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Plastics – Let’s Focus on the Big Picture

How we use and dispose of plastic waste is now an urgent environmental issue among governments and consumer groups. It is widely accepted that action is now required to address the large quantities of plastic being placed on markets worldwide.

However, to tackle the problem efficiently, we must examine the information and historical data available. Yes, we do need to reduce plastic use and change how we recycle it; but, a balanced view on plastics and the right information is also required.

Today, plastic packaging is universally portrayed as bad. Bad for the environment, bad for the consumer and bad for our oceans.  In fact, except for the latter, plastic is the most efficient co2 impact material. It has the greatest properties to protect human health, increases the use-by date of all fresh food products – therefore reducing food waste and is cost efficient. These virtues however, do not exonerate us from our obligation to protect our oceans where far too much plastic ends up.

Waste plastic is a worldwide problem requiring worldwide solutions. Therefore, in proposing solutions for the greater use, reuse and recycling of plastic as a resource, it is important that activity for one sector is not mistaken as a complete solution.
One such example is the Waste Reduction Bill. It is a well-intentioned bill, but reading it, one would be forgiven for thinking that Ireland has a poor track record for recycling. While there is always room for infrastructural improvement and investment, Ireland has achieved and surpassed every single recycling target set by the European Union since it was established in 1997. Ireland is now one of the leading recycling countries in the EU for packaging recycling.

This has been achieved through our members, recovery operators and with the help of the public who recycle their packaging from their homes. We need to acknowledge the achievement of Ireland Inc and recognise that from this position of relative success we can create a ‘can do’ approach which will accelerate our path to absolute success.

The Waste Reduction Bill proposes the introduction of a Deposit and Refund Scheme to Ireland. Today we recycle 70% of all plastic bottles and 86% of all glass; placing us amongst the top performers in Europe. Significant costs would be involved in establishing and operating a mandatory deposit scheme in Ireland, part of which would inevitably be passed on to the consumers.

In Germany, the set-up costs for a deposit and return system came to just short of €1 billion and the annual operating costs are estimated at €793 million. In Ireland we have estimated a minimum set up of €120m with an annual operating cost of €50m. These costs will ultimately be borne by retailers and consumers.

Studies undertaken in both Ireland and internationally have confirmed that a deposit scheme would have a very marginal impact on overall packaging recycling rates and that the additional costs would outweigh any benefits.

In fact, Ireland has a higher recycling rate than countries with a deposit return scheme – such as Norway – and the average recycling rate across European countries is roughly the same whether a country has a deposit return scheme or not.
So, what is the Waste Reduction Bill really trying to achieve? A solution to littering? Drinks containers represent circa 5.3% of total litter. A deposit scheme would have little impact on total litter – a conclusion supported by litter surveys undertaken in countries which have a deposit return scheme. The solution to littering lies in increased public information and awareness programmes; which target the anti-social behaviour; combined with increased enforcement of the Litter Act.

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten last year referred to the proposed introduction of a deposit return scheme as “financially reckless”. He compared the scheme to the highly controversial e-voting machines stating, “I will not create another e-voting machine fiasco.”
I believe there are far more pressing matters at hand. We should be placing our energy into solutions that solve our problems long term – like demanding the elimination of over packaging of materials, reduction in packaging, reuse of packaging, creation of a market for plastic recyclates in Europe.  Subsequent investment and the development of the required infrastructure in Ireland would mean that we would not have to ship the packaging waste generated to other countries.

Plastic is the biggest recycling challenge for Ireland and Europe. On the 16th January 2018 the European Commission set out a road map for member states whereby new targets were to be achieved by 2025 and 2030. A national strategy for Ireland is needed.

Repak is engaging with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that we focus on the practical, logical and factual evidence at hand that will ensure the best outcome for Ireland – both now and in the future.

What is required is a long term, generational resolution as opposed to a short term popular concept providing little true impact on the problem of plastic recovery and recycling. Let’s not mistake activity for solution.

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