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

Lyndsey O'Connell

In today's rapidly changing world, countries worldwide are grappling with a mounting crisis that threatens our environment and future generations – the plastic and packaging crisis. Ireland is no exception to this global dilemma. Our current level of consumption of single-use plastic and packaging is, quite simply, unsustainable. In fact, Ireland holds the dubious distinction of being the number one producer of plastic packaging waste per capita in the European Union, generating a staggering 62 kilograms of plastic waste per person per year.


Our current recycling rate for plastic packaging stands at a meager 28%

Adding to our woes, our current recycling rate for plastic packaging stands at a meager 28%, falling woefully short of the EU target of 55% by 2030. It's a crisis that cannot be ignored, as the consequences of plastic production and waste are dire. Globally, plastic production emits a staggering 50 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. More alarming yet, a full 50% of all plastic produced is single-use, with an average consumer lifespan of a mere 12 minutes. And while we once believed that plastics would eventually break down in the environment, recent studies reveal a far more troubling reality: plastics break down into smaller and smaller forms, from microplastics to nanoplastics, and may never truly disappear.

To confront this crisis head-on, we must shift our focus to the sources of waste. Enter the National Recycling Bin Survey (NRBS), a groundbreaking initiative that marks the first-ever analysis of household recycling waste, 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: Supermarkets as the Catalyst for Change

In a world awash with plastic and packaging waste, our report stands as a beacon of hope and enlightenment. Its revelations not only illuminate the origins of household waste but also beckon supermarkets to take center stage as the agents of change.

Our current path is unsustainable.

Ireland grapples with an overwhelming deluge of plastic waste, underscoring that recycling alone is an insufficient solution. What we urgently need is a paradigm shift, one that places renewed emphasis on prevention, reuse, and responsible consumption. It's a clarion call to action, not just for individuals and communities, but for industries and governments.

Together, we possess the power to turn the tide on the plastic and packaging crisis, one informed choice and one sustainable action at a time. The fate of our planet hinges on it. With their unique influence and potential, supermarkets can wield the sword of change, pushing back on suppliers and catalyzing a sustainable future we all deserve.