ALISON O'CONNOR: Sending our plastic to China on a container ship no longer an option

A politician I know told me the other day he gave up smoking following a concerted campaign from his seven-year-old daughter, writes Alison O'Connor.

The habit finally came to an end on a sun holiday when he snuck off to have a smoke, somewhere she wouldn’t see.

However as he was puffing away, hidden around a corner from the poolside, he turned to see his daughter standing there watching him with an expression on her face, he recalled, as if to say: “Really Dad, this is what you are reduced to.”

It was at that point he realised it was time to give them up. Luckily for me I have never smoked. I couldn’t stand the taste of them. But I do have a bad habit which is increasingly subject to a similar pester power from my children— that of plastic packaging.

It’s not like I set out to go to the supermarket and return home with four apples, or six pears or four kiwis or whatever it is that happens to be wrapped in ridiculous levels of plastic. Often there is no choice. Trying telling that though to a child who is convinced that in bringing more plastic into the house I am doing the devil’s work.

Who can blame that conclusion? After all the way things have been going they are going to inherit a horribly plastic polluted environment. What counter argument do I have when I’m yet again trying to increase the popularity of fish at our dinner table only to be told “but they’re full of plastic”.

How can we as adults defend it to the next generation when we see the statistics, the most alarming of which is that that every piece of plastic ever made still exists and will continue to exist for 500 years?

Another one that has stuck in my head was on a leaflet brought into the house a few weeks ago. Picked up at the Green Schools Expo it stated that some 2m disposable coffee cups are sent to landfill sites in Ireland every day. Yes, every day. That is an utterly extraordinary figure when you stop and think about it. I usually like to sit in with my coffee. Nonetheless there is strong pressure at home to buy a “Keep Cup” which you bring along with you for your take out coffee and get a slightly reduced price as a result.

The Keep Cup is just one idea, a super one, that can be relatively easily done — although I spotted one on sale in Dublin city centre last week for €25. I wondered aloud if at that price I should be “keeping” it for a grandchild. But the enthusiasm with which people are taking to the more reasonably priced cups shows that consumers are increasingly aware of the plastic problem and willing to act.

It’s almost a year ago since I wrote about the plastics issue, specifically on that occasion microbeads, and in that intervening period it has been fascinating to see how public consciousness has been raised and how consumers are vocally expressing their dissatisfaction. It is a campaign that is being led by the public.

I’ve been searching online for some sort of transparent non plastic bags for buying loose fruit and vegetables, but in the meantime I spend a significant amount of time chasing loose apples and oranges and the like, around the belt at the supermarket checkout. In a Lidl last week the young woman at the till confirmed that packaging is an issue customers are increasingly raising. As far as she knew the company was researching it, not just for the fruit and veg aisle but also frozen foods – which is a section of any supermarket that is wall to wall plastic.

I put in a call this week to Tesco who confirmed that packaging is a growing concern for customers. They’re working with suppliers to try and use more compostable and biodegradable materials, and also trying to minimise packaging. Their aim is that all packaging is fully recyclable or compostable by 2025. Showing what can be done they made significant changes to the packaging of wet wipes with a 20% material reduction and removal of 57 tonnes of plastic. It’s laudable, but still mind boggling to think how much plastic just this one supermarket giant will produce between now and 2025. Children are dead right to be impatient with this, things need to move faster. Actually I think consumers will insist they move faster.

It is a matter of great shame that Ireland is the worst offender in the EU for plastics use, according to Eurostat figures.

The Chinese took 95% of our plastic waste in 2016. But the chickens are coming home to roost now after the Chinese decided to ban imported plastic. We’re going to have to deal with our own rubbish now that the option of shipping it across the world has been taken away. When considering the complexity of that it is worth remembering that not that long ago 160 of our containers en route to China were stopped in Rotterdam because of contamination.

Earlier this month, EU environment ministers who met in Brussels backed a move to reduce the generation of plastic and to improve recycling options for such material. Our own representative Minister for Communications,
Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten said we needed to act with urgency and real political leadership was needed.

He’s right but it’s frightening that the group of people in charge of this at EU level, and those presumably best informed on it, are only attempting to bring urgency to the issue now.

When I wrote about this a year ago I concentrated on the need for Ireland to introduce a ban on microplastics which make their way into our seas, rivers and lakes. Microbeads, a form of microplastic are tiny plastic granules, pellets, fibres and fragments, coming from a variety of sources that wash down our drains and contaminate our seas.

A year ago, Labour Party spokesman on natural resources Sean Sherlock introduced a private members bill aimed at banning the use of microbeads. As I write that legislation is due back at the Oireachtas committee on housing, planning and local government later this month but is, in essence, it appears to be going nowhere fast.

Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan led the way on microbeads in the Oireachtas and had previously tabled a bill to prohibit the sale or manufacture of products containing microbeads and to monitor the levels of microplastics in Irish waters. She got widespread support, but rather late in the day then environment minister Simon Coveney stepped in a called a halt to proceedings. He launched a public consultation, which received over 3,000 submissions.

At that time I was told legislation would be introduced by Mr Coveney and that a case had to be made to the European Commission to obtain a derogation from single market requirements. As previously mentioned that was a year ago and
still we wait while the damage caused by plastic continues to wreak havoc on our environment. It’s time to let the children loose on our legislative procrastinators.


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