The Irish Times view on plastics recycling: rhetoric v reality

Close to a third of plastic exported from the EU, the UK, Switzerland and Norway to southeast Asia for recycling is not recycled at all

Close to a third of plastic exported from the EU, the UK, Switzerland and Norway to southeast Asia for recycling is not recycled at all, according to Irish researchers. Photograph: Alastair Miller/Bloomberg News

Close to a third of plastic exported from the EU, the UK, Switzerland and Norway to southeast Asia for recycling is not recycled at all, according to Irish researchers. Photograph: Alastair Miller/Bloomberg News

 

Europe may be congratulating itself for embracing sustainability but its appalling performance on disposal of plastics supposedly for recycling beyond its borders has been exposed. Close to a third of plastic exported from the EU, the UK, Switzerland and Norway to southeast Asia for recycling is not recycled at all, according to Irish researchers.

Europe may have world-leading waste management infrastructure, yet much of its plastic for recycling is transported thousands of kilometres to countries with poor waste management practices. The consequences of China’s decision in 2017 to close its doors to most plastics is all too evident.

A large share of the material is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched local waste management systems, and is contributing to ocean littering, the researchers at NUI Galway and the University of Limerick conclude. They modelled the fate of the most common plastic, polyethylene. Some of it is being converted into recycled resins, but too much is going to landfill, being incinerated or becoming ocean debris.

In the worst-case scenario up to 180,558 tonnes ended up in the ocean – 7 per cent of all exported polyethylene in 2017. A significant quantity is likely to have originated in Ireland. The authors acknowledge Ireland engages in “inter-trade” within Europe, which means significant recycling of plastics is done closer to home, and it must be acknowledged a large facility to recycle plastic in Ireland is planned.

Within Ireland concern about the impact of plastics has never been greater. Repak reported this week that businesses supporting its plastics pledge reduced their plastic usage by 14.8 per cent on average and used more than 21,000 tonnes of recycled plastics in the production of their packaging and raw materials in 2019.

Yet each person in Ireland generates 61 kg of plastic packaging waste per year, and too much of that ends up in the ocean. Ultimately, European countries including their municipalities and waste management companies need to be held accountable for the final fate of “recycled” waste.

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