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'Can we get away from plastics? No. Can we use plastics better? Yes.'

In the latest episode of Ireland 2029, we’ve looked at the country going plastic free before the end of the next decade.

2018 Environment Problems Compressed plastic bottles at a Panda Recycling plant in Dublin. Source: RollingNews.ie

PLASTIC IS CHOKING up our oceans and filling up our landfills.

It’s hard to argue that this isn’t one of the most significant problems facing the environment right now.

But think back through the items you put in your shopping basket and your own day-to-day use of all types of products over the past week. Most people, even those with a firm intention to reduce their use of plastic, will likely have encountered some – be it a bottle of liquid soap or a protective film on some perishable food.

Humanity has become incredible reliant on plastic over the course of the past century, with production ramping up from the 1950s to a stage where it is now in most products we use – and it makes sense why.

Plastic is light. It’s cheap. It’s durable. It keeps our food fresher for longer, reducing the amount of waste the ends up landfills. It keeps our machinery light, reducing the amount of carbon emissions.

Switching to plastic bags allowed us to reduce our reliance on deforestation to provide for paper alternatives, instead using a byproduct of an existing industry (albeit one which also has a significant environmental impact). It has been the often forgotten backbone that allowed electronics to completely transform our lives and for safety in medicine to dramatically increase.

And that’s the problem: Without plastic, the world we know today wouldn’t function, but with plastic, we are rapidly damaging the environment.

The public are growing increasingly aware of the need to take action, sometimes referred to as ‘the David Attenborough effect’:

Source: BBC/YouTube

From the outset, the task set for this week’s episode of Ireland 2029 was going to be an uphill battle: Can we make Ireland plastic-free before the end of the next decade?

Dr Declan Devine heads up the Materials Research Institute at Athlone Institution of Technology, and believes that the challenge we face is simple:

Can we get away from plastics? No. Can we use plastics better? Yes.

He highlighted how there are a range of issues facing the plastics we use today or the alternatives to plastic.

Take glass as one example. When it arrives at a recycling centre, it will likely be broken into pieces. It must be heated to 1,500 degrees Celsius to be processed, up to eight times higher than the heat needed to plastic, something which Devine describes as “not exactly environmentally friendly”.

Declan Devine MRI APT Smart Manufacturing Declan Devine Source: Athlone Institute of Technology

We also face issues around ‘so-called’ biodegradable plastics. Put it in your compost bin at home, wait a couple of years, and it’s likely nothing will have happened.

This is because it must be processed correctly, in an industrial setting with controlled heat and moisture.

If that happens, great. It doesn’t happen, due to either poor management of recycling processes or public misconceptions, it will create issues.

Devine said that new regulations controlling the language we use to describe these plastics, as well as the introduction of education programmes, could go a long way towards ensuring these are captured and processed in the correct way.

And even then, processing plastic can be problematic due to the way we use it, rather than the mere fact that it is plastic. For example, your standard PET bottle is highly recyclable, but Devine explained that the scrunchy plastic wrapping on a piece of meat could contain multiple polymers and be contaminated with blood and fat, meaning it is near impossible to recycle.

This type of light plastic was previously shipped off to China for processing, but since 2018 that’s no longer an option.

Right now, we simply can’t do much with it.

China, Wuhan: Recyclable plastic bottles File photo of workers sorting plastics at a centre in central China's Hubei province. Source: PA Images

David Duff, the environmental, health and safety manager at Thorntons Recycling, spoke to us about the difficulties facing anyone trying to recycle this type of material:

We want your cardboard, your cans, your paper, your steel and aluminium cans, your mineral bottles, your milk bottles, your pots, tubs and trays.
One thing that causes a lot of confusion with the public is soft plastic [...] A lot of this isn’t technically being recycled because of the size, the potential for it to be contaminated, or the fact that it could be one of seven types of plastic polymer.

