Down in the dumps: Our growing waste pile
Ireland is facing a waste-management crisis as China refuses to take our plastic and paper. Can we improve our environmental standards, as the EU urges more recycling? Kim Bielenberg reports on what really happens to our rubbish
It only takes one visit to a recycling plant in Dublin to realise that we are not a nation that likes to comply with any kind of rules.
At the Thorntons plant in Cherry Orchard in Dublin, workers wearing face masks and gloves have the unenviable task of sorting through the contents of our green bins - and it is not a pretty sight to behold on a cold February morning.
Judging by what householders put in them, these bins are often only green in name.
As the conveyor belts carry the trash at remarkable speed up and down through the hangar-like shed, workers pick out a baffling variety of non-recyclable detritus.
In just one short stretch along the conveyor belt, there are soiled nappies, and the remains of a takeaway dinner. Stained pizza cartons, some with a few bitten crusts left behind, are routinely found in the bins and cannot be recycled.
Along the conveyor belt, there is a discarded umbrella that no longer keeps out the rain, and a sorter has a look of disdain as he picks off a pair of tattered shoes.
For some consumers, the colour of the bin into which they chuck their leftovers means little. Green, black or brown - it is just another place to put garbage, regardless of what it is.
As he ruefully inspects the random variety of rubbish passing by him, like a contestant in the 1970s BBC game show The Generation Game, the plant's environmental manager David Duff tells me that 30pc of the material going into green bins should not be there at all.
"Thirty percent of this rubbish is not recyclable, and we have to find a way of dealing with it," he says, as the noisy conveyor belts hum, and spew out more cardboard, plastic and metal.
The heavy contamination of Irish green bins is now a major problem because the people who deal in rubbish are now more fussy about what they will take.
The Growing Waste Mountain
Ireland is now facing a potential waste mountain - an ever-expanding pile of plastic, paper and other materials.
The Government is going to have to make some tough decisions about how we deal with the piles of refuse that are only likely to mount up as the population grows and we increase our consumption.
We used to bury our rubbish in local landfills scattered across the country, and then we were able to forget about the refuse and hope for the best. Twenty years ago, there were 126 official dumps accepting municipal waste. Now there are no more than a handful.
In recent years, recycling operators have come to depend on exporting recyclable materials to China, where there was a ready demand for them. Then, they became China's problem rather than ours.
In 2016, up to 95pc of Irish plastic waste was carried to China in vast container ships that had plenty of space for our rubbish after carrying consumer goods to Europe.
As well as plastic bottles, these shipments included the vast mountains of plastic packaging that are more difficult to process.
The Chinese also took the vast bulk of mixed paper gathered in green bins and sorted in recycling centres across the country.
At the Thorntons plant, David Duff shows me a pile of baled and bundled paper stacks reaching up to the roof.
Until the start of this year, the mix of Sunday paper supplements, discarded brochures and unwanted utility bills would have been bound for a paper mill at the other side of the world.
But now that the Chinese have shut the door on rubbish from Ireland and other states, paper and plastics are already building up across Europe.
The Contamination Factor
The ban, implemented at the start of last month, bars imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles. The Chinese decided that they no longer wanted the dirty contents of our green bins.
"Large amounts of dirty... or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously," the country's environment ministry explained in a notice to the World Trade Organisation.
Recyclable rubbish is normally a tradable commodity, and its value depends on the level of contamination.
"If your paper is smeared with food, or you have grease on a pizza carton, it is worth nothing," says David Duff.
Next to the gathering mound of paper at Thorntons, Duff tells me that the cost of paper as a commodity has plummeted in recent months.
"Normally, I would clear this paper on a daily basis, but it is building up because there is a backlog."
He says Thorntons hopes to find new markets for its paper including India and other parts of Asia.
According to Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak, the body that oversees recycling in Ireland, the market for plastic packaging has also collapsed.
"Even a year ago, clean, dry, clear plastics for recycling fetched €50 per tonne. Now you would have to pay €100 per tonne to have it recycled plus the cost of collection."
Although our levels of recycling are relatively high, Ireland is now the top producer of plastic waste in Europe, with an average of 61kg per person every year.
