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Opinion: Recycling soft plastics is fine but we must simply stop using them

Mindy O’Brien says the changes to the recycling of plastics should not mean a ‘get out of jail free’ card for plastic manufacturers and businesses.

Mindy O'Brien

Updated Sep 17th 2021, 9:04 AM

AS THEY SAY when advertising for the National Lotto: “If you’re not in, you can’t win.” The same goes for the new government policy on soft plastics. If plastic is not in the recycling bin, it has no chance of ever being recycled.

As many of you will have heard last week, soft plastics, such as frozen vegetable bags, plastic bread wrappers and crisp packets can now go into your recycling bin.

In the past, the recycling optical scanners which identify certain materials could not differentiate between different soft plastic polymers. Additionally, soft plastic contaminated paper bales as they seemed to float into these bales in the process.

Tackling the wrong end

We were told to place these ‘soft plastics’ into our general waste bin where they were either burned or landfilled. Now that technology has improved, we have a better chance of recycling these soft plastics.

However, and this is a big however this is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Just because there is a better chance that these plastics will now be recycled (some of them will not and will be burned as fuel for cement kilns), this does not mean that we can continue to buy products wrapped in plastic guilt-free.

Most plastic comes from oil, which contributes dramatically to carbon emissions and climate change. Additionally, as we know, plastic lasts a long time, and if it gets into the environment, it can cause significant harm to wildlife and ourselves.

As the old adage goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We must change how business is conducted and how we consume to prevent the creation of waste in the first place.

We launched our We Choose Reuse campaign on Earth Day this year to highlight and celebrate those businesses that offer package-free solutions. Reuse and refill offers all of us the opportunity to buy our products without unnecessary packaging.

From zero waste shops to cafes to butchers, proprietors encourage their customers to bring their own packaging to refill cleaning products, dry goods, coffee and even meat. This is happening around the country and we believe that this must become mainstream in supermarkets and other retail shops and take-aways.

Through our Sick of Plastic campaign, which we run with Friends of the Earth Ireland, we have engaged individuals throughout the country to contact their local shops, urging them to reduce unwanted plastic packaging through the shop and drop events (leaving unwanted plastic packaging behind) and our postcard campaign.

We have also reached out to the major supermarkets to advocate for more reuse and refill opportunities. While we have had good meetings, they are nibbling around the edges and not making the substantive changes that are needed to reduce our plastic packaging consumption.

Our addiction to packaging

Don’t be swayed by false solutions, such as the adoption of more and more compostable options – retailers are just substituting one single-use option with another. Compostable packaging will only be composted properly if it is collected in the organic bin and sent to industrial composting facilities.

Currently, much of this packaging is consumed ‘on the go’ and very few retailers in Ireland offering compostable containers/cups collect such material for composting. Therefore, these items just end up littered in the environment or sent to landfill or incineration. Waste prevention and reuse/refill is key and should be our number one priority for packaging.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released its 2019 findings on our packaging generation, which has exceeded one million tonnes each year since 2016. Given the increase of e-commerce during Covid-19, we anticipate exponential growth in packaging figures for 2020 and 2021.

About a third of this packaging is plastic and it is estimated that each person in Ireland is generating 59kgs of plastic packaging, which is nearly double the EU average of 33 kg/person.

Of this amount, we are only recycling around 28%. With the new inclusion of soft plastic in the recycling bins, we will increase our recycling rate, but we will have a huge hill to climb to reach the 55% recycling rate by 2030, as required by the EU.

The EU’s Green Deal is attempting to create a more sustainable model, addressing climate change, farming strategies and the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP). One element of the CEAP was the passage of the Single Use Plastic Directive, which bans 10 of the most commonly littered single use items such as plastic cutlery, plates, straws, chopsticks, balloon sticks, stirrers, cotton buds, etc.

It also requires the Member States to reduce plastic packaging, collect 90% plastic bottles and increase producer responsibility for the end of life treatment of such material. Ireland has already banned the above items as of 3 July and is on track to adopt a Deposit Refund Scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans by the end of next year.

The Dail is about to deliberate over the Circular Economy Bill this autumn, which would give the Minister for the Environment the authority to set levies on and reduce the use of certain single-use, disposable items such as coffee and cold drink cups, food containers and single-use food packaging.

We support this, but we also call for legislated reuse/refill targets for different sectors of business such as grocery, hospitality and catering and e-commerce. We can no longer rely on voluntary measures and rely on the goodwill of business to change their practices.

We need a new, more sustainable consumption model where we buy the product and either bring our own packaging, borrow it, or pay for it. Climate change is here and we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

When we buy something, we don’t think about the embedded emissions associated with that product and packaging. According to the Ellen MacCarthur Foundation, 45% of global emissions come from how we produce products and food.

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Let’s do our part and be better consumers, reduce unwanted packaging and plastic waste, and pressure our politicians to adopt ambitious legislation to require businesses to do their part.

Mindy O’Brien is the Chief Coordinator of VOICE Ireland

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Mindy O'Brien

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