On September 6, it was announced that soft plastics could be accepted into household recycling bins. This announcement came three days before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an analysis of Ireland’s recycling failures. This news seems to be happily accepted by the people of Ireland, but what exactly does this news mean in terms of change?
It should first be noted that Ireland’s waste system does not recycle any materials, it simply collects materials. These materials are then either shipped abroad to be recycled, sent to landfills, burned in incinerators, or sent to cement factories to be burned and provide energy.
In Ireland, when waste arrives at sorting centres, it is first magnetically separated. This magnetism extracts any iron from the refuse. Next, the waste goes through an inductor that removes any aluminium and tin. Following this, infra-red detectors sort out any polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyolefin. These plastics are what will be exported to be recycled. Finally, paper is separated from the waste. Any remaining waste, usually soft plastics, is then sent to incinerators or landfills.
Although soft plastics are now welcomed into our mixed recycling bin, this does not mean that they are going to be recycled. According to Michael Morris, a Trinity Professor in the School of Chemistry, “soft plastics are generally polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or laminates”, which can be “very challenging to recycle”. A small amount of PVC in a PET or polyethylene plant can “spoil the product by making it cloudy”, which means that the only way that these soft plastics may be recycled is via mixed recycling. This grinds the plastics, forming “low-grade products like plant pots or more likely as an addition to road tar”.
“While this new Solid Recovered Fuel will replace fossil fuels as a source of energy for cement kilns, it raises many questions as to whether this will cause much change.”
Due to the difficulty in recycling these plastics, they will not be recycled in Ireland. According to MyWaste, these soft plastics will be “converted to a Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) which is used in cement kilns”. While this new Solid Recovered Fuel will replace fossil fuels as a source of energy for cement kilns, it raises many questions as to whether this will cause much change. Morris states that he is “not sure this is really any different from incineration” and continues mentioning that “incinerators are carefully designed to minimise toxic emissions, cement plants aren’t”.
According to the EPA’s news releases on September 9, Ireland produced 319,082 tonnes of plastic packaging waste in 2019, with only 28% of this sent off to be recycled. While this 28% is currently within the EU’s current target of 22.5%, it is far off the 2025 target of 50%. The lack of control of waste once abroad should also be addressed. Becca Payling, a final year Geoscience student and Chairperson of Trinity’s Environmental Society, states that “just below 90% of all Irish waste, plastic especially, is exported, essentially moving the problem so it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’”. The EPA also stated that the percentage of waste being recycled had been gradually declining, down to 62% in 2019 from 64% in 2018. While recycling rates are falling, the waste production rate is increasing; as stated by the EPA, it was up 11% from approximately 1 m kg in 2018 to 1.1 m kg in 2019. In addition, the amount of plastic waste incinerated for energy recovery has increased year on year from 44% in 2017 to 69% in 2019.
Payling, who was involved in Trinity Green Campus’ Recycling Awareness Scheme in 2020, also mentions the theory of “wishcycling”, which she describes as “people recycling non-recyclable or dirty materials they don’t know can’t be recycled”. She states the need to emphasise the “clean, dry, loose” motto, or it’s “going to lead to a lot of ‘wishcycling’ and subsequent contamination of recycling batches”.
“This policy change has its benefits, as putting all clean, dry and loose plastics into your recycling bin will ensure that no recyclable plastic will end up in a landfill or incinerated.”
This policy change has its benefits, as putting all clean, dry and loose plastics into your recycling bin will ensure that no recyclable plastic will end up in a landfill or incinerated. This means that Ireland’s rates of recycling will increase and likely meet the EU targets in the years to come. Currently, it is unknown whether the level of plastic waste incinerated for energy recovery will increase or decrease, as more plastic waste as a whole will be entering the recycling process. The EPA states that “the increase in plastic packaging recycled is offset by an even greater increase in the amounts of packaging waste being generated and incinerated and, as a result, Ireland’s recycling rates have shown a generally declining trend since 2013”. Payling hopes that this change in policy will be “a head-turner for stakeholders in domestic recycling plants and incinerators that use domestic waste to fuel Irish cement production”. Payling also notes that she hopes this new policy will “potentially improve on the number of domestic recycling plants [that] can facilitate transfer [of un-recyclable materials] to cement manufacturers, rather than being sent across the sea out of reach.”
When discussing the long-term effects of this policy change, Payling mentioned that it “may help Ireland embrace a circular economy by increasing the lifespan of virgin materials”. She adds that it may also “help induce new technologies to repurpose and redesign typically considered end-of-life materials, boosting the Irish economy”. This could “potentially reduce the dependence on other countries to take Irish trash”.
She stated: “This is all somewhat speculative, and I worry that plastic quantities to be recycled may increase because businesses and even people will not worry as much about the waste”. Although recycling rates will increase, one should not forget the science behind recycling. While some plastics will be replacing fossil fuels as an energy source for cement kilns, Morris reminds us that “in reality, since plastic is made from [the] same materials, it will have negligible benefit”.
Soft plastics being accepted into household recycling bins is not necessarily the solution we think it is. As Payling puts it, this policy is “a plaster solution over a bigger systematic wound caused by excessive waste.”