Recycling is a Myth

by Faye Murphy

With the recent news that soft plastics can be placed in the household recycling bin, I took it upon myself to research why this was happening now, why all of a sudden and what was stopping this from happening in the past. 

When the media was flooded with appreciation for companies such as MyWaste and Repak for pushing this change in policy, there was simultaneously backlash. Three days after this new policy was announced, the EPA produced a press release of Ireland’s recycling failures. This included worrying figures that our recycling rates had been declining, yet our waste production had been on a steady incline. According to the EPA, “Ireland generated over 1.1 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2019, up 11 per cent on 2018”, which had been “the third year in a row that packaging waste in Ireland has exceeded one million tonnes”. Even more alarming is that “less than a third (28 per cent) of Ireland’s plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2019”, all while “the share of plastic packaging that Ireland incinerates has grown year-on-year and now stands at 69 per cent”, stated by the EPA as of September 10th 2021. 

The news that soft plastics can now be accepted into the recycling bin may seem optimistic, the reality is that while the soft plastics are entering the recycle bin, they are still not being recycled. According to MyWaste, these soft plastics will be used to make solid recovered fuel, which will be used to replace fossil fuels as a source of energy in cement kilns. 

Using materials made of fossil fuels to replace fossil fuels may seem defeatist, and I would have to agree. Will this really have any benefit when the same substances are entering our atmosphere?

Recycling is also not infinite. Recycling degrades the material, especially for plastics and paper, meaning there is a limit on the number of times it can be recycled before new plastic must enter this recycling process in order to produce “recycled plastic”. All this said plastic recycling is non-existent in Ireland. In Ireland, we collect materials, separate them in our waste factories and then those with enough economic worth are then exported abroad to be recycled there. The remaining “worthless” materials are then either sent to landfills or incinerators or else sent to cement factories to be used as fuel for their kilns. The latter is now being used for soft plastics. 

I believe that this new policy will lead to increased rates of contaminated recycling bins unless the “clean, dry, loose” message is engrained into Irish society as much as the angelus is engrained into RTE1

For decades we have been recycling plastics and other materials with the hope and belief that they will be recycled and enter a new life cycle. It was only over the summer when a friend of mine introduced me to the concept of “wishcycling”, which she describes as the way most people place their contaminated food packaging in the recycle bin with the hope it might possibly be recyclable. Being introduced to this idea made me realize how I am also a sucker to wishcycling. The thought of it perhaps being recyclable seems better than the idea that it will end up in the local landfill. Unfortunately, the new change in policy seems to only make my “wishcycling” worse, as now, although I understand that only clean, dry and loose plastic packaging should be placed in the recycling bin, as the majority of it is not recyclable (and not recycled anyway), will my bad habits make any difference? I believe that this new policy will lead to increased rates of contaminated recycling bins unless the “clean, dry, loose” message is engrained into Irish society as much as the angelus is engrained into RTE1. 

Plastic companies paid for recycling advertising in the 1990s to produce more plastic. 

According to previous oil industry insiders, the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of recycling have been known from as far back as 1974. While the ineffectiveness of recycling was known to oil companies, the industry still spent millions selling and advertising recycling. Why would oil companies promote recycling if this extends the life cycle of their products? According to Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment”. Therefore the industry can get away with selling more and more plastic as the public believes recycling is effective. One of the main problems with recycling is economic inefficiency, as making new plastics is much cheaper than collecting, sorting, melting and rebuilding recycled plastic. From the very beginning, this problem was known, yet we and our parents have been sold a lie for almost 50 years, so why do we continue to wishcycle and have such a strong belief in our recycling bins? 

We should put the main emphasis on reducing waste consumption and production initially. There is a reason why reduce is first in the 3Rs

So, recycling is clearly not the answer, then what is? We should put the main emphasis on reducing waste consumption and production initially. There is a reason why reduce is first in the 3Rs. There are many ways to reduce waste, including making a meal plan and shopping list, buying second hand, using reusable bags, cutlery, bottles etc. We should also look into reusing our waste for other purposes, be it using our jam jars to hold makeup brushes or turning takeaway pint glasses into plant pots, there are many exciting ideas to flex your creative muscles. Without changing our attitude towards waste and recycling, nothing will change, and we will continue with ever-growing landfills and incinerator fumes entering our atmosphere. We must globally reduce our waste production and codependence on plastic. It will take a global attitude change to force us out of our bad habits and force companies to change their ideology towards packaging and waste management.

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