Environment expert baffled about what can go in recycling bins

‘I’m an expert. I’m a well-informed consumer. But I’m confused’ at range of plastics

Technology expert Jonathan McCrea (left) with environmental scientist and climate change expert Dr Tara Shine and Repak chief executive Seamus Clancy (right) at a special environmental panel discussion to mark Repak’s 20th anniversary. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Environmental scientist and broadcaster Dr Tara Shine confesses to being confused about "what you can recycle and what you can't" when it comes to green bins in Ireland – and especially when it comes to a bewildering range of plastics encountered in the course of daily life.

She advises "world leaders, governments, and multi-lateral agencies on environmental policy and climate change", but she told a Repak event to mark its 20 years in existence: "I'm an expert. I'm a well-informed consumer. But I'm confused."

She cited seven kinds of plastics that arise in a range of products from soft drink bottles to cling film to disposable cups.

Greyhound Recycling, which has 120,000 customers in Dublin, includes provision for a €30 fine for contamination of Green Bin recyclables with general waste.


It said in July it had issued fines to some customers and warned their bins would no longer be collected if the contamination continued.

It said customers had been given plenty of time to educate themselves as to what material was allowed in a Green Bin and only bins that were consistently contaminated over a long period were selected for monitoring.

The solution, she suggested, had to be a simple, easily understood, consistent message from all in the recycling industry, she said – Repak is a not-for-profit recycling company helping businesses comply with waste regulations.

A different approach was needed with contaminated waste, she said. The amount of soiled nappies she saw recently in a Cork recycling facility was “absolutely shocking”.

In addition to consumers’ responsibilities, she said companies needed to design products and packaging in a world where there was now a global demand for “zero waste” by 2037.

Dentists advise plastic toothbrushes be replaced every month, she noted, yet they are going to persist in the environment for up to 10,000 years. “We need a new approach to sustainable consumption,” she added

She now has a “perfectly adequate”wooden toothbrush. She looked forward to the day when she could throw a compostable crisp packet into her brown bin.

A plastic bottle may be used and disposed of in 10 minutes, but almost every piece of plastic ever created still exists, Dr Shine said, and “more than 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year”.

Plastics could be used in the manufacture of swimwear, for example, and sold in a biodegradable bag made from cassava starch, she suggested.

Ireland had a reputation for high-quality food but she said she could not reconcile courgettes being sold in a black plastic tray and covered in clingfilm.

The best way to change human behaviour on waste was to make consumers care and by tapping into what impacts on the quality of their lives, she added.

People cared about particular things, such as health (particularly relating to their family); where they live, clean air, clean water and human dignity. So in her case, she liked to swim and was concerned about microplastics in the sea; likewise a cyclist is taken aback by roadside litter.

“Once they care, you have to inform them,” Dr Shine said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times