All you need to know about soft plastics and recycling

Q&A: Bread wrappers, pasta bags and crisp packets now being accepted

A soft plastic is any type of plastic that you can scrunch in your hand. Photograph: iStock

A soft plastic is any type of plastic that you can scrunch in your hand. Photograph: iStock

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Householders’ waste habits are about to change dramatically over the coming decade due to the considerable demands of life in a “circular economy” with its emphasis on greater recycling, reuse and extending the lifespan of a product.

Combined with a big move to reduce plastic pollution, especially single-use items, it will radically change the relationship between manufacturer, retailer and consumer while demands on waste management companies are scaled up to meet demanding recycling targets.

In the Irish context, being able to put all plastics in the mixed dry recyclables (green/blue) bin is first big indicator of change.

So all plastics can now go in the recycling bin?
Yes, all plastic packaging including soft plastics and rigid/hard plastics can go in your recycling (green/blue) bin, provided it is clean, dry and loose. The former was banned in recent years because of contamination and infrastructure shortcomings in recycling.

This includes all plastic films from your shopping, plastic bottles from milk, water and beverages; plastic tubs, containers and food trays; yogurt pots as well as soap, shampoo, conditioner and shower gel bottles.

A full list is on Repak’s What can I recycle? page or MyWaste’s What to do with A-Z list.

What are the key differences between soft and hard plastics?
A soft plastic is any type of plastic that you can scrunch in your hand. This includes a surprisingly wide range of soft plastics such as plastic wrap on products, including plastic labels, plastic packaging pillows, bubble wrap, bread wrappers and pasta bags.

And yes, it includes plastic carrier bags, crisp packets, sweet wrappers and packaging on everything from toilet rolls to new mattresses.

A rigid plastic is any type of plastic that does not lose its shape. Its colour, by the way, does not matter.

Why can soft plastics now be placed in the recycling bin?
There have been advancements in packaging design and investment in recycling technology, allowing segregation of different material types in recycling facilities in Ireland. This means recycling of much more plastics is possible and increasingly this will be done in the Republic.

What benefit is there to putting all plastics in the green bin?
By doing this you are helping Ireland to achieve its increased packaging recycling targets set by the EU. Currently, we recycle 31 per cent of all plastic packaging. By 2025 we will need to recycle 50 per cent and by 2030 we will need to recycle 55 per cent.

These are extremely demanding targets, according to Repak, but achieving them will reduce plastic pollution, reduce carbon emissions and facilitate a big shift to a circular economy over the next decade – whereby materials are continuously recycled and single use is at a minimum, if not eradicated.

What condition does plastic need to be in before I can place it in the recycling bin?
Plastic items should be clean, dry and loose. They should not be in plastic bags or stuffed into other materials such as boxes. There is no need to vigorously clean soft plastics. Once the plastic is free from food and dry, it can be placed in the green/blue bin.

Where will the soft plastic go after it has been collected?
After collection, soft plastics are brought to material recovery facilities (MRFs) in Ireland to separate the plastics into different polymers. They have been upgraded to include better “transfer and separation technologies” so the quality and value of the plastics is improved significantly.

If the plastic types are recyclable they will be sent to specialised, polymer specific recycling facilities. All too often in the past that has meant exporting the product. If they are not recyclable they will be sent for “energy recovery” through solid residual fuel (SRF) production for cement plants.

Do all bin companies and waste collectors accept soft plastic?
Yes, your chosen waste collector will be accepting soft plastics placed in your recycling bin, while an intensive publicity campaign highlighting the “clean, dry and loose” mantra is in the offing.