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‘Plastic will be a very good news story for us’

With waste company Panda set to open a plastic recycling facility, Des Crinion, manager of its recycling division, talks about the firm’s efforts to reduce waste and how the public can help

Plastic bottles currently have a good market, while tops, tubs and trays are a little more difficult to trade. Photograph: iStock

Plastic bottles currently have a good market, while tops, tubs and trays are a little more difficult to trade. Photograph: iStock

 

One of the biggest developments in the Irish waste-processing industry is set to happen next year when large volumes of plastic film generated in Ireland will be recycled within the country rather than being exported abroad or being disposed of in a non-sustainable manner.

The breakthrough is being made possible by Panda waste processing company, which is to develop a large facility to recycle plastic into plastic pellets at Millennium Park, Ballycoolin, in north Dublin, which can then be used in a wide variety of products.

“Plastic will be a very good news story for us ,” predicts Des Crinion, managing director of Panda Recycling Division.

They have ordered the plant needed in Italy, which will be in place in the first quarter of 2020 and producing plastic pellets from plastic film, such as shrink wrap around pallets collected from Irish companies. “That’s bringing the recycling back and actually doing it here in Ireland,” he explains.

This is hugely challenging because there is a huge variety of plastics involved, not to mention different colours. Once that is in place, they will process plastic films from domestic households, which is bit more challenging as it invariably comes with a higher degree of contamination.

The problem in Ireland is that there is little technical knowledge in plastics, and few companies involved in manufacturing plastic products, Crinion explains. Plastic bottles currently have a good market, while tops, tubs and trays are a little more difficult to trade. Films are the big problem in recycling terms, so they intend to start with the easy ones and then move to the more difficult ones.

Another significant new option will be the ability to soon use crushed rubble and concrete in mine remediation projects rather than sending it to landfill, he confirms.

Expansion and diversification

Panda started out with just three trucks in 1990. It was set up by Eamon Waters, adjoining his family’s filling station based at Beauparc (which later became the name of the umbrella utility company), near Slane, Co Meath.

The “pay-to-collect” model applied but it quickly become clear that cost of disposal was a critical factor and the imperative should be to process waste to add value. As Crinion recalls, it was very easy to be a “hump-and-dump” operation, but a combination of financial necessity and foresight meant the company soon began to regard waste as a resource.

“We are going to recycle as much as we can, we are going to make use of it, we are going to make a product out of everything we collect, we are going to dispose of as little as possible” in effect became the company mantra. He acknowledges that adding value emerged out of financial necessity, rather than a tree-hugging exercise.

Crinion joined the company in 2005, when it was continuing its diversification – and big consolidation in Ireland and abroad was to follow. Shortly afterwards, it became the first waste company in the Republic to install an automated line to process skip waste.

Where your waste goes

Panda is now the largest producer of solid recovered fuel (SRF), a clean, dry blend of fragments of plastics, paper, cardboard and textiles which arise once recycling of waste materials through mechanical and biological treatment has been completed. It is used to generate the high temperature needed in cement manufacturing kilns – and is a major replacement of coal.

It still processes skip waste but within a wide range of recycling activities. It produces timber for incorporation into medium-density fibreboard (MDF), and metals for reuse, while all its black bin waste from 228,000 households and more than 20,000 businesses at 30,000 sites is used to generate energy – going to Irish waste-to-energy plants (Indaver in Co Meath and Covanta in Dublin) with the remainder shipped (3,000 tonnes a week) to similar plants on the continent.

Dry, mixed recyclables, ie the contents of green bins, are mainly processed at its plant in Ballymount, Dublin; some 100,000 tonnes a year which is made into paper, plastic film, four different plastic bottles (including PET), pots, tubs, trays, and cans (aluminium and steel), which are traded all over the world. Aluminium is recyclable (but not foil or foil-backed tablets), Crinion confirms, so aluminium trays can be put in the green bin if washed properly – they are removed from waste streams using magnets.

Food waste (from brown bins) goes to its Acorn composting facility in Littleton, Co Tipperary; anaerobic digesters (ADs) in the North, and the Energia AD plant in Huntstown, Co Dublin, to generate electricity.

Keep it clean, loose and dry is the simple message – no food waste

Commercial customers provide Panda with “source-segregated material”, namely cardboard and plastic baled at their back doors. The former gets shipped to a paper mill. Panda also pays for every unsold newspaper and magazine, which also ensures sustainable use of the paper.

Messaging

Speaking as a director of the Irish Waste Management Association, the trade association for waste management companies in Ireland, Crinion believes the messaging about recycling from the industry (including Panda), Repak and the Department of the Environment is not strong enough.

Essentially, this is about underlining the need to keep contamination levels down in green bins in particular – “Keep it clean, loose and dry is the simple message – no food waste”. The hardline messaging of the Road Safety Authority may be the way to go, he adds.

Contamination can come in the form of garden waste in summer; ashes in winter, clothes, textiles, waste electronic goods, computers, irons and toasters, when they can easily be got rid of for a nominal fee or no fee through producer schemes or local authority civic amenity sites.

Likewise, it is amazing how much quality recyclates such as bottles and cans are thrown into black bins.

The clarity of message can achieve results. Panda sent letters to 76 per cent of its customers in the Fingal County Council area at one point because of contamination levels. In less than a year, it was down to 6 per cent being sent letters – current practice is that on the sixth offence a cost penalty is imposed.

Export markets

The international waste sector has undergone huge changes in recent years, but in Ireland’s case, dependency on exports remains the same though the number of markets has declined, Crinion says.