Instead, Duff explained, this should go in your black bin, where it will later be separated out and used as a fuel source, primarily for cement kilns.

photo5908933615935402190 Recyclable materials at the Thorntons plant in Dublin. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

If this ends up in your green bin, and is caught up in the recycling of other materials, it could result in the process of further reusing this material being derailed due to contamination.

Replacing this plastic with firmer, more recyclable alternatives would solve this problem, but create new ones: more waste, and so more opportunities for this to end up not in your local recycling plant, but in a landfill or elsewhere.

And if the waste didn’t exist in the first place, these problems would vanish, and in many cases this plastic might be unnecessary, something which the public is growing increasingly conscious of.  

“[Plastic is] something that’s very visible for consumers when they come into supermarkets,” Deirdre Ryan, Lidl’s head of corporate social responsibility, said.

The German discount chain has been making efforts to reduce plastic packaging as much as is feasible in its store in recent years.

Around 20% of their range of fruit and vegetables is currently loose, but that brings with it new issues:

It’s important to also remember that we need to be very vigilant in our approach to removing packaging because there’s a huge food waste issue as well.

Ryan used the cucumber as an example of that. Like other vegetables, it does have its own tough protective exterior, but you’ll often find it wrapped in plastic.

With the plastic wrapping, it will last two weeks. Take it off, and it will last four days.

Right now, there’s no clear solution to that, but Ryan explained some key areas they have focused on:

  • Microbeads: These tiny pieces of plastic in cosmetics, designed to exfoliate but will ultimately end up washed out into the sea, are due to be banned by government. Lidl removed these from their range.
  • Black plastic: Electronic scanners in recycling plants have a hard time seeing black plastic, so it could be missed and end up in landfill. The use of black plastic is being phased out.
  • Simplify packaging: In some cases the packaging has been reduced in size by 30%.
  • Reduce the amount of plastic: Ryan highlighted that consumers “still demand” plastic bottles in many areas, and so the amount of plastic used is being reduced. The necks of many bottles were necessarily large and were reduced by as much as 30%.
  • Make recycling easier: Customers can now take off packaging at the till and place it directly into recycling bins.

These changes are the start of a growing shift across all levels of society towards a reduction or phasing out of plastic waste.

It’s starting in your shopping trolley, with the likes of Lidl trying to make sure unnecessary plastic doesn’t end up in your home.

We’ve also seen in it the action of government departments and schools, where single-use plastics such as cups and cutlery will no longer be used.

And we will likely see a more fundamental shift away in the next decade under the European Union’s Plastics Strategy. New rules approved in March include:

  • A ban, by 2021, of single-use plastics such as plastic cutlery, plates, straws, plastic cotton buds, balloon sticks, oxo-degradable plastics, and polystyrene cups
  • New labeling systems
  • New schemes to cover the cost of cleaning up cigarette filters and fishing gear
  • New targets for the collection of plastic bottles, and a redesign which keeps caps attached to bottles for recycling

India is taking things a step further by banning all single-use plastics by 2022.

But is it enough? Catherine Martin, deputy leader of the Green Party, believes we need to ramp up our measures to ban as much plastic by 2029.

“I think the answer is that we have no choice,” she said.

“We have seen the harm that’s being done, the disturbing images of our marine life, suffocating and choking on plastic. That needs to change. We can see that the world is crippling, under the way of plastic.”

90408350_90408350 Catherine Martin Source: RollingNews.ie

“I think we need to show the leadership here in Ireland, and get to work. That’s about building up the political will, because we have the will of the people. I think any modern business will go with the movement of the people, and the people are demanding the end to throwaway culture.”

This is a point frequently raised, that businesses and governments need to lead the way on this, in order to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to move away from damaging plastics to more sustainable products or uses of plastics.

“We should lead on this,” Martin said.

 Additional reporting by Cormac Fitzgerald

You can listen to the fifth episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

Is aiming to go plastic-free a good idea?

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Nicky Ryan

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