Analysis: We leave out one million tonnes of packaging waste a year in Ireland for collection - so where does it all go?

We're constantly producing waste in our daily lives and in Ireland we're particularly wasteful: an average of 580kg of municipal waste per person a year. This is the rubbish that comes from our homes, our businesses and our schools, everything we throw out, often without much thought. 

We bring our glass to bottle banks and separate out our recycling into the green bins before placing them on the kerbside for collection. Job done, hands washed. But while you might think that you’re doing a good job with your recycling, all your good efforts could be going to waste: many of us are still knowingly or unknowingly contaminating the recycling and using the wrong bins. 

From RTÉ Radio 1 Drivetime, Pauline McDonagh, the Regional Waste Prevention Officer for the Southern Area on what you can actually recycle

Between a climate crisis, rising emissions, legally binding EU targets and China closing its borders to foreign waste, we have a mammoth task ahead of us. In 2017, we produced over 1 million tonnes of packaging waste for the first time (food wrappers, milk cartons, cereal boxes, tins, plastic bottles etc), which was just one part of the 2.7 million tonnes of municipal waste in total. The latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that we recycle 66% of that packaging waste and recover 87%, which exceeds the current EU targets. But is it good enough?

"Obviously recycling is better than landfill, but it is nothing to be happy about that we're generating that amount of waste," says Celine Horner, Scientific Officer with the EPA. Horner explains that once the waste arrives at the material recovery facility (MRF), run by operators like Panda, Greenstar, Thorntons and Greyhound, the process starts with the sorting of the mountains of materials, first by hand and then by machines. It then gets baled and the majority gets sent outside Ireland. At this point, all our rubbish becomes a commodity ready to be bought and sold on the open market and the reality is that waste collection and recycling is, generally, a private business. 

"We do love our plastic in this country"

"It's sold for the best price they can get for it," she says. "The quality of the material then dictates the price that a bale of material will get and the uses it can go for." Clear PET plastic bottles, like the ones used for water or soft drinks, are considered higher price items, because they’re clear, easily washed, recycled and returned into plastic material. The price of producing plastic, and hence the price you can get for plastic waste, is influenced by the price of oil, because oil is what’s used in the production of virgin plastic, Horner explains.

But the worth of the recycling industry in Ireland is something we don’t know, says Stephen Kinsella, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Limerick. "One of they key problems with our policy at the moment is that there’s no good unit pricing on any of it, so therefore we don’t know what the benefit to the private sector of accruing a ton of, let’s say, hard plastic is, versus the costs. That’s a big worry. But it’s something that the private companies obviously know."

From RTÉ 2fm Dave Fanning, David Duff, Environmental, Health & Safety Manager at Thorntons on what happens with our trash when it goes in the bin 

The EPA surveys the waste operators every year to find out how much material they collect, what types, how it’s treated and where it goes. This data is cross-checked with the National TransFrontier Shipment Office, who patrol our ports, theNational Waste Collection Permit Office and REPAK, to generate the packaging waste figures. 

When we talk about what actually happens to our recycling and what constitutes recycling, there are three main elements: recycling, recovery and incineration. 

When a material is recycled, that means it gets recycled back into usable material of the same type. While the majority of plastic is in fact recycled abroad, a small amount of plastic is recycled in Ireland and for example turned into material for fleece jackets, Horner explains. But there are two other main forms of 'recovery’ operations used as a treatment for our packaging waste - the next best thing to recycling. 

"Energy recovery" means that materials of a higher standard that aren’t fit for recycling are shredded, baled up and sent to one of the three cement kilns here in Ireland that burn this material, where it replaces fossil fuels in the cement-making process. 

Once it’s at the facilities, the waste is typically put on a trammel-like machine where "they rattle and bang it and shake it all over the place" to separate the different types, Horner says. A lot of small materials known as "fines" would fall through, these are then biostablised, which removes the oxygen demand and then used for daily cover on landfills. While landfill cover might not sound like a "fantastic treatment method" it still gets considered a recovery operation because the alternative would be to use virgin materials on the landfills, she explains.

Read: Is upcycling the answer to our waste problem?

Read: A fix for plastic waste: turning bottles into car parts

Finally, some non-recyclable, residual packaging waste is incinerated and turned into what’s called refuse-derived fuel (RDF), which gets used to produce heat or electricity (table: incineration with energy recovery). This is what happens at the Poolbeg Incinerator in Dublin. "So instead of just burning it and getting nothing back, they burn it, it’s filtered, the pollution is controlled, and they get energy for electricity generation out of it. So it’s again considered recovery, which is better than throwing it in the landfill," Horner says. 

