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The new EPA report looks at now Ireland is managing its waste. Alamy Stock Photo
circular economy

Just 28% of plastic packaging recycled as country remains off track to meet EU targets

While there was a notable decrease in hazardous waste, the EPA found that Ireland remains behind on targets overall.

JUST 28% OF Ireland’s plastic packaging is recycled, as the country remains some distance away from meeting mandatory EU targets.

The remainder was sent for incineration (70%) and disposal (2%), according to a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It’s short of the EU target of 50%, due to take effect from 2025. Targets for household and commercial waste are also some way off, at 41% instead of 55%.

The recycling of waste electrical and electronic goods is close to reaching the 2025 target however – it’s just 1 per cent behind the 65% goal.

But the EPA warned that Ireland’s overall targets are in danger, as the country remains overly reliant on “unpredictable” export markets with almost 382,000 tonnes of residual waste sent for incineration abroad.

In its Circular Economy and Waste Statistics Highlights report examining the year 2021, the EPA said that continued high levels of waste generation coupled with stagnating recycling rates mean it is unlikely that Ireland will meet mandatory EU recycling targets.

This includes soft plastic which is almost all burned in Irish kilns or recycled abroad, according to the findings of an investigation by Noteworthy last year.

A circular economy is one where materials are recirculated, and used again and again, and waste is minimised.

Recycling targets set down by the EU are due to apply from 2025 for municipal waste, packaging waste and plastic packaging waste.

These targets will prioritise recycling over energy recovery and landfill. The European Commission put forward a Circular Economy Package in December 2015, which was followed by a national waste policy devised by the Irish government published in September 2021.

The director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Sustainability David Flynn said that Ireland needed to quicken its transition to a circular economy.

“We continue to throw away far too much, wasting valuable materials. We live on a resource-finite planet and resource extraction causes greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and water stress,” Flynn said.

“To reduce these impacts, we must accelerate our transition from a linear economy to a circular, more resource-efficient economy.

Right now, we need to focus on avoiding waste. That means reusing construction waste materials where possible, becoming better at segregating our municipal waste and vastly improving the recycling of packaging materials.

Municipal waste recycling rates remained unchanged at 41%, while packaging recycling fell by 4% to 58%.

Ireland exported 38% of municipal waste was exported for treatment in 2021, including 382,000 tonnes of residual waste exported for energy recovery through incineration. 69% of packaging waste was exported for treatment.

Commenting on the findings from the report, the programme Manager of the EPA’s Circular Economy Programme, Warren Phelan, said:

“Ireland is overly reliant on the export of waste for treatment and we are vulnerable to shocks and changes in international markets.

“We do not have enough facilities for the treatment of non-hazardous and hazardous waste which are missed opportunities to capture the energy and economic value of these wastes.”

Hazardous waste

However, there was a decrease of hazardous waste generated in Ireland by 16 per cent in 2021.

The EPA said this was due to a form of ash produced in incineration facilities, known as incinerator bottom ash, being reclassified as a non-hazardous waste in April 2020.

It also pointed to decreased dredging at Dublin Port and the ceasing of activities at Limerick Gas Works as reasons behind the notable decrease in hazardous waste generation.

Other good news could be found in Ireland “continuing to meet all reuse and recycling rate targets” for end-of-life vehicles in 2021 – the collection rate for these increased by 22.5%.

The environmental regulator called for improvements to waste prevention, especially in the construction and demolition sector which saw waste increase by 10% to 9 million tonnes.

This increase correlated with a re-opening of the construction sector in mid-2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic, the watchdog noted.

The EPA also urged a roll-out of a brown bin service for organic waste to all customers and improving waste segregation by businesses and householders putting their waste into the correct bins.

69% of Irish households had access brown bin in 2021, which was an increase of five per cent from 2020.

However, “strong regional variations” were found in the provisions of brown bin services across the country.

Municipal waste

Municipal waste, which is derived from what we produce every day in our homes, offices, businesses and schools, amounted to 3.17 million tonnes in 2021. This was a slight decrease of 1 per cent from 3.2 million tonnes in 2020.

Of this, 16% was disposed to landfills in 2021 and 41.5% was treated by energy recovery through incineration.

Packaging waste rose by 9 per cent to 1.2 million tonnes in 2021.

72,000 tonnes of Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) was collected in 2021, a rise of 10%.

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