China no longer accepts plastic, and very little paper. Crinion believes there are opportunities in Europe and even Ireland for plastic though we will never have the critical mass to build a paper mill in Ireland. As a company, it wants to stay within Europe as much as possible.

In less than a year, however, Ireland has shifted from exporting 100 per cent of paper, which was poor grade, to China, to making it high-grade quality and recycling it in Europe and the UK.

The growth path

The merger of Panda and Greenstar in 2011 was the gamechanger as it doubled the utility’s size overnight – it now employs 2,500 people. Panda has gone through a period of remarkable growth on the island of Ireland and in Britain in recent years. In less than three years, it has broken into the top five recycling companies in the UK.

This is separate to significant expansion into mainland Europe, notably the acquisition of Renes Recycling in Rotterdam and building an AD nearby. It specialises in commercial refuse, plastic and paper recycling, security shredding, data destruction, archive storage and selling new packing. The paper and plastic side of the business handles more than 60,000 tonnes of material each year. It also services the largest fruit and vegetable distribution park in Europe.

This year, Panda supported a big effort to reduce waste thrown away and abandoned tents at the Electric Picnic festival. It led to a 30 per cent reduction in rubbish and much fewer tents tarnishing the landscape. Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times
This year, Panda supported a big effort to reduce waste thrown away and abandoned tents at the Electric Picnic festival. It led to a 30 per cent reduction in rubbish and much fewer tents tarnishing the landscape. Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times

Positioning itself as one of Ireland’s leading suppliers of renewable energy, Panda Power provides homes and businesses with energy derived from 100 per cent renewable resources. In 2017, Beauparc further enhanced its position in green energy with the acquisition of Bioverda. Operating at more than 20 landfill sites across Ireland, it generates electricity through the extraction of methane gas.

That same year, it continued its strategic expansion into the UK market with its acquisition of WSR Recycling. Based in north-west England, it is a leading waste management, recycling and resource recovery business.

Last year, 2018, saw the acquisition of Scotwaste, Scotland’s leading integrated skip hire and waste-management business, and Leeds-based waste management business, AWM.

Regulatory regime

All this consolidation is in tandem with the EU’s move towards a circular economy, with significantly increased targets for recycling and reuse of materials – recently confirmed by the announcement of a major overhaul of the waste sector by Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton.

Demanding targets under various directives and the increased likelihood of environmental penalties for polluting behaviours by way of levies, has dramatically changed the waste scenario. In addition, the climate impact of plastics, and the need to address the failures to recycle/reuse sufficiently has changed the agenda.

The directives will be demanding on both industry and customers/consumers, Crinion says, because how they are interpreted throughout Europe will become more streamlined.

We need more sustainable plastic on the market, that is easily recyclable and easily recognised

Essentially, it’s down to how recycling is measured, which will be more demanding on some countries such as Germany and Wales. Ireland has a more rigorous process, though in other respects it will have to improve recycling performance, he says.

He accepts there has been a kickback against plastic, and suggests there is a need for a happy medium; how it’s received and handled is the issue. Over-long shelf life on food products using difficult plastics illustrates his point – where rashers, for instance, may have a shelf-life of 27 days. In short, “we need more sustainable plastic on the market, that is easily recyclable and easily recognised”.

There has been a shift to compostable packaging but he is not convinced by that trend as “it’s still single-use” and there is wide variation on quality and compostability.

DRS and the litter issue

Another proposal that the industry has strongly questioned in the Irish context is the introduction of a deposit-and-return scheme (DRS) for beverage containers. A review is currently evaluating how to deliver a 90 per cent collection target for single-use plastic bottles in Ireland, including the possibility of introducing a DRS, and how this might operate in an Irish context.

At the risk of being perceived “protectionist towards our industry”, Crinion points to the high costs involved when every house has a DRS – “will you please use it. It’s called the recycling bin.” He does accept the litter issue is difficult to solve – the bottles and cups being thrown out of vehicle windows and contaminating the countryside and urban spaces.

He would prefer a balance of stopping litter and involving sports clubs, schools and tidy towns committees, and paying them for the bottles they collect – up to 25 cents per item is being considered for a potential DRS.

A DRS has large set-up costs, including spending €30,000 per machine located in every supermarket, a truck to collect items and huge administration.

If the money was spent differently, on litter education and supporting local communities, Crinion believes it might have a better outcome.

Sometimes, it has taken a while for consumers/customers to adopt more sustainable practices, to go down the recycling route and to reduce contamination, but he believes there are much-improved attitudes among the public.

This year, Panda supported a big effort to reduce waste thrown away and abandoned tents at the Electric Picnic festival. It led to a 30 per cent reduction in rubbish and much fewer tents tarnishing the landscape.

The latter was never supposed to be a single-use item, Crinion points out, before outlining the complexities of what might be a low-carbon, recyclable tent using good laminated plastic and cardboard. In spite of obvious practical difficulties and the sea-change needed to become genuinely sustainable, he believes it’s all doable. To support his case, he highlights the extent to which people have gotten into the habit of bring their keep cups to coffee outlets.

That hard question of genuine sustainability is equally applied to Panda, he confirms: from running and repurposing its own truck fleet, while increasingly using EVs where possible. It was that motivation that led to Panda Power, which supplies 65,000 customers with renewable gas and electricity, and always seeking to optimise the technology around its green bins.

Added to that, Crinion wants to layer in convenience. Panda, as a utilities provider, would like to become the one point of contact for customers in the provision of gas, electricity and waste services.