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Ben O’Callaghan is wheeling his bike out the front gate of a house in Inchicore about ten to nine on a recent Tuesday morning.

His bins, including the green one, stand nearby. It’s a cold blue-sky day. A bin truck is accelerating and then stopping, accelerating and then stopping on a nearby street somewhere out of sight.

O’Callaghan stops to talk. What does he envision happening to plastic packaging when it’s taken away to be recycled?

“When I think about recycling I think about it going to a recycling plant, where it’s melted down and turned into something new, and re-used, I guess,” he says.

A Greyhound Recycling truck rounds the corner into view, with a white cab and a green body, which says, “We Make Waste Less Wasteful” and “Less Carbon Emissions, More Recycling. That’s Us”.

Ireland is doing really well when it comes to recycling glass, paper, cardboard, metal and wood packaging – beating EU targets in 2020, according to the latest data available from the Environmental Protection Agency.

But when it comes to plastic packaging, it’s a different story. According to Eurostat, Ireland generated more plastic packaging waste per capita in 2020 than any other EU member state for which it had data.

And Ireland missed the EU targets by a mile for recycling these, recycling only 29 percent, according to EPA figures for 2020.

That means that in that year, 71 percent of plastic packaging in Ireland – some of which was put into green bins to be recycled – wasn’t recycled. Since then, the situation has improved a bit and now 67 percent is not recycled, according to Repak, a business-funded organisation focused on packaging recycling.

Both the EPA and Repak agree what happens to it instead: it’s burned.

What’s Being Burned

More than 27 percent of packaging waste in Ireland – about 306,000 tonnes – was plastic, according to the EPA’s 2020 figures.

Empty milk jugs, water bottles, yogurt pots, sandwich bags, cling film, that kind of thing.

Of that 306,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste, about 218,000 tonnes was burned, most of it (76 percent) here in Ireland, an EPA spokesperson said.

Of all the plastic that was burned, about 58 percent of it had been collected in black bins, and was made into “refuse derived fuel” known as RDF. “This is sent to municipal waste incinerators in Ireland or abroad,” the EPA spokesperson said.

The remainder, about 42 percent, is plastic packaging from skips, commercial waste, and “the residual contents of the mixed dried recycling (green) bin, after readily recyclable streams have been removed”, according to the EPA spokesperson.

That is made into “solid recovered fuel” or SRF, “is used in cement kilns in Ireland and abroad in replacement of virgin fuel sources”, they said.

Last year, members of Cement Manufacturers Ireland (CMI) used about 300,000 tonnes of SRF in their cement kilns “to directly replace imported fossil fuels”, according to David Howard, the organisation’s director.

He declined to say whether Irish cement companies pay for SRF, or are paid to take it.

“The quantity of SRF being used has increased over the years and will continue to increase over the coming years as our members strive to hit the Government’s 2019 Climate Action Plan target for the cement industry of 80% fossil fuel replacement by 2030,” Howard said.

In addition to replacing fossil fuels, and therefore helping Ireland meet its targets for reducing carbon emissions, SRF has the advantage of being “sourced locally, on the island of Ireland”, Howard said.

Excess SRF, not used in Ireland, is exported to cement kilns around Europe, Howard said.

So if you toss a water bottle, or other plastic packaging, in your black bin – or if you throw that empty olive oil bottle in your green bin without washing it out properly – it may well end up being burned instead of recycled.

The Case for Burning Plastic

The industry doesn’t call it burning plastic, it calls it “energy recovery”.

European, national, and regional waste management policy is based on the EU’s “waste hierarchy”, says a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications.

In this hierarchy, using a plastic water bottle as an example, getting people to choose reusable water bottles and not buy disposable ones made at all is best.

If that fails, then reusing that water bottle instead of binning it is next best. Once eventually binned, recycling is the best from there.

If the bottle doesn’t get recycled for some reason, then burning in an waste-to-energy type incinerator, like the one at Poolbeg, or in a kiln as part of the process of making cement, is better than putting it in a landfill.

Burning waste plastic packaging to make energy, instead of natural gas or coal, for example, “means a benefit in term of both less dependence on fossil fuels” – since plastic is generally made from fossil fuels – “and lower environmental impact”, according to a 2020 International Energy Agency report on trends in the use of SRF.

Plans to Reduce Burning Plastic

The Irish government has policies in place and in the works to try to push more plastic packaging into the top tiers of that waste hierarchy – the outcomes it judges as better.

Its “A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy”, Ireland’s national waste policy for 2020–25, aims at “eliminating waste before it can be created and diverting as much as possible to beneficial reuse or recovery”, the spokesperson for the Department of Environment said.

The plan looks to eliminate waste before it can be created, through a range of measures, such as, for example, the deposit and return scheme, for plastic bottles (and cans). This scheme, which is to be brought in this year, includes a small deposit in drink purchases, which people can get back by returning the containers for recycling.

The idea is to keep people from using take-away cups in the first place, so there’s not a need to dispose of or recycle them. The Minister for the Circular Economy, Green Party TD Ossian Smyth, said in the Dáil on 28 February that he is assessing the results of a public consultation on the levy which ended in December, and once that’s done will bring the regulations to government for approval.

Photo by Sam Tranum.

In addition to pushing people and companies to produce less plastic packaging waste, there are measures to try to ensure that what is produced is more likely to be recycled rather than burned or put in landfills.

Repak has, the Department of Environment spokesperson said, introduced an “eco-modulation model for plastic packaging” so that “members [of Repakl] who place recyclable packaging material on the market incur fees lower than those for non-recyclable materials”.

However, there’s still going to be some plastic packaging produced, and binned. If people at home and at work do better at putting it in the right bins, though, the amount recycled could be increased, the Department of Environment spokesperson said.

“Recent EPA figures indicating that 20% of the material in household recycling bins should not be there, and 70% of the material in general waste bins from the commercial sector should be in recycling or organic bins,” they said.

“This represents a massive loss of resource value, an unnecessary high cost to households and businesses whose waste charges would be lower through proper segregation” – since black bins are charged by weight, but green bins aren’t – “ and undermines investment in indigenous treatment capacity”, they said.

Even if people do better putting the right stuff in the right bins, though, there’ll still be some plastic packaging that won’t be recycled – but will instead be burned.

“While prevention, preparing for reuse and recycling are preferable, energy recovery continues to play an important role in managing our waste,” the department spokesperson said.

“Energy recovery avoids the emissions associated with disposal of packaging waste at landfill. In the case of cement kilns, the use of Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) displaces the burning of fossil fuels in the manufacture of cement,” they said.

On green bin day in Inchicore, Mark Smith, who is walking his dog Rosie, has stopped to talk to a neighbour in his front garden.

He says he’s not surprised to hear that most plastic packaging binned in Ireland gets burned – including some of what people put in their green bins.

“I’m not surprised. I’ve lost all faith in recycling. I’ve zero faith,” he says.

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