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Targets for recycling plastic packaging will be 'extremely challenging' - so how do we do it?

50% of plastic packaging waste needs to be recycled by 2025. The latest figures show only 22.5% is.

Image: Shutterstock/laponpat maliwan

IN A RECENT report, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a strong warning: upcoming targets for recycling plastic packaging are going to be “extremely challenging” for Ireland to reach.

Ireland is currently within EU allowances, with 22.5% of plastic packaging recycled in 2019 – but those targets are set to rise to 50% in 2025 and 55% in 2030.

Ireland will need to reverse negative trends and more than double the proportion of plastic packaging that is currently recycled.

A Waste Action Plan published in September outlined that the government intends to national targets on specific packaging formats or products, such as food or drink cartons; make all packaging on the Irish market reusable or recyclable by 2030; and introduce a long-anticipated deposit and return scheme.

The plan noted that “EU statistics highlight that Ireland appears to generate more plastic packaging per capita than all other member states”.

Elsewhere in the EU, France introduced a ban at the start of this year on plastic packaging for most fruit and vegetables, and Spain is due to follow suit in 2023.

The Journal spoke to experts about plastic packaging recycling and whether a measure like France’s would work in Ireland.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out where soft plastics in our recycling bin are ending up. See how you can support this project here.

Au revoir

French President Emmanuel Macron called France’s latest move against plastic a “revolution”.

From New Year’s Day, the country banned plastic packaging on most common fruit and vegetables, such as bananas, oranges, peppers, and cucumbers.

Chopped fruit, processed fruit, and packs over 1.5kg are currently exempt.

Some softer fruits like raspberries and cherry tomatoes are not yet included either with a view to giving producers longer to find alternatives to plastic.

By 2026, the country plans to have phased out plastic packaging for all whole fruit and vegetables, and Spain is implementing a similar ban on produce next year.

Speaking to The Journal, EPA Senior Manager Tara Higgins said that “at the heart of waste policy is reduction and prevention”.

“Where there is a readily-available alternative”, measures like the one implemented in France “would be a good thing because at the end of the day, even where packaging can be recycled, there’s still a carbon footprint associated with the generation and manufacture of plastic and then the transport”.

“Ultimately, [we need] prevention and reduction in the first instance, and then recycling in terms of the next [action] down on the waste hierarchy.”

“I think banning all plastics, that kind of message isn’t helpful realistically. You have to think about where there are alternatives, substitutable, readily-available alternatives, that’s where we can make a difference.”

“When it comes to packaging, it’s about trying to reduce as opposed to an outright ban,” she said.

That’s partly because of one important factor – avoiding food waste.

Protecting food

Packaging on foods like fruit and vegetables can help them to last longer, which in turn limits food waste that also has negative environmental consequences.

Higgins identified that policies around reducing packaging need to balance food safety and preservation.

Similarly, CEO of Repak Seamus Clancy said that food safety is a “huge” part of the picture.

“Good, safe packaging actually reduces food waste,” Clancy said.

“If you take the likes of a cucumber, for example, if you put a plastic sheet on a cucumber, you increase its shelf life to 10 to 14 days. If you don’t have that on a cucumber, it would survive three to five days.”

We would welcome reusable packaging that could be brought in, be it for milk or cereals or powders.

“There also has to be parallel legislative support for the retail sector against insurance claims, because that is a problematic issue within food safety. Food safety comes first.”

One million tonnes of packaging waste

Ireland generated more than one million tonnes of packaging waste in 2019 for the third year in a row, according to a recent EPA study.

Overall, 62% of waste packaging was recycled in 2019.

That was a decrease from 64% in 2018, but it still exceeded the current EU target of 55%.

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.

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

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 metal.

The EPA recommended the implementation of targeted measures to phase out the use of packaging that is difficult to recycle.

It also called for improved waste segregation and collection systems, like deposit-return schemes; a broadening of the materials that waste operators can accept for recycling; and the implementation of a Waste Action Plan for the Circular Economy Strategy (which was published in September).

The pandemic hasn’t made reducing plastic packaging easier.

“Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, we were seeing a huge improvement in loose food right across all the main multiples in the country, making choice available for the consumer.,” Clancy said.

“We saw immediately when Covid happened that that reverted overnight. Consumers did not want to buy anything that was available loose for fear of Covid at the time,” he said.

“Another fundamental issue is we’re still waiting for guidance on a number of new packaging and packaging waste directives – the Waste Framework Directive and the Landfill Directive yet to come from Europe to align itself with the the Circular Economy Package and the Single-Use Plastics Directive.”

Single-use plastics

That last policy was introduced in July 2021 when plastic straws, cutlery, cotton buds and other single-use plastics were removed from the market.

The EU directive restricting certain single-use plastic products came into effect last year after environmental movements pointed to them as a source of waste in the mid and late 2010s.

But the ban was implemented despite objections raised by disabled people who identified a wide range of reasons why single-use plastics were an important tool in their lives.

Future decisions about reducing plastic packaging waste should be made in consultation with disabled people whom they affect, an expert told The Journal.

Peter Kearns, Project Manager of the Independent Living Movement Ireland’s ONSIDE outreach programme, said that “even though a lot of disabled people need plastic straws, they still went ahead with the ruling to ban single-use plastic straws”.

“If I go to get a cup of coffee from a local café, a lot of them have biodegradable straws but as soon as they’re in the hot water in a coffee or tea, they collapse. They’re not usable,” he said.

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“I just cleaned out the utility room in the house last week and there’s a whole shelf full of plastic straws that I bought in 2019 which I hope will do me for the rest of my life.

“People say, ‘what about paper straws’, but they don’t work for us. We’re quite happy to get to a stage where there is a straw that works for us, but it’s part of a bigger discussion.

It’s not just an issue of plastic straws – the danger is that the voices of disabled people aren’t being listened to and being completely ignored.

Looking ahead, Kearns said the government “has to create systemic platforms where there’s dialogue with disabled people and activists”.

“It’s about creating a platform where there’s proper dialogue, not consultation, but proper dialogue with disabled people and organisations.”

55% by 2030

Ireland has set a target of cutting emissions in half by 2030 – by now, a well-flagged climate goal that is guiding policy.

But in the recycling realm, a tough target of recycling 55% of all plastics is also ahead in 2030.

“We have a target of hitting 50% recycling of all plastics by 2025 and 55% by 2030. That’s the biggest challenge we have. That is all-consuming for us,” Clancy explained.

“At the very top-line, we need to reduce the amount of plastic that’s placed on the market, the unnecessary plastics,” he said.

“Then, we have to make sure the plastics that are used are recyclable. And thirdly, we have to make sure it’s easy for the consumer.”

Clancy said we need to “make sure the next steps we take align with the requirements that are coming out of Europe, and also in relation to how best we can import the necessary foods into Ireland in the safest possible way so the consumer can buy it in that context”.

“What the French have done, they have gone ahead of the EU in that step, but anything that will work we will definitely be looking at down the road.

“The overriding issue then is communication, having the consumer, businesses and all of society understand what’s needed in the context of how we protect our environment the best we can.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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