Irish consumers have become "way more engaged" on the need to reduce waste, to recycle more and to curb unnecessary plastic use, according to Repak chief executive Séamus Clancy.
A Repak-commissioned survey last year revealed 35 per cent of Irish consumers were very engaged on the need to recycle and act sustainably; a further 30 per cent had mediocre engagement.
“Those who are engaged are doing a super job,” he says. Repak’s role is to make recycling easy, and to provide clarity on what can be recycled. Telling that story in relation to plastics is extremely challenging, he adds especially as there is such a wide range of plastics in use.
A balance between modern lifestyles and real needs is essential. For many, plastic has become the enemy, he notes, but “a world without plastic could not exist”. The conversation needs to be about single use plastic (SUP) and ending indiscriminate use; and how we recycle and education, he says.
How we deal with plastic, recycle other materials and act sustainably is about to undergo rapid transformation
The “visibility factor” has led to a welcome change in attitudes. It prompted widespread abhorrence about plastic impacts on the marine environment, graphically highlighted by Blue Planet II television series. Clancy feels the closure of the Chinese market for low cost recycling of plastics has also concentrated minds. It has brought it back to our doorsteps, to Europe and to Ireland.
How we deal with plastic, recycle other materials and act sustainably is about to undergo rapid transformation. The EU’s SUP directive and Circular Economy Package including legislative changes to waste management is the driver they have to be transposed into Irish law by 2021.
Europe has taken the lead globally on tackling plastic. Repak welcomes this, as it’s about setting global standards, though it will place big demands on Ireland, and producers will inevitably have to contribute more.
Ireland is lucky in that it’s ahead of most countries in the way it measures waste and recycling performance in a robust way and in its recycling levels being achieved. That said, moving to 55 per cent recycled plastic and 75 per cent recycled paper by 2025 will be demanding, Clancy accepts.
The SUP directive focuses on 10 single-use plastic items commonly found on European beaches. It includes a ban on plastic items such as straws, cotton swabs, plates and cutlery, coffee stirrers and balloon holders. Beverage bottles – including plastic known as PET – will have to be collected separately at a rate of 77 per cent by 2025, have 25 per cent recyclable content, and caps must be tethered to the containers.
Member states have to significantly reduce the consumption of plastic food containers and beverage cups. Extended producer responsibility is also in the spotlight as existing systems will have to help fund clean-up of litter, Clancy says.
New extended producer responsibility systems will have to be set up for products including; tobacco products with filters, wet wipes, balloons and fishing gear. These will have to be supported by an immediately available market when none exists today, as use of virgin plastics is still the most economically favourable option.
That scenario is, however, about to end. SUP products will have to be marked to inform consumers of the appropriate waste management options for waste disposal. A system of “eco fee modulation” will come into play where plastic recycling costs will be lowest for items that are 100 per cent reusable, and penalties for materials that are not recyclable. Clancy regards this new regime as a game changer.
For the first time, “distant sellers”, such as online retailers and multinationals not from the jurisdiction, will be responsible for the packaging they place on the market.
Improvements have to be made
Europe, he says, has to quadruple its plastic recycling infrastructure by 2025. In Ireland’s case, speed of transition needs to be upped in response to obvious gaps.
Repak is already moving to ease in the adjustment required by businesses and government. It is spending €5 million to help incentivise capacity to recycle plastic in Europe. It has established an eco design working group to provide leadership in designing better products.
Repak is undertaking separate collection trials for plastics this year by deploying "Team Green Recycling Machines"
64 of its major producer members are delivering on a “plastic pledge” to take the actions required to meet the targets and measure outcomes. Its Team Green initiative is taking root with more than 3,500 individuals committed and will be built upon.
Its core message: “If everyone in Ireland recycled just one more piece of plastic every week, we could recycle 250 million more pieces of plastic every year.” That 55 per cent target by 2025 is very doable if that small but significant commitment is delivered on, he says.
Repak is undertaking separate collection trials for plastics this year by deploying “Team Green Recycling Machines”, but its reservations about introducing a nationwide deposit and return (DRS) scheme still stand, Clancy confirms.
A funding gap has to be faced up to and what it regards as a likely limited return given plastic bottles (and cans) are just one small part of the waste stream, where there is already good recycling levels.
Moreover, it will cost €120 million to set up a DRS and €40 to €50 million a year to operate. An economic cost benefit analysis would suggest it doesn’t make a lot of sense, Clancy says. It should be about “where to spend money to get the maximum result in a planned way”.
Standing back from the upheaval, Clancy says change needs to be informed by a new waste policy. The national landscape has to be clear. It’s no use switching by way of knee-jerk reaction in response to consumer demand, for instance embracing compostable coffee cups, when there is lack of infrastructure in place.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals inform Repak’s work, “and that’s genuine”, including a commitment to help address climate change.
The more recycling, the greater the climate return, especially when those difficult plastics are addressed; “for every tonne we can recycle it has an impact”, he says. Repak is currently endeavouring to measure exactly what that adds up to in terms of reduced carbon footprint.
The new measures on waste, packaging and especially plastics will contribute to Europe’s transition towards a circular economy, to reaching the sustainable development goals, and the EU’s climate commitments. The overarching aim is to support safer and more sustainable consumption and production patterns for plastics.
It will necessitate a big shift in consumer behaviour and place onerous responsibilities on producers. Repak intends to take a leading role. Such is the scale of change needed in Ireland, Clancy says, “we can’t wait; we are getting on with it” even if all the infrastructural and supporting policy elements are not yet in place.