Irish Times view on EU plastics recycling targets: a monumental challenge

Difficult to overstate the scale of behavioural change that is needed

A display of plastic at Nolan’s supermarket in Clontarf in April explaining about how the supermarket is tackling the problem of excessive plastics use. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

A display of plastic at Nolan’s supermarket in Clontarf in April explaining about how the supermarket is tackling the problem of excessive plastics use. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

How we produce and dispose of plastic is about to undergo radical overhaul due to a requirement to increase plastic packaging recycling by up to 80 per cent before 2030. Legally-binding EU targets come with two big demands; an end to single-use plastic and, where plastic is being used, that it is recyclable by then.

The chief executive of Repak packaging recycling company Séamus Clancy was frank at a briefing on the implications. It poses “a monumental challenge” to all of Irish society. “Everybody along the waste supply chain will have to play their part including government; producers of packaging, the consumer, waste recovery operators and Repak itself”.

In spite of a strong plastic recycling performance, 20 per cent of Irish plastics continue to end up in landfills or being incinerated. We have a persistent litter problem, particularly on coastlines and in estuaries located near major urban centres where plastic blights the landscape. Street litter currently goes straight to landfill. Add in inappropriate practices, such as carelessly throwing non-recyclable or dirty material into recycling bins, and scale of the challenge appears even greater.

At the same time, identifying what plastics are recyclable can be confusing and recycling infrastructure is not fit for purpose, let alone capable of delivering in the new scenario. There are no recycling facilities for soft plastics, such as cling film. The vast amount of plastic bottles should be recycled in the country they are produced and used, rather than exported.

Yet there are signs of change and these need to be built on in light of the new EU regime. Manufacturers, retailers and big supermarkets increasingly acknowledge the unacceptability of overuse of plastic. The waste collection sector has agreed what can go into recycling bins and has provided greater clarity for consumers. Shocked by the extent of plastics pollution, more people are trying their best to recycle plastic.

It is difficult, however, to overstate the scale of behavioural change that is needed.

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