Unveiling Ireland's Plastic and Packaging Crisis: The Urgent Need for Change

In the summer of 2023, we embarked on a groundbreaking mission that had everyone tipping out their bins for a good cause! Our unique citizen science campaign, the first of its kind, had folks from coast to coast sharing the secrets of their recycling bins with us.

By Stephen Byrne

Ever struggle to close the lid of your recycling bin? We do too! Overflowing with unnecessary packaging waste, our bins held the clues to a mystery we were determined to solve. Where was all this unnecessary packaging waste coming from? Our suspect numero uno? Supermarkets!


Thank you to everyone who took part in our National Recycling Bin Survey (NRBS), a groundbreaking initiative that marks the first-ever analysis of household recycling waste and attributing such waste to specific retail sectors. The NRBS engaged 130 participants from 49 households across 12 counties in Ireland, who collectively counted and cataloged a total of 10,029 waste items. The results of this survey are nothing short of eye-opening.

Our recycling bin survey engaged 130 participants from 49 households across 12 counties, in Ireland.

98% of participants are frustrated with the quantity of waste entering their homes

Here are some key findings from the survey:

  1. Supermarkets: Are the Culprits in Our Recycling Bins
  2. Over two-thirds of waste items found in the average recycling bin in Ireland can be traced back to supermarkets.
  3. A staggering 40% of waste items in these bins are plastic, sourced directly from supermarkets.
  4. Plastic items constitute a whopping 50% of the total waste items in the average recycling bin in Ireland.
  5. An overwhelming 98% of participants from the campaign expressed their frustration with the quantity of waste entering their homes.

At its core, our survey seeks to shed light on the origins of recyclable waste in Irish households. Until now, no other waste characterization study has ventured into the domain of commercial waste sources, making this data a critical resource for making informed recommendations and advocating for ambitious actions to address our packaging problem and transition toward a circular economy.

Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment (VOICE) and Friends of the Earth Ireland founded the national campaign "Sick of Plastic" in 2018. Since its inception, Sick of Plastic has been a driving force in empowering communities to press industry and decision-makers for action against single-use plastic. The National Recycling Bin Survey represents a significant milestone, born out of Sick of Plastic's prior work to expose the failures of the supermarket industry in tackling the plastic crisis.

The Global Plastic & Packaging Problem

The global plastic and packaging problem is nothing short of a crisis. Plastic packaging waste accounts for roughly 40% of all virgin plastic consumed in the European Union. Shockingly, the EU is expected to generate 46% more plastic packaging waste by 2030, despite the catastrophic environmental impacts of plastic.

Out of the 9.5 billion tonnes of plastic produced between 1950 and 2019, a mere 9% has been recycled. This unsustainable trend continues to wreak havoc on our planet, as plastic production emits 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, contributing to global temperature rise and the most devastating impacts of climate change.

Ireland's Plastic & Packaging Problem

Ireland finds itself at the forefront of this plastic and packaging crisis. As previously mentioned, we hold the unenviable position of being the EU's top producer of plastic packaging waste per capita. In 2021 alone, we generated a staggering 1.2 million tonnes of packaging waste, with nearly a third (27%) of it being plastic, measured by weight. The excessive and often unnecessary use of plastic packaging by supermarkets, retail stores, and commercial sectors is causing immense harm to our environment.

While Ireland successfully met all EU targets for recycling and recovery of packaging waste in 2018, our progress in recycling plastic packaging lags behind other EU member states. In 2021, we recycled a mere 28% of our plastic packaging waste, compared to the EU average of 41% in 2019. Ireland's overall recycling rates have also dipped, falling from 62% in 2020 to 58% in 2021. Moreover, a substantial 70% of Ireland's plastic packaging waste ends up being incinerated. To meet EU plastic recycling targets, as set out in the Waste Framework Directive, of achieving 55% by 2030, Ireland must make significant changes in plastic consumption and recycling practices.

Emphasizing Reuse Over Recycling

For far too long, industries and governments have presented recycling as the ultimate solution to our packaging waste woes. Ireland has taken pride in increasing its annual recycling rates, yet we fail to acknowledge that this increase correlates with generating more waste in the first place. Recycling is undoubtedly essential, but it should be viewed as a last resort rather than the primary solution.

The EU Waste Framework Directive outlines a waste hierarchy that should guide all waste policies. Prevention stands as the top priority, followed by reuse. Recycling, while a more sustainable option than landfill disposal or energy recovery, presents its own set of challenges, especially concerning plastics. Recycling is finite; most plastic products can be processed only once before they must be removed from the supply chain. This process, known as "downcycling," leads to the degradation of plastic quality. Most plastic packaging that is recycled cannot be remade into packaging and instead finds use in lower-quality plastic items. This perpetuates the demand for virgin plastic, perpetuating the production of single-use packaging.

Conclusion: Thank You!

With your help, we dove deep into the contents of those curbside bins, unveiling the true story of our recycling habits. From crinkly plastics to mysterious materials, every piece counted.

The results, compiled into an extensive report, shed light on where all this packaging was coming from and how we could put a stop to it. It really was the power of citizen science in action!

Thanks to our incredible volunteers across Ireland, we uncovered the truth hidden in our bins, making strides toward a waste-free future. Together, we're on a mission to curb unnecessary packaging and create a cleaner, greener world.

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