Friday 18 October 2019

Rules, fines, education and shaming all deployed to combat plastic waste

Communications Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Communications Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke

Caroline O'Doherty

Plastics will be off the menu for picnics and parties and coffee shops will ask customers if they would like a dollop of shame with their disposable cup in a vision outlined by Climate Action Minister Richard Bruton as part of a crackdown on single-use, non-recyclable, hard to separate or impossible to identify plastics.

The plan is part of a major overhaul of the way we generate and dispose of waste, but it requires legislation which is not yet even at drafting stage. With new laws looming by 2030 at the absolute latest, however, and realistically much sooner, backed by the prospect of fines and levies, what are the main changes that consumers, retailers and suppliers will be asked, or ordered, to make?

For a start, casual dining will have to go posh again, with proper plates, cups and cutlery replacing the cheap, cheerful, lightweight and disposable versions so beloved of hosts less keen on facing a pile of washing after a big occasion.

Plastic can still be on the menu but it will have to be of the more substantial reusable and ultimately, recyclable, variety.

Straws and stirrers made of plastic will also be banned, and if the occasion calls for balloons, they will not be propped up on plastic support sticks.

Similarly, if there is a face-painter, they will not be using cotton buds that incorporate plastic sticks to apply the more intricate details.

Keep-cups and refillable bottles will become the norm. There is already a move in this direction, however it barely makes a dent in the 200 million coffee cups and millions more bottles being thrown away here every year.

While some outlets have swapped plastic coffee cups or plastic-lined paper cups for recyclable or compostable, varieties, the industry representatives who attended a waste think-in hosted by Mr Bruton yesterday favoured eliminating single-use cups completely.

It is expected more outlets will begin asking customers if they need a cup before their beverage is poured - a gentle way of shaming them into admitting they neglected to bring their own reusable cup.

Shoppers may also have to adjust their expectations when buying fruit and vegetables.

Plastic is great for keeping them clean, fresh and blemish-free but while the containers often are recyclable, the film or wrapping around them are not. Packaging firms will be pushed to find alternatives such as more cardboard, recyclable wrappers or some of the newer compostable types being developed.

However, unless suppliers move quickly, they could face additional levies imposed through Repak, the industry waste management scheme, and it is likely that at least part of the extra cost would be passed on to consumers. In the meantime, shoppers would do well to buy loose produce.

Householders who fail to properly sort their waste for collection could also face penalties in future but the minister was keen to stress that education rather than sanction was his preferred route.

Only a quarter of the food scraps and vegetable peelings we produce currently goes into our brown bins.

The rest gets thrown into black bins - which are already misused, because a third of the waste found in them should be in the recycle bin - or worse, scraps are placed in the recycle bin itself, contaminating the entire collection and rendering it useless for recycling.

While penalties could ultimately apply, there are to be fresh efforts at making the packaging industry use clear, honest labelling, so it is easy to know what to recycle and how.

Schemes to help change habits will also be considered, such as the extension of a project successfully piloted in Sligo which reduced food waste in bins by distributing free kitchen food-waste caddies and compostable bags to householders.

Irish Independent

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