Going Plasticless: The Challenges & Opportunities

With Ryanair recently announcing it was going ‘plastic-free’ in the next five years, the airline became another voice in the debate surrounding the frightening levels of plastic contamination of the planet. So where does Ireland rank in terms of international comparisons regarding recycling and what are the options when it comes to a more sustainable plastic recycling model?

Earlier this year, Ryanair once again provided another ad hoc PR masterclass, declaring that the
company would be plastic free by 2023. This from a company who, via their Chief Executive, once branded environmentalists as ‘luddites’, going to show that the airline’s chameleon like continued
growth is built on an astute awareness of where the weathervane is pointed in terms of what is important to the public.

This move by one of the planet’s largest airlines once again sees them stealing a march that their competitors will have to react to. Announcing the scheme, Ryanair’s chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs said: “We are very pleased to announce our environmental plan which includes our commitment to eliminate all non-recyclable plastics from our operations over the next five years. “For customers on board, this will mean initiatives such as a switch to wooden cutlery, biodegradable coffee cups, and the removal of plastics from our range of in-flight products.”

Of course there is no doubt that the airline will continue to accept plastic levels of payment. The airlines announcement came as a second shockwave following the Chinese announcement that it was ceasing its processing of almost half of the planet’s waste plastic, including 97 per cent of Irish waste plastic. BBC’s iconic Blue Planet II series brought the crisis home when David Attenborough’s documentary showed harrowing footage of an albatross unwittingly feeding its chicks plastic.

Making his case unflinchingly, Attenborough called on viewers to help reduce the world’s plastic waste. Millions of viewers across the world responded, with palpable concern. But outrage is one thing, action is another. Recent footage of a massive plastic ‘ghost net’ drifting across the Caribbean, holding hundreds of fish either dead or dying, shows that the Earth is literally choking on the amount of plastic that we are now producing and wasting. Global plastics production has increased twentyfold since the 1960s, with the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of it dumped into the sea every minute.

The seismic Chinese decision to refuse to be home to massive quantities of plastic and paper undoubtedly focused minds in the world’s more developed economies. In January, the European Union’s Plastics Strategy took the radical step of committing to ensuring all plastic in Europe will be recyclable by 2030. Many of the world’s major economies had become over reliant on that outlet – unable to deal with their own waste, they had become used to sending it out of sight, out of mind.

People and businesses across the European Union produce 58 million tonnes of plastic every year; more than 40 per cent of that total comes from packaging alone. A fifth is produced making consumer and household goods, everything from toothpaste to kitchen items, while nearly a tenth of all the plastic used ends up in cars and trucks.

European Context

Just 30 per cent of the EU’s plastic is recycled – 39 per cent of it is incinerated, while 31 per cent is in landfills, according to PlasticsEurope. More than 60 per cent of plastic waste still comes from packaging, but only 40 per cent of that packaging is recycled. In 2015, Ireland generated 282,148 tonnes of plastic packaging waste, according to Eurostat: 60.7kg plastic packaging waste was produced by each person in the country that year – just 34 per cent of it was recycled.

China accepted seven million tonnes of plastic scrap in 2016 –more than half of all the waste plastic exported globally that year. The closure of small plastic processors in China, which processed the most difficult plastic –such as film and soft plastics – signalled a new scenario.

The reason behind the Beijing decision is that they are taking a harder line on imported pollution, though it still has its own massive pollution issues, and growing plastic problems while it serves the needs of a rapidly emerging middle class.

Not everything in Beijing’s plan is working seamlessly. There are indications that some Chinese paper mills are already short of stock and there may be some row-back on recyclable high-quality paper.However, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which has responsibility for Irish waste policy, according to a recent Irish Times report believes there will be no going back to the way it was.

The bottom line is that mixed paper and difficult plastics are no longer traded commodities. What’s more, significant amounts of money have to be paid for their disposal.For the consumer, recycling industry figures in Ireland indicate the upheaval caused by the Chinese decision will translate into a small increase in green bin charges.

Future Options

Recycling only works economically if products can be cleaned and segregated, and some of that work must be done by the householder or business producing the waste. However, Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak recycling company, believes the Chinese market is in effect closed due to unachievable standards on contamination levels.

This has led to a price collapse in the value of plastic. Recycling costs have gone through the roof, exacerbated by next to no infrastructure in Europe for light plastic. Speaking to the Irish Times he said that some outlets are opening up in India, Vietnam and Cambodia, but he warns they too “will go the same route as China” and so do not provide a long-term solution.

