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Chinese ban leaves us 'on the brink' of plastic waste crisis

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Green bin waste arriving at the Thorntons recycling plant in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Green bin waste arriving at the Thorntons recycling plant in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Green bin waste arriving at the Thorntons recycling plant in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Ireland is on the brink of a waste-management crisis following China's ban on imported plastics.

Ireland is now the top producer of plastic waste in Europe, with an average of 61kg per person every year. Recycling operators used to depend on exporting recyclable materials to China. In 2016, up to 95pc of Irish plastic waste was carried to China in vast container ships.

However, a ban implemented at the start of last month bars imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles.

Explaining the decision to the World Trade Organisation, China's environment ministry said: "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."

Recyclable rubbish is normally a tradeable commodity, and its value depends on the level of contamination. Many people don't realise that recyclable paper is worthless if it has food on it.

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."

Mr 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, Mr Clancy says the real problem is dealing with other types of plastic waste, such as food packaging.

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