Upheaval in Irish waste industry places new demands on consumers

But there is a new willingness among to act more sustainably

The Irish waste sector is facing unprecedented challenges as new forms of recycling have to be embraced, and old reliable ways of disposing waste are ending, including the easy option of sending it abroad.

Addressing the issue of vast quantities of plastics being manufactured and used by Irish businesses (especially in retailing) and by consumers, will have to be at the heart of that change – as so much of it is dumped after a single use, and little is recycled.

The new scenario also asks questions of the State; how does it ensure adequate recycling infrastructure is in place, and educate consumers sufficiently to change behaviours?

The abrupt closure of the Chinese market for recyclates and the onerous demands of the EU’s new Plastics Strategy is forcing an urgent re-direction.

Turmoil in recycling globally and evidence of plastic pollution led the European Commission to conclude "the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded fails to capture the economic benefits of a more 'circular' approach and harms the environment".

It intends to modernise the plastics economy in Europe by 2030 when all plastic has to be recyclable. How Ireland responds to these requirements must form the cornerstone of future waste policy and be the basis for a "plastic strategy for Ireland", according to Repak recycling company.

New demands on Irish consumers and generators of waste will be considerable on top of the inevitability of increased charges – configuring the operating model of the waste sector may be necessary.

There is, however, a new willingness among consumers and businesses, especially major supermarket groups, to act more sustainably. The toll plastic pollution is taking on our oceans and impact of mircobeads, infecting water and the human foodchain, has had a transformative effect.

Supermarket groups have committed to reducing plastic use and increasing recyclable packaging ahead of EU targets in most instances.

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten has noted "the majority of householders have persistently shown a willingness to recycle and are extremely environment aware, but many are confused about what is suitable for their domestic recycling bin".

New approach

An initiative to “dislodge any remaining confusion about what goes in our recycling bins” and supports for local communities “to do their part in meeting our national recycling responsibilities” is indicative of new collaboration on waste, according to co-ordinator VOICE environmental group Mindy O’Brien.

An “ambassadors’ programme”; a grant scheme, and hundreds of workshops are part of the campaign to re-engage the public in recycling. It’s run by VOICE with Repak funding and support from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

“The unique aspect of the Recycling Ambassador Programme is that an environmental campaigning charity is able to bring questions and concerns from the environmental sector and the public straight back to a powerful collaborative group, which includes representatives from the Government and industry,” says O’Brien.

The “recycling list” gives people one simple and clear message about recycling. No government has worked with an environmental NGO involving other stakeholders in this way, she says; “to listen to the direct feedback from the public and to enable face to face education engagement about recycling. It signals a new approach”.

Ambassador programme manager Suzie Cahn underlines its significance: "Our ambassadors are getting to talk to people in local groups and work places, these people are giving us a very real insight into the struggles and barriers faced in households since recycling came online in Ireland. A lot of recycling information to date has confused the man on the street. Now people are saying to us, 'Phew, finally I can understand what should go in my bin'."

"The public are becoming more and more environmentally conscious and we hope the list will make recycling easier for people, reducing contamination in the recycling bin, which can be as high as 40 per cent in some areas of Dublin, explains Repak CEO Seamus Clancy.


The shape of the response to the plastic crisis will largely hinge on the fate of the Green Party Waste Reduction Bill before the Oireachtas committee on communications, climate action and environment.

It proposes a deposit refund scheme (DRS) for drinks containers and a ban on single-use plastic and non-compostable coffee cups. A DRS could undermine existing “producer responsibility schemes” if not properly configured. Legislation banning microbeads is being drawn up separately.

The Minister has also commissioned a study on the effects of applying levies on single use plastics including a so-called latte levy.

A more coherent, wide-ranging response is overdue that closes the loop on how plastics are created, used, disposed of and recycled and backed by the correct economic instruments to affect behavioural change, says O’Brien of VOICE.

“A simple stroll across a beach or street reveals that our current system is not working. Plastic bottles, aluminium cans, disposable coffee cups and other extraneous plastic waste foul our beautiful country and destroy the marine environment,” she adds.

In spite of Repak, retail sector and Government reservations, she supports a DRS along the lines of the one for glass bottles which was popular and effective in the past. She believes it will ensure higher recycling rates, cut littering, save money on clean-ups, create green jobs and deliver higher quality recyclates.

While a “simple ban” on the sale or free distribution of non-compostable materials could see Ireland follow successful pioneer initiatives in other countries, it may encounter difficulties under the EU Packaging Directive, she notes, though it would be in tune with plastic and circular economy strategies.

A levy at point of sale on plastic drinks bottles, plastic food containers and disposable coffee cups when sold with the beverage would be better. “This makes the levy visible and allows consumers to make the choice of bringing their own containers or pressure retailers to offer compostable containers. [It]would make consumers think about the packaging and single-use items they use and hopefully encourage them to make choices that would reduce the use of such items.”

Food waste

A big shift in commitment to reducing the estimated 1 million tonnes of food going to waste every year in Ireland is already in train. Irish food retailing is a hyper-competitive sector, yet most major supermarkets have committed to a charter to halving per capita food waste by 2030.

Retailers are also supporting the EPA’s consumer-focused, Stop Food Waste campaign. At the signing of the charter EPA director general Laura Burke stressed that “to become sustainable we need to change the way that we act. Working together to reduce food waste demonstrates a willingness to embrace this change”.

“The EPA provides leadership by identifying new and innovative practices that contribute to waste prevention and resource efficiency. Many of these initiatives are promoted to homeowners, businesses and other sectors through the National Waste Prevention Programme,” she added.

It is expected to build on the success of other collaborative projects led by the EPA such as the Farm Hazardous Waste Collection Campaign and the Smart Farming initiatives.

Much of the work the EPA does is now aimed at engaging the public in protecting and improving the environment, and providing information to enable people keep up-to-date with environmental trends and developments. That is re-inforced by educational projects. In 2017, it launched “The Story of Your Stuff” competition, and challenged young entrants to illustrate the lifecycle of an everyday object – where it came from, how it’s used and where it will end up.

Using mobile-enabled technology to keep the public informed, as reflected in how its bathing water website beaches.ie is deployed, and providing a reporting platform are important parts of the relationship. A total of 4,810 complaints were recorded via its national environmental complaints line and its “See It Say It” app in 2017; 85 per cent of which related to waste.

Illegal dumping

Similarly communication channels in countering fly-tipping have become more effective, helped by growing public outrage at indiscriminate dumping, especially in remote areas.

Greater community effort and better co-ordination by local authorities and State agencies, has translated into more effective waste action that is being scaled up in 2018, backed by the best in tracking technology.

Momentum is building too to tackle the global plastic epidemic that is Ireland's most acute waste problem, according to environment research fellow Joseph Curtin of UCC.

In spite of other failings on environment and climate change, it’s an area “where Ireland has a progressive track record”, having introduced the plastic bag levy, now adopted in many countries.

The task may seem daunting given the scale of change needed but he believes Ireland can be a leader in international efforts to end “the myth of free plastic” that’s driving the epidemic. It means becoming a testing ground for new policies and retailing approaches including the introduction of plastic-free supermarket aisles, enhanced retailer responsibility schemes and separate charges for items that are the worst offenders “so that their true cost is clear and not hidden in higher prices”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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