Clancy says the ban on imports of recyclables to China will have a huge impact.
"This is a wake-up call about how we deal with waste. Until now, we have been too reliant on China and the Far East for recycling facilities, particularly for plastics, but also for paper. There is a lack of infrastructure for recycling lightweight plastics in Europe."
While the thousands of discarded plastic bottles that litter the countryside and sea attract the most attention, Clancy says the real problem is dealing with other types of plastic waste, such as the packaging around meat and vegetable products.
With exports to China now effectively shut down, a growing amount of waste plastic is being mixed with paper and sent for incineration.
Mindy O'Brien of the environmental group Voice Ireland says: "We are now putting much less rubbish in landfill and that is a good thing, but there is now a huge amount of plastic going for incineration, either at plants such as the incinerator at Ringsend, or in cement plants.
"The problem with incineration is that you are using up a natural resource that comes from oil."
The material that is burned has to be replaced with new plastic, and that has environmental implications, according to O'Brien.
"It is an inefficient use of resources. Instead of burning plastic, we should be looking at ways of preventing, reusing it, refusing to buy it or recycling," she says.
It is increasingly common for dirty plastics and paper to be shredded and mixed together as alternative fuels burned at high temperatures to make cement.
Environmental consultant Jack O'Sullivan says this is likely to become increasingly common as demand for paper and plastic in China is shut off.
O'Sullivan says the cement industry also wants to burn a large amount of the 40,000 tonnes of end-of-use tyres that are removed from cars and trucks every year. These have been a blight on the landscape in many parts of the countryside in recent decades.
O'Sullivan believes that tyres should not be burned, but could be recycled for use in road surfaces.
An Oireachtas committee has recently been examining a radical Waste Reduction Bill proposed by the Green Party.
This would ban plastic cups, plates and cutlery, and establish a deposit/refund scheme for plastic, glass and aluminium drinks containers. It also proposes a ban on single-use, non-compostable coffee cups.
The Green proposals would see consumers able to avail of a 10c refund if they bring back their plastic bottle, glass bottle or can. Deposit schemes on bottles were in operation in Ireland in the past, and are used in other countries to encourage high-quality recycling.
Mindy O'Brien of Voice Ireland says the advantage of a deposit scheme is that bottles are then collected in a single stream.
"If you collect in this way, the quality of the bottles is much better and they are much easier to recycle."
One of the benefits of a deposit scheme would be that it would encourage people to pick up litter.
The environmentalist Cara Augustenborg has been involved with a deposit scheme for plastic cups and bottles at the Electric Picnic music festival, and says it had a positive effect.
Twenty cent was paid out for every cup that was returned, and one festival goer was so zealous in collecting cups that he earned €1,000 in returns.
"In total, €31,000 was given out to those who returned cups. Over 150,000 cups stayed out of an incinerator and the arena grounds were practically devoid of plastic as a result," Dr Augustenborg says.
There has been a growing clamour for the introduction of a deposit scheme in recent weeks, but the idea is not supported by Repak, the industry-funded group that subsidises recycling.
Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak, says the scheme would be costly to implement, and would not tackle other types of plastic waste which are more difficult to recycle.
He says retailers would have to install reverse vending machines at a cost of €30,000 each.
He also fears that a deposit scheme would make other types of recycling in green bins and on kerb sides less viable. Glass and plastic are among the more valuable items in recycling bins.
Whatever approach we take, Ireland will have to get its act together.
The country may compare well with other countries in the amount of material recycled, but much of this material has been exported until now.
The EU is insisting that by 2030, more than half of all plastic will be recycled and it will be a challenge to meet those targets.
Trash talk: a year in recycling
tonnes of packaging waste is generated in Ireland every year
value of wasted food per person
tonnes of food is wasted
of plastic thrown out per person
of plastic packaging produced per year
of plastic incinerated as alternative fuel
of plastic waste is recycled
EU plastic recycling target (2030)
of glass is recycled
of green bin waste is in the wrong bin
of waste tyres every year
of Irish recyclable plastic went to China in 2016
8 million tonnes
of plastic dumped in the sea around the world per year