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The dark side of the spoon: Ireland to clamp down harder on plastic cutlery

Efforts to enforce ban on single-use plastics will intensify in bid to stop pollution

Custom officers must check for many things: drugs, tobacco, animals and illegal firearms. From next year they will also be on the lookout for other items packed away in shipping containers – namely plastic knives and forks.

For these seemingly benign items are among pollutants causing huge concern across Europe.

The European Union’s single-use plastics directive (SUPD), adopted in June, 2019, was designed to target the top 10 polluting products that are found on beaches and make up the majority of all marine litter.

Last year, Spanish researchers identified takeout and convenience-food plastics as the single biggest form of litter polluting oceans and rivers. Eighty per cent of everything found was plastic, especially single-use bottles, food containers, packaging and bags.


Previous research in Ireland showed more than 200kg of waste packaging (including 59kg of plastics) is generated per person every year despite pledges to “go green”. Irish people use and dispose of 200 million coffee cups every year, too.

It is not so much the cutlery or crockery that have become suspect, but rather how they are labelled, since some businesses have been trying to get around the legislation that banned single-use plastic simply by branding their products as “reusable”.

“I am [still] finding plastic cutlery. What they are doing now is remarkable; it is [labelled] reusable just to get around [the regulations],” says Mindy O’Brien of Voice, the Irish charity involved with the report. “But it’s not actually being reused.”

Voice conducted a survey of banned items that are still in use. So far, preliminary findings show that while most cafes and takeaway shops are compliant, others have opted, perhaps unknowingly, for banned plastics or those not truly suitable to being reused.

“This bad faith action on the part of numerous takeaway food businesses, petrol stations and wholesale suppliers of catering supplies make a mockery of the SUPD bans,” the environmental group noted in its recent report.

For such items to be legitimately reusable, there must be an approved means to collect them and ensure that they are cleaned and ready to be used again, not just that the customer who bought a fast food meal is able to take it away and reuse it.

One environmental lobby group, Zero Waste France, tested plates that were supposed to last 20 cycles in the dishwasher. After the first wash they were “slightly deformed and dented”. By later washes, they had cracked or taken on food stains or fat.

While Voice and others demand greater enforcement, it is a message not lost on officials who say it will be stepped up next year through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), local authorities, gardaí and customs officers.

“We’ll be working with all those agencies through the enforcement side of the house so that it’s on everybody’s agenda and that they’re appropriately equipped to know what they’re looking out for,” says Bernie Kiely, a senior official in the Department of Environment’s circular economy division.

The changes being made are part of legislation passed last year by the Oireachtas that brought the single-use plastics directive into domestic law, a sweeping, ambitious piece of work that banned some items and set its sights on more.

The directive did away with plastic straws, cutlery and plates as well as cotton bud sticks, small plastic utensils used to mix drinks, polystyrene cups and containers. Even the seemingly innocuous sticks glued to children’s balloons are no more.

In the years to come, the directive will see producers contribute to cleaning up discarded cigarette butts, balloons and fishing gear; slash plastic bottle use; and make vending machines offer genuinely reusable products.

We are great at getting these things on the books but we are not great at enforcing.

—  Mindy O'Brien of Voice

A pilot vending machine programme is already under way and it is hoped that in the near future people will regard the act of feeding used bottles and cans into “reverse vending machines” as part of normal life.

By July 2021, every EU state was to have banned several single-use items.

But there are problems. Despite Ireland’s apparent eagerness to embrace the directive, enforcement is, yet again, proving problematic: “[It] is not there,” says O’Brien, “We are great at getting these things on the books but we are not great at enforcing.”

While department officials are upbeat, believing, fairly, that the directive is in keeping with the domestic political agenda, they also willingly concede it is “early days”.

There has been progress on some fronts. Repak, the not-for-profit that promotes sustainability and the circular economy, says its business members last year recycled 69 per cent of plastic packaging waste, 19 percentage points ahead of 2025 EU targets.

However, a report published by the Rethink Plastic alliance and the Break Free From Plastic movement, gave Ireland a mid-table ranking, but it did praise it for “ambition measures”, such as the proposed “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups and the deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, both of which have yet to be introduced.

Change is coming, however. Two years before the directive came into force, Supermacs ended its use of plastic straws. In 2019, RiverRock announced it would use bottles made of 100 per cent recycled materials. Beer maker Molson Coors pledged to strip some of its multipacks of plastic film wrap.

Convenience food giant Greencore has vowed to make all its packaging sustainable by 2025 (reusable, recyclable or compostable). Aldi has banned black plastic trays for produce. SuperValu has introduced compostable fruit and vegetable bags.

However, the Government has been more cautious than others about banning plastic wrappings on food and vegetables. Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal have already acted, while France wants to get rid of such wrapping entirely by 2040.

In Ireland, officials soberly dampen expectations. Retailers at the end of long supply chains rely on suitable packaging to safeguard produce, they say, although it is not dismissed out of hand. Ending plastic use could increase waste, not cut it.

Customer power will play a role in driving better conduct. There are charges provided for in the legislation, similar to the plastic bag levy, which can be levied on plastic cutlery in a takeaway if it is listed as reusable. Once the charges are enacted, customers would have to pay for a plastic fork or cup in a cafe if the supplier had merely branded it reusable. Savvy consumers, Irish officials believe, would quickly refuse to pay.

However, more must be done to educate the public, campaigners believe. “It gets very confusing for the individual to do the right thing,” says O’Brien. “We really need to invest more so that people know more about [banned plastics]. But also educate cafes, restaurants, takeaways about what is permissible.”