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Recycling in the pandemic

New policy aims to shift focus from waste disposal to preserving resources

The Covid-19 pandemic may have had some benefits for the environment – less flying and driving to name a couple. But after years of effort to eradicate their use, single use plastics are everywhere – whether it’s takeaway containers or gloves, and never mind the yards of packaging needed to ship our online orders.

So, have people stepped up to the (paper) plate and been recycling more during the pandemic? Des Crinion is managing director of Irish Packaging Recycling, an arm of the Panda group. He says that, while the amount of domestic waste has gone up dramatically, there has been no discernible change in the quality of what is recycled.

“A lot more people are working from home, obviously eating more at home. The quality is much the same but the quantity of both waste and recycling has gone up. The commercial waste and recycling has reduced hugely though, so overall waste is down,” Crinion explains.

But we could be a lot better at recycling here in Ireland; Crinion says that contamination of recycling waste is still a common occurrence, while perfectly good recyclables are often found in general waste.


But recycling, even when done properly, should only be the last resort, says Stephen Prendiville, head of sustainability at EY Ireland. He explains that there has been a major shift in thinking, with the Government keen to clamp down on our “consume and dispose” system and move towards a circular system, with the concepts of “reduce, repair, reuse and repurpose” at the heart of it.

Published last autumn, the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy is Ireland’s new roadmap for waste planning and management, which aims to shift the focus from waste disposal to the preservation of resources. The plan is ambitious, admits Prendiville. “It will require a full rethink on the value chain and, to a certain degree, our economic model and the nature of consumerism. The idea is that consumers need to reduce the amount of ‘new stuff’ or ‘virgin materials’ that they consume.

“This will require the consumer to be made more aware of the degree to which their desire for a product or service is supporting recycling versus new product development.”


But in order for virgin material to be unnecessary completely, Prendiville says we need systems for getting that material back to the producers in a looped (or circular) manner.

“Once the consumer has determined to consume, the next idea would be for them to not have to purchase that same product again. Instead the economic incentives should be stacked to repair and/or repurpose the use of a product. This is a critical mindset shift. Rather than throwing away the broken toaster and buying a new one – repair it.”

And rather than dumping or even recycling something it should be repurposed, if possible, for another use. “Repurposing and repair are essential tenets of a circular economy. If we apply this to everything – clothes, cars, food, amenities, etc – the impact could be profound,” he says.

All of the above is no mean feat, Prendiville admits. “It will challenge governments and society in a far more significant manner than tackling single use plastics, for example. But the rewards are expected to be significant – with a new and more resilient economic model that values ingenuity in minimising the footprint of our economy and society.”

So how can we encourage people to reduce and reuse before they recycle? People will need real incentives, says Prendiville. “While the economic price of consuming new versus recycled/reused/repaired can be tipped in the favour of the latter through taxes, charges, etc, people will need a strong incentive to not rely on the recycling solution as the first port of call,” he admits.

“While reduce and reuse will save you money, this may not offer a strong enough behavioural nudge.” Incentivisation schemes may help; for example, every household could be given a baseline waste and recycling allowance level, suggests Prendiville. “Exceeding either the waste or recycling allowance would trigger charges – but coming in lower than the target could also result in a tax rebate or ‘prize’ returned to the household.” Manufacturers and producers will need a similar incentive structure, he adds.

One thing is for sure, says Prendiville: “We need to make people much better at recycling and in general much less inclined to generate waste of any kind, be it recyclable or not.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times