In 2017 the waste game changed. China introduced a ban on the import of packaging waste and with that, Ireland’s primary destination for plastic was gone. "Since China, there’s been a bit of a shake-up in the industry," Horner says. "REPAK has introduced checks now on where the material is going to, because obviously there’s a repetitional risk for businesses if their packaging turns up in a news report, in somewhere it shouldn’t. They’re putting more pressure on the endpoint and they’ve been out to visit sights in developing countries." 

"This is where it all goes, because it’s cheaper. If you were to apply European working standards to everything - that’s why it’s gone to developing countries, it’s important to know that. Obviously I wouldn’t consider it desirable, but they’re the kind of countries who are talking the material now," she says. The waste companies can claim a subsidy from REPAK for each ton of material that’s recycled, but to have the subsidy paid they have to submit data to REPAK on where the waste gets sent, to see if it’s deemed suitable, Horner says. 

But once the waste leaves Ireland and the EU, it becomes much more difficult to know what exactly happens to it. "We have a problem in our supply chain that we need to manage," says Kinsella. "We’ve never had a situation where, really, we’ve had to manage an external series of things and that’s a big deal. It’s a policy problem and the key worry of course is that the policy system says: out of sight, out of mind. We would really rather not see that, but we do tend to have a problem with it in our country, sadly."

From RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland, Dominick Hogg, Environmental Consultant with Eunomia, discusses the deteriorating relationship between east and west over waste returns

In theory, one solution could be to build our own recycling plants and incinerators, but "the simple economics of it are that we’re a very small market," Kinsella says. Like most rich countries, we pay to export our waste, "there’s only 4.7 million os us and the fixed costs of setting up the large-scale recycling and reconditioning facilities are really, really high. If you combine those two facts with the nature of our planning system, you come out with the outcome that it probably makes sense for us to pay to export this stuff." 

A country like Norway has gone down the route of building it’s own plant, which means it’s now a net waste importer - "in order to have the plant create a return, they actually require an enormous amount of waste to come back into the country," Kinsella explains. "We do love our plastic in this country" he says, but the idea isn’t "risk-free". 

From RTÉ Radio 1 Today with Sean O'Rourke, The EU has launched an ambitious strategy to combat plastic waste

Ultimately, there are flaws in the system: recycling still has an environmental impact and even when we do recycle, so many of us are getting it wrong. 

It takes just one item to ruin a bag of recycling. According to REPAK, approximately 87,000 tonnes of non-recyclable materials end up in recycling bins every year and contamination in recycling bins, for example from items that aren’t rinsed out and dried, can be as high as 36%. This means workers at the facilities are forced to sift through things like dirty nappies, mouldy food, medical waste and more. 

Horner explains that waste characterisation studies done by the EPA has shown that if the bins were used correctly and sorted properly, we could in fact increase recycling from business bins by 50% and by a third from household bins. 

From RTÉ One News, World's first commercial plastic waste to wax plant opens in Portlaoise

"What that means from a practical perspective, is that there are lots of people who think they are recycling properly and who are not," Kinsella says. He believes behavioural change should be the next big innovation for us: "that’s what I would really like to see happen… it’s a large scale change in the system and one that doesn’t require large capital spending, it just requires that people know how and when to recycle."

By 2030, Ireland will have to double the amount of plastic we recycle under new, legally binding EU targets, something which Kinsella is not convinced will be done. "Behavioural change is something that you can never really forecast properly. Nobody thought that the smoking ban, when it came in, would be as effective as it actually was."

Read: Why do we find it so hard to stop using plastic bottles?

"The other aspect is, setting a target and actually achieving a target are two totally different things. One is a strategic objective and the other is actually the following through of the strategy. We’re great at setting strategic objectives, we’re terrible at following through on our strategies… I’ve been around too long to say with any confidence that these things can be done."

Horner believes the recycling of waste is all "fine and well." But the sorting, processing and recycling process still produces emissions because it requires fossil fuels. "We should be consuming less, buying less, producing less waste - what goes into the generation of that plastic is made from oil, the oil is transported, the oil is processed, the bottle is produced, used for 10 seconds, binned, and then transported again, goes out for recycling - it’s got a very short lifespan where it’s actually in use, but its environmental impact goes much further than that."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