Paper may get back into China, but plastics has become “a dirty word”, with its positives lost in translation, though PET bottles have retained their value. However, Clancy argues that now is not the time for panic, or knee-jerk decisions. Ireland needs to have the right rules in place, and the Government is beginning to engage, he believes.

The Attenborough-prompted discussions among the public help, too. The increasing debate has led the European Commission to raise the possibility of a plastics tax. Clancy, however, does not favour a plastics tax, but he suggests that higher fees to recycle the most difficult types of plastic will have to be considered. Meanwhile, the recycling industry will have to up its game.

It no longer must be allowed to cherry-pick the most valuable streams. Businesses will have to cut the volume of waste produced. Home-owners will have to do better at segregating waste, he argues. There have been significant recent campaigns for householders and businesses to build awareness as to what can and can not go into the recycling. The Green Bin is no longer an all encompassing ‘out of sight and out of mind’ solution.

In December 2017, Irish Waste Management Association director Des Crinion predicted Ireland was about to experience “a six- to 12-month hiccup” until new capacity was built in Europe. Since then, however, the fallout caused by the Chinese decision has been worse than he had feared. Instead of a hiccup, there has been world-wide market failure, he says now.

The US is dumping plastic, the UK is stockpiling it, while Australia is stockpiling or simply not collecting it. In Ireland, stockpiling is prohibited under EPA fire safety rules. Crinion sees paper recycling going down the same route, as China has issued import licences for a fraction of what it usually takes – as a consequence prices are crashing.


However, there are opportunities for Ireland if it moves wisely . In 2016, IPR shipped 300,000 tonnes of recyclates. Seventy per cent went to China, reducing to 60 per cent last year. Exports of plastics stopped in January 2017, as it knew restrictions were coming. It has been improving the quality of exported material at Dublin City Materials Recovery Facility by reducing contamination at source and by improving segregation.

In a recent Irish Times article Crinion said he had visited plastic recycling operators in Europe, who convert plastic film to pellets for use in recycled products such as rubbish bags – “what happens in a proper, circular economy”, he said.

He hopes to build a facility to recycle plastic film “in Ireland and/or in England by the end of the year”.
Already, Ireland has proven to be “more fleet-footed” than the UK in finding alternatives to China. Partly, this occurred because Ireland has been exporting waste for years, being a small country lacking the scale necessary to process recyclables. Panda has found new outlets for mixed paper in India, Indonesia and Taiwan, but from this month, Crinion believes it will have zero or negative value “and we will have to pay to move it”

Their approach is to find markets and take lower prices to ensure waste mountains are moved. “Most important is to continue recycling, focus on quality and look for new markets,” he says. Not collecting or dumping recyclates, he says, would send the wrong message. Ireland has done well on recycling rates, while segregation habits among the public are improving.

Most Irish people back measures to cut plastic waste: 88 per cent of us say we are worried about its environmental impact, while 81 per cent are worried about the impact plastics can have on their health, according to Eurobarometer. The same poll showed virtual unanimity on the actions others should take: 98 per cent think products should be easier to recycle; 97 per cent think that shops and industry should cut packaging; 98 per cent think councils should do better.

Nearly a third of us say we avoid buying over-packaged goods, compared with a quarter across the European Union; while 87 per say they avoid single-use cups where possible, compared with a 75 per cent average. Even more positively, 72 per cent of Irish people polled by Eurobarometer believe they and every other consumer should be charged more for single-use plastic knives and forks. Sometimes, however, there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Just 30 per cent of us say we avoid free single-use cutlery, compared with a 34 per cent EU average – even though we say we are willing to pay for it.

The issue of single use cutlery is something which we would all be familiar with from airlines, which brings us back to the issue of Ryanair going plasticless. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airline passengers generated over five million tonnes of waste in 2016, a figure that would be set to double within fifteen years if no action was taken. Ryanair’s environmental plan, announced as part of its Always Getting Better scheme, also extends beyond plastic waste. Kenny Jacobs said: “We will also introduce a scheme to allow customers to offset the carbon cost of their flight through a voluntary climate charity donation online.”

On April 21st this year, supermarket shoppers were urged to “shop and drop” in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in supermarkets. The Friends of the Earth ‘Sick Of Plastic’ Campaign asked people to shop as normal – and then take off the excess plastic packaging and leave it at the checkout. Oisin Coghlan, Director of Friends of the Earth: “We’re just asking people to shop as normal in their local supermarket, and then when they’ve paid at the checkout, to take off any of the unwanted plastic packaging that they don’t like and give it very politely to the cashier,” he said. “This is a way of showing supermarkets that people are sick of plastic and we want them to take steps to reduce the amount of packaging they use.”

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