What Planet Are You On?'s waste management expert, Dr. Brian Kelleher,  Co-Chair of the degree in Environmental Science and Technology, DCU and member of the SFI Research Centre for Applied Geosciences, (iCRAG) explains why and how we need improve our waste management at home.

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We are beginning to choke on the waste we are producing. Plastic usage has increased by approximately 900% since 1980 and we now know that at least 30% of the plastic that we put in either the general waste or recycling bin is ending up in the oceans (1).

The comfort of recycling is a fallacy….. maybe we should now call it "decycling". Most plastic is not recycled because the technology is not there or there is no market for recycled material. Recycling difficult materials such as soft, single use plastics is not financially viable and the market is not there for the by-products.

Yes, hard plastic such as PET and HDPE is recyclable and we still urgently need to dispose of our rubbish in an appropriate manner but the fact is that if we do not reduce our use of plastic more and more will end up in the ocean. In Ireland, we recycle approximately 30% of our plastic and in a similar fashion to other western countries we export the rest (2).

After that, it is "out of sight, out of mind". Due to stricter regulations in the EU this waste is exported to countries with little oversight of destination of this waste. We now know that a lot of it ends up in the ocean.

A recent report provides evidence that we are seriously underestimating plastics in the ocean and that there could be 10 times the amount in the different oceanic strata (3). This also has a huge carbon footprint as 99% of plastic comes from oil and most of the energy required to produce it comes from the burning of oil and fossil fuels. 

The plastics industry has no desire to decrease the profits they make from its production. For individuals pondering the correct bin to dispose of their plastic this is very disheartening and it is difficult to imagine how we can fight against a system that is so obviously wrong. But fight we must and the first step is to try and buy produce that is not wrapped in plastic.

Secondly, when we have to buy plastic we should leave it at the retail outlet we bought it from and thirdly we should put pressure on our politicians to stand up to the plastics industry. We also need to keep following the rules for the correct disposal of our domestic waste.

Food waste is a huge global problem. It is estimated that if food waste was a country it would be the third largest emitter of carbon behind China and the USA (4). The reasons for this are complex but it starts at a system that promotes intensive farming through subsidies. This means that food is cheap but results in degraded soil, water and air. These subsidies should be directed towards more sustainable approaches such as organic farming.

The good news is that food waste is something we can all help to reduce. Simply put, we need to consume what we buy and support locally produced organic produce. It is imperative that we place food scraps in the compost bin and we regard it as a natural resource, not a waste.

In the wrong bin, it will end up as carbon in the atmosphere and will contribute to global warming. In the compost bin it will eventually be added to soil where most of the carbon is locked in a more stable form and where it provides well-needed nutrients to soil….a win-win situation.

The programme highlights the confusion we all have about domestic waste recycling. This is compounded by non-standardised rules and regulations that vary all over the country.

The three types of bins provided by most but not all waste companies are:
1.  General waste
2.  Recycling (plastics paper etc.)
3.  Organic or compost (kitchen/food waste)

The colours assigned to bins provided by waste companies often differ, a green bin in Dublin may be a blue bin elsewhere. Some areas do not provide brown bins for organic kitchen waste and there is a lot of confusion about charges.

One family on last year's programme was under the impression that if they diverted all of their brown bin organic waste to the general waste (black) bin, they would save money. Trying to get information from the waste companies (of which there are approximately 60 in Ireland) can be tricky but it's worth investing the time and effort to find out where you should be putting your waste.

Compost where you can
For those areas where no brown (organic) bin is provided, the only sustainable option is to try and compost kitchen waste yourself. This may be difficult without a garden or backyard but not impossible.

Composting can seem a bit intimidating and its association with vermin is enough to turn many people off. There is a lot of good advice on how to produce good compost from domestic waste out there and also how to do it without attracting vermin.

I have been composting for a few years now, it definitely takes care of your kitchen waste in a carbon-neutral way but, as a keen but limited vegetable gardener, I have yet to produce anything like good compost! I am getting better though, and that is the enjoyable part.

Never burn your waste
Do not burn domestic waste. The programme has unearthed some other interesting practices. The burning of domestic waste, in an open fire in a house is not a good idea. The temperatures reached in domestic fires are way too low (approximately 200℃) to break down toxic chemicals that may form or gasify during the combustion process.

At these temperatures there are a myriad of combustion products, including well-known dioxins that can form and be harmful to those in the house and their neighbours. I can understand the reasoning but the arguments against are far stronger:

 The toxic effects
 Combusted materials cannot be recycled and re-used. It results in more carbon in the atmosphere where it is harmful and less carbon where it could be beneficial.

 Plastic is made from oil. When we combust it we don't just waste this energy and carbon, we also waste the energy and carbon that was used to make the plastic in the first place….a double whammy!
 Unless the heat is turned into useable energy, carbon is simply squandered when we combust organic waste. That energy and carbon just dissipate into the atmosphere.

Recent research by UCC, funded by the EPA also highlights the dangers of air pollution produced by domestic burning (5). Of concern is the airborne particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, known as PM 2.5.

We now know that exposure to PM2.5 can increase the symptoms of asthma and chronic and sometimes death. PM2.5 is responsible for the premature deaths of more than 1,100 people annually in Ireland. Worryingly, new research also indicates that air pollution is associated with the severity of COVID-19 infection.

Drink filtered tap water
Another interesting practice we've seen in this series of What Planet Are You On? is is the rejection of tap water for drinking in favour of bottled water and the resultant generation of large quantities of used plastic bottles. If people are worried about tap water a good alternative would be to filter the water, the money saved on bottled water would easily offset the cost of a good filtration system.

Going forward
Advice on recycling is not difficult to find, the information is out there. However, the programme has highlighted some of the reasons why it is much more complicated than it should be.

Without a doubt, regulation is required to standardise the whole domestic waste process so that the same, sensible rules apply everywhere and there is no ambiguity about what should go where. 
Regulation on its own will not work, of course, it needs to be complemented with enthusiasm and a desire to minimise our personal contributions to environmental decline.

In the meantime, things you can do to improve your household waste management include:

  •  Ensure you're using the correct bins
  •  Read up on recycling rules
  •  Compost where you can
  •  Never burn your rubbish
  •  Ditch the plastic bottles and drink tap water instead

1)  George Bishop, David Styles, Piet N.L. Lens. Recycling of European plastic is a pathway for plastic debris in the ocean. Environment International. Volume 142, September 2020, 105893.
2)  Waste packaging statistics for Ireland. EPA Waste Data Release, 30 July 2020. 
3)  Katsiaryna Pabortsava & Richard S. Lampitt. High concentrations of plastic hidden beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Nature Communications. volume 11, Article number: 4073 (2020)
4)  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food wastage footprint, impacts on natural resources. Summary Report, 2013.
5)  John Wenger, Jovanna Arndt, Paul Buckley, Stig Hellebust, Eoin McGillicuddy, Ian O’Connor, John Sodeau and Eoin Wilson. Source Apportionment of Particulate Matter in Urban and Rural Residential Areas of Ireland (SAPPHIRE). EPA. Research 318. ISBN: 978-1-84095-905-5, 2020. 

Watch the brand-new series of What Planet Are You On? with presenter Maia Dunphy on RTÉ One on Sunday evenings at 18.30.