Challenge of plastic waste tests experts

Consumers are still not getting the message about the need to cut down on plastic — but that’s partly because the message, like their recycling waste, is mixed.

A conference on the ills of single-use plastics heard the public is getting information that is confusing about what plastics are recyclable, overly simplistic on the benefits of bioplastics, and incorrect about the economics of recycling.

The conference was organised by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) which warned that Ireland was still only recycling about a third (36%) of plastic packaging waste, substantially less than the 50% demanded by the EU by 2025.

Some of the obstacles to meeting the target were aired, including inconsistency in green bin collections with some areas having collections weekly, others fortnightly, some getting 360-litre bins and some 240 litres.

Consistency in the content of bins is also an issue and even when people put clean recyclable items in, they might still be getting it wrong. “There are materials that are technically recyclable but we’re not able to market them so they should not be in the bin,” said Hugh Coughlan of the Eastern Midlands Regional Waste Management Office.

“We have to get an agreed list of recyclates. That would involve Repak, Voice, the waste industry, the department and the regional waste management offices. We need a collective approach.”

Mr Coughlan said enforcement was also an issue and local authorities needed to get tougher on people who did not properly segregate their waste.

“We need to accelerate the stick approach,” he said. “The regional offices have produced a template for bylaws for separation of household and commercial waste. Next year, every single local authority in the country will have those bylaws and they’ll be consistent across the country. We need to go out and enforce that.”

But the conference also heard that the best solution was not to create single-use plastic at all. “Virgin plastics can be bought cheaper than recycling. The economics do not stack up and that is something I don’t think the public realises,” said Seamus Clancy of Repak.

Speakers also heard some of the new bioplastics being hailed as more environmentally friendly often posed difficulties because they were composites, mixing in traditional plastics so that they offered adequate protection for food items.

“We need to prevent plastic waste occurring at all,” said Laura Burke, EPA director general.

“We also need to rethink how we regard and manage plastics, both as a society and an economy.

“Ireland led in Europe by introducing a plastic bag levy which had an immediate effect on behaviour and as an anti-littering initiative. We again need to lead the way in developing innovative solutions for reducing the problems associated with waste plastics in the environment.”

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