Eliminating plastic waste at source should be prioritised over recycling

Eliminating plastic waste at source should be prioritised over recycling
Alicia O'Sullivan, Ireland's Youth Ambassador for the Oceans speaking at the our Our Ocean Wealth Summit 'Shared Voices from Small Island Nations'. More than 30 small island nations attended the Summit in City Hall Cork to discuss the health of the oceans. Picture Clare Keogh

No way is it enough to focus on recycling the plastic we produce. We have got to produce less plastic, writes Victoria White

IF I HEAR the Repak advertisement telling me again to recycle one more piece of plastic every week I will throw up.

I won’t find the plastic credit card I eat every week in the resultant mess, however. The plastic I eat is dispersed through my entire body. or so the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said yesterday.

Plastic, plastic everywhere and the industry-funded Repak is still telling us to put one more plastic milk bottle in our green bins every week and we could save the world.

It is pathetic.

It’s worse than pathetic, actually, because this is exactly the sort of tokenistic message against which the WWF warns in yesterday’s report.

We should address plastic pollution, they say, by addressing production, consumption, waste management and recycling in a single policy and “refrain from individual, fragmented or symbolic policy actions”. Repak’s Team Green campaign is one such “symbolic policy action”, with its special “ambassadors”, including celebrities like Paul McGrath, Roz Purcell and Annalise Murphy.

The campaign encourages us “to look after our planet and make sure our kids can have something special to look forward to”. Something special, alright.

Catastrophic climate change and more plastic than fish in the sea.

As Alicia O’Sullivan, a fifth-year student from Skibbereen Community School, said this week at the Our Ocean Wealth Summit in Cork, “We are scared that we will not have what you had.” These are the words of our Youth Ambassador for the Oceans, not our Ambassadors for One More Milk Bottle in the Green Bin.

In expressing her disquiet at the new RTP plastics factory planned for Skib, Alicia is doing no more than joining the dots on plastic waste prevention.

No way is it enough to focus on recycling the plastic we produce. We have got to produce less plastic.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at Our Ocean Wealth Summit 'Shared Voices from Small Island Nations'. More than 30 small island nations attended the Summit in City Hall Cork to discuss the health of the oceans. Picture Clare Keogh
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at Our Ocean Wealth Summit 'Shared Voices from Small Island Nations'. More than 30 small island nations attended the Summit in City Hall Cork to discuss the health of the oceans. Picture Clare Keogh

This is a radical agenda but it is a matter of such urgency that it requires, according to WWF, a legally binding international treaty like the Montreal Protocol which successfully tackled the hole in the ozone layer.

This is the message you are not hearing on the radio because it requires a step-change in how we produce and consume.

Repak can be as wishy-washy as it is because the new EU Directive on plastics which will require Ireland to double its plastic recycling to 55% by 2030 is itself too weak.

The reason for this is evident in the opening lines of the EU’s Directive which stresses the importance of the plastics industry to the EU economy. It goes on to underline the economic opportunities in recycling and technological innovation which reduce plastic waste.

These opportunities have their place.

It is an important goal that all plastic packaging should be recyclable by 2030.

I wish our government would act sooner and insist on placing a warning on non-recyclable plastic packaging which might deter some consumers and incentivise the production of reusable and recyclable containers.

How is it legal in 2019 to package food in a container made of three different types of plastic, some recyclable, some not? A Team Green Ambassador would need a magnifying glass and a degree in science to work out which bit goes in the green bin and which doesn’t.

The EU Directive will require us to recycle a large percentage of our plastic bottles and we can only hope this will push the Government to put into law the Waste Reduction Bill, allowing for deposit and refund schemes on bottles and cans, which has been languishing on their dustiest shelf for a couple of years. Repak has strenuously fought this legislation, which will place further costs on producers.

They say it won’t work but the EU states clearly that “deposits can contribute to achieving very high levels of recycling.” Recycling shouldn’t be our first response, however. Our first response should be to eliminate plastic waste at source.

Eliminating plastic waste at source should be prioritised over recycling

The Waste Reduction Bill bans single use plastic cutlery which is a bit better than following Repak’s advice to refuse it “if you don’t need it.” You might “need” a plastic stent. You can’t “need” a plastic fork.

Nor can you “need” plastic-coated coffee cups which we hardly knew existed 20 years ago. And as for plastic straws, ban them now.

Minister Richard Bruton is stopping such single use plastic waste in Government departments and semi-states, which is good, because only a couple of weeks ago I was handed a plastic bottle of water in the RTÉ radio station, as were the two other guests.

No way is his ban enough, though. We need the Waste Reduction Bill to be pushed through, banning these single use plastics throughout the state.

We need to see through the smoke-screen provided to the plastics industry by Repak with its tokenistic gestures towards meeting the EU Directive’s weak recycling goals.

Instead we need to look at the horror which is playing out before our eyes and in our very bodies.

We are throwing the equivalent of 1.4m half-litre plastic bottles into the oceans every single minute and plastic pollution grew 5% annually between 2000 and 2015. The plastics industry accounts for between 4% and 8% of global oil production and business as usual would drastically increase this percentage.

We urgently need an international protocol on plastic pollution. We need a carbon tax on plastic to reflect the emissions its production causes. We need “extended producer responsibility”, meaning those who produce plastic are responsible for its eventual disposal.

Incineration is not the answer. The IWF says it threatens to turn a plastic pollution crisis into an air quality and greenhouse gas emissions issue.

Non-recyclable plastic must be banned as must single use plastics, with producers designing for re-use and recycling.

We are eating and breathing 5 grams a week of plastic, absorbed from food, air and water, including bottled water.

There is plastic in shellfish, in beer, even in salt.

In the EU, 72.2% of drinking water samples taken were contaminated with plastic and in the US 94.4% were.

The impacts of the credit card of plastic we ingest every week are not clear because there is no way of conducting an experiment on an uncontaminated person.

It is clear that eating plastic is not good for us, however.

Eliminating plastic waste at source should be prioritised over recycling

The plastics themselves and their chemical additives may cause cancer, inflammation of the gut, damage to the liver, lungs, brain, sexual function and fertility.

We are being slowly poisoned by an industry which our law-makers, including those at EU level, have up to now refused to control.

Our environment and all the creatures we share it with are being slowly poisoned along with us.

Enough, already. Let’s say “No” to poison.

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