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Opinion Enough of the greenwashing - we cannot recycle our way out of our waste problems

Lyndsey O’Connell of VOICE says it’s important to be able to spot measures that are serving industry over environment.

IT’S NO SECRET that when it comes to climate change and the environment, big business has employed greenwashing methods to undermine genuine environmental measures, putting profits before real change.

One of the big challenges we face in the developed world is the scourge of plastic packaging, particularly single-use items such as coffee cups, plastic wrappers and food containers. Over 50 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in Europe in 2019 and this is projected to increase to 106 tonnes by 2060.

It’s out of control and getting worse and is an environmental issue that is particularly prone to greenwashing methods, as legislators and consumers navigate the new and shiny language around such packaging. We’re now told that one product is ‘organic, recyclable’ or made from ’100% recycled’ materials. That must be good, right? Things are getting better then?

Unfortunately, not.

The European Union has been trying to find better ways to tackle its growing problem of packaging waste, however, big retailers and manufacturers were found to have lobbied hard against any legislation. Consequently, certain provisions within the legislation, notably excluding paper and cardboard from meeting key targets and from single use bans, reflect the undue influence of aggressive lobbying efforts. In response, the European Parliament has initiated an internal investigation, though the outcome remains uncertain.

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The emergence of American-style lobbying, characterised by brute force, expensive PR campaigns, and questionable scientific evidence, signals a troubling trend that prioritises corporate interests over the integrity of democratic processes. With that in mind, we all must stay alert to the influence of industry in this debate and be alert to the effects that influence might have. 

‘Unchecked consumption’

A recent opinion piece in The Journal provided a stark reminder of the challenges we face in transitioning away from unsustainable linear production models. It was written by the chairperson of the Irish Paper Packaging Circularity Alliance (IPPCA), a business alliance that leads the newly established Cup Collective (a partnership of paper packaging manufacturers and big retailers) in Ireland. To the consumer, such bodies would, on the surface, appear to be working in the interest of everyone, but often they are there to serve the interests of paper manufacturers and giant retailers. 

The piece extolled the virtues of good recycling measures over “punitive measures”. This view is problematic though because of course, we want consumers to recycle, but it’s the manufacturers and big business who are the real polluters here, they’re the ones who are ultimately accountable. Relying solely on ‘business as usual’ and some recycling is just an attempt at containing the climate fire. If we want to put the climate fire out, and we know now that we absolutely must, then we need stop producing and using these single-use products. It’s that simple. 

Waste, in all its forms, serves as a symptom of a broader societal problem — one characterised by unchecked consumption and unsustainable production. As packaging continues to proliferate at an alarming rate, the urgency of implementing effective legislation to address this issue becomes increasingly apparent.

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According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2023, paper and cardboard were the biggest component of packaging waste, of the over 1.2 million tonnes of packaging waste generated. Year on year, while we are recycling more material, our recycling rate is not keeping pace with packaging waste generation, being three times slower than generation. Simply put, we cannot recycle our way out of our waste problem.

Enter paper — a false solution

Following the implementation of the EU’s Single-use Plastics Directive (2019), there was a noticeable transition towards paper packaging. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 further propelled online sales and e-commerce, leading to a heightened reliance on paper and cardboard packaging.

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Seizing this opportunity, the paper and pulp packaging sector has directed investments towards Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies to underscore the sustainability of their products, particularly in the run up to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation debates at EU level.

However, it’s crucial to recognise that such studies offer only a partial view, failing to encompass the broader impacts — from paper extraction to its disposal. For instance, there’s evidence indicating that products sourced from Nordic forests, primarily for packaging, contribute to significant biodiversity loss upon reaching EU supermarket shelves. This underscores the risk of environmental “burden shifting” inherent in single-use items, as each carries its own ecological footprint. Addressing the overarching environmental crisis, encompassing climate change, pollution, and resource depletion, necessitates a fundamental reassessment of our production and consumption patterns, prioritising waste prevention and reuse initiatives at their source.

Taxing our way out

In Ireland, we have attempted to address the issue of packaging waste by introducing a levy on disposable cups. This levy is intended to change behaviour and kick-start our move away from disposable packaging. At an EU level, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) legislation aims to curb packaging waste, ensure that packaging is easily recyclable and promote responsible consumption practices.

However, it’s crucial to acknowledge the limitations of such legislation in the face of mounting aggressive lobbying from big retailers and businesses.

While the PPWR sets goals, such as reducing packaging waste by 15% by 2040 and setting reuse targets, these targets fall short of what is truly needed to align with the Sustainable Development Goals and global climate objectives. If we aspire to meet the ambitious targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, aiming to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a much more aggressive approach to reduce unnecessary consumption of packaging waste is imperative. However, achieving such significant reductions requires a fundamental shift in societal attitudes and legislative frameworks.

Powerful lobby groups

Unfortunately, the path to enacting meaningful change is fraught with obstacles, chief among them being aggressive lobbying tactics employed by industry associations and corporate entities.

According to parliamentary members, the PPWR has become one of the most contested files in the last five years. The influence of corporate lobbying, particularly from industry giants like Coca-Cola and major players in the paper and cardboard manufacturing and retail sectors, such as McDonald’s, has been unprecedented.

We see quite a lot of misinformation around comparing the lifecycles of disposable and reusable systems, and unfortunately, this came into play during the PPWR debates in Europe.

Citing a now discredited study commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance, which found incorrectly that reusable packaging in the fast-food sector would consume 64% more freshwater over its life cycle than single-use containers, paper and cardboard producers such as Huhtamäki and MM Board & Paper were adamant that a rush to produce reusable packaging, usually made from hard plastic, would do more damage to the environment than good. Billboards posted across train stations in Brussels, by an alliance of takeaway and paper packaging operators, including McDonald’s and Huhtamäki, accused Brussels of “wringing Europe dry”.


To clarify, this is indeed the same Hutamäki who initiated The European Cup Collective Program in 2022. Closer to home, the Irish Paper Packaging Circularity Alliance (IPPCA) who represent a consortium of food service and paper packaging operators, launched its own Cup Collective program just before Christmas.

Here in Ireland, nowhere is this dangerous trend more apparent than with the debate surrounding the levy on disposable cups and packaging. As we navigate the challenges associated with waste, limited resources, disrupted supply chains and rising energy costs, it's essential to remain vigilant and advocate for policies that prioritise the well-being of our people and our planet over short-term corporate interests.

Only through collective action and a commitment to truth and transparency can we hope to overcome the barriers to reusable packaging practices and forge a path toward a circular economy that's free from waste, toxins, and inequality.

Lyndsey O’Connell is the Communications Director of Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment – VOICE (An E-NGO focussed on waste reduction, and the Circular Economy).

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