We are aware more than most in Zero Waste Ireland that the issue of plastic pollution is a massive global challenge and a blight on our own country. According to the Green Party, every year, over 110 million tonnes of plastic is produced. Of this, up to 43% ends up in landfill.
The amount of plastic waste created in Ireland is actually unknown, as the EPA is only obliged to report on plastic packaging waste and microplastic waste created by a range of industries is currently not measured or even regulated. Microplastics are so small, less than 5mm in diameter, they escape the filters of most wastewater treatment plants.
But, with an estimated 32 per cent of plastic packaging escaping collection systems entirely, the high levels of wastage and litter from single-use plastic packaging has become a campaigning issue around the world.
So what’s the alternative?
Glass and aluminium can be recycled indefinitely without any impact to quality. The same is not the case for plastic. When a plastic bottle is recycled it is downcycled – it is not made into another plastic bottle. Instead, plastic is turned into a lesser strength plastic and turned into items such as carpets, bags, pens etc. These items then eventually end up in a landfill so a plastic bottle of coke will eventually go the landfill after a temporary spell of being a bag but a can or glass bottle can keep becoming a can or bottle forever.
Not all plastic bottles are put in the recycling bin and may end up in a landfill or worse. Even if it is sent for recycling there are reports that some recycling plants can’t handle the volume so end up dumping the material or sending to incinerators instead
Zero-waste home movement
So, what can we do to combat our high usage of plastics – some of which isn’t recyclable? One action could be to ban the use of non-recyclable bottles in your own life, like the founder of the zero-waste home movement, Bea Johnson. She refuses anything made from plastic and avoids its use at home completely. Here, in Ireland, we proudly initiated the first plastic bag tax in the world in 2002 and many countries now also ban or charge for single-use carrier bags, resulting in an over 90 per cent drop in their usage.
“90 per cent of microplastics channelled through the waste water treatment system is ending up in the sewage sludge and 10 per cent is still going out in our treated water, which then goes back into our rivers and our lakes”
A very worrying trend that ZWAI are concerned about is the rate of increase in Plastic pollution. (see below for more info) . With over 8 million tonnes of plastic leaking into oceans each year, at the current rate, we are on route to having more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. So, in this regard, the purpose of the proposed Green’s bill is quite simple – to reduce the amount of plastic consumed in Ireland every year, and encourage recycling.
For ZWAI, this Green Party bill is overdue and needs to be enacted urgently to stem the plastic tide. We are confident that sanity will prevail and that all parties in the Dáil will support the Bill.
Much of the plastic ends up in the environment. In a recent report, Coastwatch Ireland found that 80 per cent of surveyed coastal sites contained litter, with plastic bottles being the major type of litter. A recent survey by Coastwatch Ireland also showed 89% of people would support a deposit refund scheme.
Evidence indicates that the best way to tackle plastic pollution is to stop it entering the environment in the first place. Deposit refund schemes are a tried and tested approach that works well in a number of other countries.
ZWAI has advocated for a beverage container tax. This would be in the form of a beverage container deposit-refund scheme, operating nationally. It must be targeted at encouraging glass bottle re-use and elimination of plastic containers where possible.
The United Nations Environment #CleanSeas campaign is urging governments to pass plastic-reduction policies while also targeting industry to minimise plastic packaging and redesign products. Our proposed bill will nicely dovetail into this effort.
But the groundbreaking New Plastics Economy report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation is perhaps the best source of hope. Published in 2016, it is a comprehensive analysis of what the industry must do to transform the production and consumption of plastic.
It starkly points out that if the current strong growth of plastics usage continues, the plastics sector will account for 20 percent of the total oil consumption and 15 percent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050.
The report calls for a global protocol on plastics to reduce the use of harmful and non-recyclable plastics, to standardise labelling and improve the collection, sorting and reprocessing systems.
Circular economy model
In line with the circular economy model (where materials are put back into use at their highest functional level), the ZWAI and Ellen McArthur Foundation are part of the chorus of voices that wants plastics to be reused, recycled and redesigned in an economically and environmentally sound way.
Let’s get behind this proposed Bill and make our feelings known to Oireachtas members.
Footnote : How bad is the plastic problem globally?
Published in the journal Science in February 2015, a study conducted by a scientific working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), quantified the amount of plastic waste going from land to ocean. The results: every year, 8 million metric
The results are shocking : every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans. It’s equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. In 2025, the annual input is estimated to be about twice greater, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline. So the cumulative input for 2025 would be nearly 20 times the 8 million metric tonnes estimated – 100 bags of plastic per foot of coastline in the world!