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Soft plastic: How much of it will actually be recycled and what difference will it make?

Soft plastics can now be put in household recycling bins.

File image of the Poolbeg incinerator in Dublin.
File image of the Poolbeg incinerator in Dublin.
Image: RollingNews.ie

AS OF THIS week, soft plastic packaging can be put in household recycling bins along with hard plastics, cardboard, paper and other waste.

Soft plastics include plastic wrap on products, plastic labels, bubble wrap, sweet wrappers, crisp packets and plastic carrier bags.  

All waste collection companies are now accepting this waste once it is clean, dry and loose when put it in the bin. 

Dr David Styles, a lecturer in environmental engineering in the University of Limerick,  told The Journal that while the soft plastic recycling is “not bad and a step in the right direction”, there is “still a long way to go”.

Let’s take a look at what this will mean in practice, and why it’s happening now. 

Recycled rubbish

Waste put in the recycling bin is dealt with a number of different ways in Ireland – some is transported abroad to be recycled, some is burned in incinerators while more still is burned to generate energy in the cement manufacturing process.

This latter process of energy recovery ranks just below recycling in the EU’s priorities for waste, with the best option being prevention – in other words, measures that can be taken to cut down on packaging to ensure it doesn’t become waste in the first place.

Pauline McDonagh, spokesperson for MyWaste, said it’s hoped that around half of soft plastics will be recycled and the rest will be burned to generate 

MyWaste is the government’s website providing advice on personal waste management. 

“This announcement is to try and make sure more waste gets put in recycling bins so it can be sorted,” McDonagh told The Journal. 

She said Ireland generates around 265,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year, with less than one-third of this being recycled. 

“The more [soft plastic] starts to come into the recycling plants the more that will be sorted,” she said. 

“This is simplifying the process and the responsibility for the sorting is now more on the commercial side of it.”

Under EU rules, Ireland must be recycling 50% of its plastic packaging waste by 2025.

How recycling is sorted 

When rubbish is binned or waste is placed in household recycling, it is generally collected by waste disposal companies and sent to waste management facilities.

General waste is not sorted into different categories – but recycling is brought to one of Ireland’s nine recycling sorting facilities.

Here, the recycled waste is separated into different categories such as paper, cardboard or hard plastics. 

As a result of new technology and upped investment, soft plastics can now be separated in this same way.

“We’re losing an awful lot of recyclable plastic to the general waste,” McDonagh said.

This recyclable waste is either shipped abroad to be sold and recycled in European and other markets, or used to generate fuel in the cement manufacturing process. 

Some non-recyclable waste, including landfill, is sent to incinerators in locations such as Poolbeg in Dublin to be burned. 

EU rules stipulate that all plastic packaging sold in the EU must be re-usable or easily recycled by 2030. 

‘Still a long way to go’ 

“I do think people think recycling is doing more than it actually is,” Dr David Styles of UL told The Journal.   

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“We’d be much better off if we massively reduce the plastic we produce and reduce our emissions.”

Last year, Dr Styles co-authored a research study which suggested that nearly one-third of plastic exported from Europe isn’t recycled. 

A large amount of plastic in Europe was transported to south-east Asian countries for waste management in the past.

China – previously the world’s largest recyclable materials importer – took in 95% of Ireland’s plastic waste in 2016.

 

However, in January 2018 China banned the importing of plastic waste from European countries. 

“Recycling isn’t a panacea… When we export plastic, we have less oversight for what happens to it,” Dr Styles said. 

Most of that recycling for hard plastics happens in other countries. There is a concern that when it gets to these countries, not all of it is genuinely recycled.

“It can then end up in local waste streams and some of that ends up in the oceans.”   However, he said soft plastic recycling should be “welcomed as a positive step forward, but a small step on a very long journey”.  “The danger is that we get complacent,” he said.

“It feeds into complacency that we can use as much plastic as we want and put in the recycling bin, but we’re using far too much plastic.”  

Pauline McDonagh highlighted that preventing waste is still “the most important action we can all do”. 

She said the soft plastic recycling is not intended to promote a “free-for-all” to buy more plastic that can now be recycled, but to “manage the plastics you have that you cannot prevent”. 

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