New EU plastic recycling targets will be a ‘tall order’ for Ireland

Ireland needs new waste management policy to cope with global recycling upheaval

A recycling facility in Clonshaugh, Dublin. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

A recycling facility in Clonshaugh, Dublin. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The global waste recycling industry is facing a period of upheaval, and the single biggest issue is what to do with plastic, said Séamus Clancy, chief executive of recycling company Repak. Ireland was not well-equipped to face what was coming down the line, he added.

Ireland was recovering and recycling 35 per cent of its plastic waste, considerably ahead of EU targets, but those targets were about to double. A total of 95,000 tons a year of plastic was recycled, but that was going to increase to 190,000 tons; “an incredibly tall order”, he told an event to mark the 20th anniversary of Repak, the not-for-profit organisation set up to help companies meet their legal obligations on recyclable waste.

To generate sufficient capacity to deal with this waste would “cost tens of millions of euro”, he said. In addition, China would no longer be the dumping ground for Europe, he said. As of next January, it would no longer take plastic, though there may be some row-back on this decision, Mr Clancy said.

On landfill, he said two of the remaining four landfills in the country would run out of capacity by the end of the year. “Where will that waste go?” he asked. Although Ireland’s recycling performance outstrips most European countries, the amount of waste generated here per capita continues to rise.

Online trading is increasing by billions of euro a year. As a consequence, Amazon, for example, is sending 7,500 tons of packaging into Ireland annually, and has no obligation to ensure it is recycled properly.

“A very clear long-term vision is needed, not a five-year political plan,” said Mr Clancy. “It’s all about our infrastructural needs in Ireland.”

This would require a new waste management policy devised by the Government and the EPA. “Waste is expensive and everybody wants everything for nothing. As a society are we prepared to pay for basics?” he asked.

Among EU leaders

In spite of new demands looming for industry and consumers, data released by Repak confirmed the extent to which recycling and waste disposal habits have changed since 1997. Ireland is achieving 91 per cent recycling and recovery on packaging, and is now among EU leaders in the sector; 10 million tons of packaging has been recycled and diverted from landfill.

Other achievements, backed by €400 million in Repak investment, include a reduction in landfills from 126 to four today. Over the past 20 years, Ireland has recycled eight billion plastic bottles, seven billion glass bottles, six billion aluminium cans and four million tons of paper and cardboard.

Waste targets are going to become much more demanding, said John Aherne, managing director of waste-management company Indaver Ireland. The difficulty would be compounded because Irish people were not particularly good at waste prevention. Consumers were changing kitchens and fridges because of their colour, he said. “We were wasteful in the boom. With recession, waste declined because we could not afford to be wasteful. We have money again. So we are going to be wasteful.”

In contrast, Ireland has become good at separating waste, although we export most of our recycled goods. There is probably enough incinerator capacity at present with four incinerators on the island and cement kilns – Indaver has a commercial waste incinerator in Co Meath and is proposing to build another in Cork.

Mr Aherne predicted there would be a long and painful journey in ending the traditional practice of spreading waste-water effluent on farmland. Because of the antibiotic residues occurring in such sludges, some retailers would not buy products arising from such sources.