs to be broadened.

EPA Senior Scientist Dr Tara Higgins said that improving how we separate waste at home, in businesses and in public settings would have a strong impact on Ireland’s recycling rate.  

“In 2019, over 13,000 tonnes of aluminium packaging and nearly 39,000 tonnes of recyclable plastic were sent for incineration,” Dr Higgins said.

“Allowing soft plastics such as films and wraps into our recycling bins and new deposit-return schemes are positive actions that are now being rolled out to support an increase in the capture of high quality material for recycling into new products.”

Of the 1.1 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2019, only 16% was recycled in Ireland, with the rest sent abroad.

Most of the packaging recycled here was glass and wood, while almost all plastic, paper and cardboard and most metal was shipped elsewhere.

As of this week, soft plastics like sweet wrappers, crisp packets or bubble wrap can be placed in household recycling bins as long as they are clean and dry, whereas only hard or rigid plastic could be recycled previously.

However, experts say that while it is a step in the right direction, the primary focus needs to be on reducing the amount of waste we generate in the first place.

Dr David Styles of the University of Limerick told The Journal that we would “be much better off if we massively reduce the plastic we produce and reduce our emissions”.

“The danger is that we get complacent… It feeds into complacency that we can use as much plastic as we want and put in the recycling bin, but we’re using far too much plastic,” he said.

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