That there will soon be more plastic than fish in the sea doesn’t even take into account the inevitable decline in fish stocks, writes Victoria White.
INCINERATION should be our last resort for waste that has proved impossible to reduce or recycle. That’s not me talking, it’s the European Commission. This year’s “communication” to the EU parliament and relevant committees spells out in stark terms that incineration can’t be our answer to the problem of waste.
Incineration should be carried out only where there is, says the commission, “no risk of overcapacity” and where there is a clear “hierarchy” of waste disposal with prevention at the top and recycling next.
The commission says it is only if we respect this “hierarchy” that waste to energy incineration schemes can be an effective part of the desired “circular economy” because, repeat after me, “It is waste prevention and recycling that deliver the highest contribution in terms of energy savings and greenhouse gas emissions.”
So what are we doing? We’ve built a gigantic silver incinerator as the centrepiece of that newly designated Unesco biosphere, Dublin Bay. Here the US company Covanta is planning to incinerate 600,000 tonnes of rubbish every year, despite nearly 20 years of local protest and continuing local disquiet. Disquiet not calmed by the fact that the incinerator’s opening salvo last week was the accidental release of gas from hydrated lime which hospitalised 11 employees.
And what is planned for Cork Harbour, perhaps the best and most beautiful natural harbour in this hemisphere? Why yes, it’s another incinerator, developed this time by Indaver to process 240,000 tonnes of waste. It’s been opposed for more than 16 years by Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (Chase).
A decision from An Bord Pleanála on Indaver’s latest application for Ringaskiddy is pending. We know that Cork’s councillors are as opposed to their incinerator as Dublin’s were but the handy designation of the Ringaskiddy incinerator as “strategic industrial development” means it bypasses them and the deletion of a ban on incineration from Cork’s Development Plan by junior minister Paudie Coffey two years ago was very ominous.
One of the most sickening things about incineration on this grand scale is that it is plastic waste which will be most in demand because it generates the most heat — though so far none of this heat is heading the way of peoples’ homes by way of district heating in Dublin and there is no clear timeline for this to happen.
Plastic is a product of the petro-chemicals industry. It is a fossil from the fossil fuel age. In the US the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation reports that plastic production accounts for 6% of global oil production, the same percentage as is used by the aviation industry. Plastic will account for 20% of global oil production by 2050 if current trends continue.
How can the planet be on the road to virtual decarbonisation by 2050 and still more than tripling its consumption of plastic?
The Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation is keen to point out that plastic packaging can bring down fuel costs because it is light and it can reduce food waste. Let’s not pretend that many of us want to live entirely on the spuds we grow in our back gardens, peeled with a thumb specially sharpened for the purpose.
But why are we forced to bring home plastic bearing the information that it is “not currently recyclable”? I hurl it into the bin when really I want to hurl it into the faces of our legislators.
We consumers pay for recyclable bags at the till — we were the first in the world to do so — while industrial producers swathe their products in layers of stuff which can only go to incineration or landfill.
It makes me sick. It makes me think of my mother’s shopping basket on its peg in the kitchen and her modest little bin. She didn’t have to deal with mountains of waste like I do, let alone what my children will have to cope with if the amount of plastic packaging quadruples by 2050 as the World Economic Forum predicts, to 318m tonnes annually. The famous warning that there will then be more plastic than fish in the sea doesn’t even take into account the inevitable decline in fish stocks.
I honestly believe that public opinion would be on the side of legislators who would build us a legal defence against plastic packaging. A European ban on plastic produced from fossil fuels with a lead-in time would accelerate the development of plastics from non-toxic sources which is called for by WEF and others.
The Greens’ Waste Reduction Bill 2017 would legislate for the introduction of refundable deposits on bottles, cans and plastic bottles, such as exist in many countries, would clear our beauty spots of these mountains of waste: the Dodder Action group collected 3,000 of them along the River Dodder in two hours last April. A Zero Waste Ireland/Voice petition on refundable deposits has attracted 1,600 signatures and is still live.
The Greens’ bill also includes a ban on the sale of disposable coffee cups —which have a plastic lining — and disposable plastic cutlery. I hope it attracts cross-party support. If we fall at this hurdle what hope do we have of introducing the tough measures we really need?
Ireland needs to lead, like we did on plastic bags. The city of Delhi has just banned all disposable plastic, prompted by the illegal burning of plastic in dumps. Just because our Government is now allowing plastic to be burned legally doesn’t mean we should be any less determined to stop our country being choked by the stuff.
We need a ban on the sale of non-recyclable plastic. EU law allows for countries to apply their own restrictions to traded items if they protect the welfare of the public. I think a plastics ban should easily clear that fence.
Meanwhile we should be pushing the EU to give sharp teeth to their pending strategy on plastic in the so-called circular economy which is currently about as circular as your average rectangle. Word is that so far we are trying to extract those teeth, one by one.
The European Commission has moved away from its packaging waste directive of 1994 in its latest “communication” and European law will catch up. The Commission suggests no new incineration facilities by opened, that taxes on incineration go up and the export of waste may be the best option in certain cases. It tasks governments not to use public money to incentivise a flow of waste to incineration and warns that waste-to-energy incinerators are on the way out.
I want to see Poolbeg closed and knocked down. I don’t want to see Ringaskiddy opened. We must stop our Government clearing the path of multi-nationals to burn plastic in the bays of our principal cities.
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