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Opinion We must rethink recycling for Ireland’s Circular Economy and stop penalising consumers

Fearghal Carroll says the stick approach won’t work if we really expect the Circular Economy to take hold.

THE DOMINANT TACTIC among Ireland’s policymakers seems to be simple: ‘When in doubt, tax it’. This knee-jerk reaction is especially evident in addressing struggling recycling efforts, a challenge faced not only by Ireland but by many European nations. This does little to incentivise systemic change and overlooks the importance of accessible waste infrastructure.

Any successful and accessible recycling scheme should be built around consumers and fit seamlessly with their day to day behaviours while on the go in order to stand the best chance of improving waste management. Take the example of the proposed 20-cent levy on takeaway coffee. This would inflate its price by approximately 6%. This comes on the heels of a 6.3% rise in the cost of living last year. While coffee cups contribute only minimally to litter (1.6% of total street litter), our focus must shift towards tackling the root issues, such as implementing fines for littering and enhancing recycling infrastructure, rather than scapegoating coffee consumers.

While single-use paper coffee cups can be composted or recycled and are more environmentally friendly than cheap imported reusable cups made from low-quality, largely unrecyclable plastics, consumer confusion persists regarding their proper disposal due to inadequate provision of appropriate recycling infrastructure. It’s crucial to address this confusion by ensuring consumers are provided with readily available disposal sites which allow for circularity.

Our waste problem

Recent scientific studies show that switching from single-use renewable paper-based to non-renewable plastic tableware would increase CO2 emissions 2.8 times and freshwater consumption 3.4 times. Most reusable products are sourced from outside the EU, exacerbating concerns about resilience during times of global instability such as conflicts that disrupt supply chains. Additionally, the transportation of reusables requires more fuel, energy and water for washing.

Life cycle analysis, particularly regarding takeaway, emphasises washing and transportation as environmental concerns for reusable packaging.

The Cup Collective serves as a prime example of a straightforward solution. Spearheaded by the Irish Paper Packaging Circularity Alliance (IPPCA), it presents a consumer-centric approach to efficiently collect and recycle paper cups using specialised bins for those on the go, thereby closing the loop in the recycling process.

The scheme is now operational in 16 sites in Dublin such as Applegreen, Bewley’s Tea & Coffee, Butlers Chocolate Cafés, Insomnia Coffee Company, McDonald’s and most recently, Trinity College Dublin. It offers a user-friendly, cost-effective solution for businesses, without imposing additional costs on consumers.

Carrot, not stick

Rather than punitive measures, such as taxation, we must recognise and support innovative recycling initiatives, which have demonstrated significant potential to increase recycling rates across the country.

As IPPCA member and The Cup Collective participant, Insomnia’s CEO Harry O’Kelly put it, “the data gathered thus far demonstrates the scheme’s true ability to maximise the recycling of the paper cups we offer to our customers.”

This sentiment isn’t exclusive to us; the European Union’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) recently commissioned research in advance of final changes to the proposed EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations (PPWR) which found that single-use paper cups have a lower impact on climate change than plastic reusables and a lower impact on life cycle water usage in the takeaway context.

This demonstrates the need for the adoption of accessible circular recycling schemes nationally and associated infrastructure, such as The Cup Collective, to fulfil Ireland’s circular economy ambitions.

The JRC report findings concur with much of IPPCA’s own commissioned research conducted by renowned Irish economist Jim Power, which raised similar concerns around water consumption in reusables alongside predicted unintended negative financial impacts which would occur as the result of a latte levy.

Additionally, the Jim Power report notes the failure of a so-called latté levy in Vancouver, Canada, where the levy was repealed after just over a year, as it was deemed to be punitive and ineffective. It also found that the levy would reduce coffee sales by an average of 8.33%.

It is worth considering the wisdom of putting further cost pressures on strained customers and extra regulatory pressures on struggling small businesses at a time of great uncertainty in the hospitality sector, which is crying out for further support from the government in the aftermath of Covid, the Ukraine War and associated inflationary trends. The Government’s Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) claims reusable cups are used at a rate of 25%. However, the Jim Power report, with a larger data set of coffee retailers verified that the actual reuse rate stands at just 1.7%.

The default impulse to legislate and tax against undesirable consumer behaviours leaves little room for society-led innovations which offer positive rather than punitive incentives for consumers to recycle in accordance with Irish and European goals set out in legislation.

Furthermore, a pragmatic response that is not overly reliant on projections of the potential impact financial incentives may have on consumer behaviour, whether it be uncollected deposits or Regulatory Impact Analyses which overstate the potential uptake of new behaviours, is essential.

To truly foster a circular economy, increased investment in recycling infrastructure is imperative. Industry is ready and willing to roll up its sleeves and work hand-in-hand with the Government to implement meaningful changes that prioritise the best environmental outcome and deliver real results that do not penalise the everyday coffee consumer.

Fearghal Carroll is Chairperson of the Irish Paper Packaging Circularity Alliance.

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