In a radical overhaul of waste management in Ireland, all plastic packaging waste including soft plastics can now be placed in household recycling bins.
In addition, a significant amount of plastics will be recycled in the country for the first time, reducing exports of large volumes for processing overseas and the burning of plastic.
From this week, all permitted waste collection companies are required to take and sort soft plastic packaging waste, provided it is “clean, dry and loose”.
Soft plastics can be scrunched in the hand, and include crisp bags, sweet wrappers, bread wrappers and various types of plastic film.
The move coincides with a major scaling-up of plastic recycling capacity in the country through enhanced sorting and the presence of two plastics recycling facilities backed by a €10 million investment by the Repak recycling company – one in Limerick and the other in Portlaoise – which will process one billion plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles a year.
With more than 320,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste produced in Ireland in 2020, only 94,000 tonnes of mostly hard plastic was recycled. Poor infrastructure meant large volumes had to be exported though market opportunities are limited, especially in Europe.
The new arrangements, which will place fresh requirements on householders, businesses, retailers and waste operators, come as a result of EU requirements, notably moves to put in place a “circular economy” and curb plastic pollution.
These are being reinforced by demanding new recycling targets up to 2030.
Minister of State with special responsibility for the Circular Economy Ossian Smyth said: "This is a significant and very positive development in Irish recycling and waste management. Soft plastics have been added to the household recycling list due to advancements in technology at Irish recycling facilities."
It was also welcome given the new EU targets, he added.
Contamination and infrastructure
“Currently in Ireland, we recycle less than a third of all plastic packaging waste. We have committed to increasing our plastic packaging recycling figure to 50 per cent by 2025 and 55 per cent by 2030. Today’s announcement is a significant step towards achieving these targets.”
Because of high levels of contamination and poor recycling infrastructure, placing soft plastics in mixed dry recyclable bins was prohibited in 2017, but Repak chief executive Séamus Clancy said infrastructure improvements since will result in “more and better” recycling.
“Collecting soft – and de facto all plastics – in the mixed dry recyclable bin is a big step in separating available recyclable plastics that are currently being lost to energy recovery. Soft plastics alone account for circa 160,000 tonnes.”
Mr Clancy said “attainment of plastic targets is not achievable without soft plastics being accepted in both household and commercial mixed dry recyclable bins”. The move would also end confusion for householders, he predicted.
To achieve circular economy targets for plastics, Ireland will have to double recycling to 180,000 tonnes. “We have no option but to take plastics from energy recovery, starting with the householder or businesses in separating all clean, dry and loose plastics into the recycling bin,” Mr Clancy said.
While it amounted to “a step change for householders and businesses”, it was a positive development in how Ireland manages and takes responsibility for its waste. He underlined, however, the need for “requisite legislative support” and incentivised payments for businesses to recycle more.
A Repak “eco modulation” policy, whereby businesses are charged more for difficult-to-recycle plastics is already making progress and forcing manufacturers to consider product design changes, Mr Clancy pointed out.
Recyclable plastic increasingly is being sent to specialised, “polymer-specific” recycling facilities. If it cannot currently be recycled, it will be sent as solid recovered fuel (SRF) to replace fossil fuels at cement kilns.
Irish Waste Management Association spokesman Conor Walsh said plastic recycling is complex as it involves many different polymers. "Our members are committed to increasing recycling rates in Ireland and have installed optical sorting equipment that can identify different polymers based on reflection and refraction of a beam of light and this has increased our ability to recycle more plastics," he said.
The Limerick plant which will process 30,000 tonnes annually is at an advanced stage of development, while the €20 million Portlaoise plant being developed by Panda, which will process 25,000 tonnes, has secured planning permission. Two other plastic-recycling facilities are at development stage. A further four operators have invested significantly in materials-recycling facility upgrades.
For now, SRF and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) produced from various types of waste such as municipal solid waste, industrial waste or commercial waste and used in waste to energy plants ie incinerators are dominant mode of plastics recovery (accounting for 67 per cent of all plastics, or over 200,000 tonnes). “This will continue as there remains a current shortage of outlets in the EU and beyond,” Mr Clancy said.
Regardless of whether the materials recovery facilities have all the technology” to manage re-introduced soft plastics in the mixed dry recycable bin, the SRF route remains the less desirable but, nonetheless, is a practical safety net for the refuse operators who are not yet fully equipped to respond to the new challenge, he said.
Recovery will always have an important role in insuring full traceability of the end destinations of waste plastic packaging that is difficult to recycle, he underlined.
Ireland is only one of three EU states with “a gold standard” in analysing its waste streams and fully accounting for all forms of waste including recovery and recycling, he noted.
Separately the EU’s single use plastics directive is forcing major changes on the waste sector, which has included banning the sale and use of the most commonly littered plastic items.
Pauline McDonogh, spokeswoman for MyWaste – Ireland's website for guidance on managing waste –said the addition of soft plastic to the Irish household recycling bin makes waste segregation much more straight forward for the householder.
“Householders can now place all plastic packaging waste, including soft plastic, into the recycling bin once it is clean, dry and loose,” she added, while advancement in the technology that segregates different material types in recycling facilities was already in place.