Tackling food waste in Ireland has potential for climate dividend

State still generating highest volume of waste per person in EU, notes report for Oireachtas

One-third of all municipal waste is food, according to the report. File photograph: Getty

One-third of all municipal waste is food, according to the report. File photograph: Getty


If Ireland is to achieve demanding climate targets over the next decade it must pursue much more ambitious waste reduction and recycling as the country continues to generate the highest volume of waste per capita in the EU, according to a report for the Oireachtas committee on environment and climate action.

At 600kg per person, Ireland generates 22 per cent more waste per head annually than the EU average, the report says. “One-third of all municipal waste is food, with this generating the equivalent carbon emissions of one million cars. Recycling has also stagnated over the past decade, while only one-third of plastics currently being put on the market are recyclable,” it finds.

It recommends halving food waste within five years; halving use of extracted raw material and residual waste by 2030, ensuring no plastics go to municipal incineration by 2030, and doubling the size of the reuse sector by 2025. Food waste accounts for as much as 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The report calls for soft plastics to be accepted in green bins from 2022 and a ban on “best before” and “sell by” labels on food.

The draft circular economy strategy was drawn up by Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton, a former minister for environment and climate action.

“Raising our ambitions to set higher climate action targets will require roadmaps in all sectors that rethink how we make and use products from raw materials to final product; from a product’s cradle to its grave,” he said.

Other “very practical early steps”the report recommends include:

– Establish “producer responsibility” for waste from mattresses, paints and textiles;

– Set a requirement that 20 per cent of floor space in larger supermarkets before the sale of loose products purchased by people bringing reusable containers;

– Establish green procurement in all public purchasing and investment within two years;

– Build a regional network of “rediscovery centres”.

The coronavirus crisis has increased awareness of risks associated with global supply chains, the strategy says. “Now is the time to reinforce the impetus created by the climate crisis to deliver more sustainable supply chains. Switching from carbon sources of energy will only get us about half the way to the 2050 net-zero [emissions ]target.”

The current “take, make, use, discard” approach treats as costless the adverse environmental impacts along that supply chain, it finds.

“It is estimated that the raw material resources which we use in a year is already 50 per cent more than nature can replenish in a year, and this will rise to a factor of three by 2050 on present trends. This is simply not sustainable.”

The circular economy model breaks the link between economic growth and environmental degradation, said Mr Bruton. “It seeks to rethink supply chains in their entirety on this basis.”

The problem stemmed from failure to put a price on environmental damage. “However, it is not easy to design the sort of market tools which would be needed to fix the market failure along all the different supply chains,” he accepted.

A new hierarchy such as “reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle” was a useful starting point but cost constraints arise in each of the rungs of such a hierarchy ladder. “There is a need to develop environmental impact methodologies that can help compare the true costs and provide greater accuracy in the choice of policy tools,” said Mr Bruton.