2 – Plastics and Packaging Waste

This is Part 2 of the input into the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment’s Waste Advisory Group consultation process on the circular economy by Feasta member Féidhlim Harty.

Following are my responses to the questions raised by the department for consideration as part of the second meeting:

For the manufacturing/retail sector:

What role can you play in producing viable reusable food containers for on the go consumption?

Rather than limiting ourselves to reusable containers, edible food containers are an obvious choice for any on-the-go food items. Ice cream cones, sandwiches and wraps are all designed to be used and consumed on the move. Cornish pasties were designed to be eaten by lead miners so that when they had finished the pasty, they could discard the crimped pastry at the edges which had lead contamination on them from handling the ore. Other possible opportunities for edible containers include chip cartons from fast food outlets, and food containers at markets, festivals and events, for example.

What are the obstacles to customers bringing their own food containers to shops?

FH: a notable obstacle to this being common practice is the ready availability of free plastic bags. The plastic carrier bag tax made a sweeping change to our shopping habits for carrier bags, and a similar change for small bags may be an effective way to encourage the reuse of smaller bags, boxes etc for dry goods, fish, meat etc.

Are there additional products that are suitable for consumption reduction?

One of the many things that Covid-19 has shown us, is that our consumption habits routinely extend well beyond the realm of actual necessities. We have dramatically reduced our consumption of flights, travel, gifts, clothing, household items etc. without any consequent reduction in human needs such as food, water and clean air. In fact, globally we can see that air and water quality have improved, sometimes markedly, under the reduced manufacturing and travel conditions we find ourselves in. The question then becomes, how do we encourage a society where consumption per se is either discouraged, or is at least not actively encouraged by relentless advertising and the drive for increased DGP at nation state level? How do we as citizens and government, genuinely move to a circularity in our economy and society, where consumption is reduced across the board, and where a slower-moving, more reflective and self reliant population is encouraged (none of which add to GDP, but all of which can add greatly to ecological recovery and to human fulfilment and wellbeing.)

Can Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes play a role in meeting targets for plastic and packaging waste?

For EPR schemes to be worthwhile they should not only cover the cost of closing the loop on the products or raw materials in question, but also historic clean-up operations for existing leakage into the wider environment. An obvious requirement would be for the oil industry, ultimately the source of the plastic products, packaging and other wastes in our oceans, to fully fund ocean clean-ups of both macro and micro-plastic waste. Cleaning up general ocean plastic is arduous enough as it is, but microplastic clean-up may most reliably be carried out by fitting every sewage treatment outfall with screen filters of a sufficiently small pore size to trap all microplastic fibres from washing machine use; and to filter all road runoff similarly for tyre microplastic filtration. To have this carried out on a global or even national scale is a huge undertaking, but to back away from it simply because it looks too large reneges on our responsibilities to future generations for the losses to wildlife and to ocean health. In point of fact, if the oil industry, or plastics industry, cannot adequately clean up historic and current environmental pollution of their products, then these should go the way of DDT, deildren, lead paint, asbestos and a whole array of other products once considered safe until we learned of their true impacts.

Could modulated fees drive change and transform our approach to plastic and packaging waste?

While modulated fees can form part of the transition to an overall reduction in plastic production, they should not be seen as a long term reason for difficult wastes to remain within the supply chain. Biodiversity losses, climate breakdown and overall ecological systems collapse are now so far advanced that I propose more immediate changes through banning of any materials/products that are not readily reused or recycled; deposits on materials/products that are reusable or recyclable; and then finally modulated fees perhaps on recyclable items to encourage the move to reusables – or on plastic items to encourage the move to natural materials. Remember that packaging can be a very low-tech affair, that can be as simple as a wicker basket or cotton bag. No doubt there are also higher-tech solutions such as bioplastics from hemp and other plants that can fill the current niche dominated by hydrocarbon plastics. Fee modulation would be inherently part of packaging and plastics if the Feasta Cap and Share process were to be rolled out nationally or internationally, since the energy/carbon balance would be taken into account in the price of the oil/gas used in manufacture, transport, (and ideally disposal).

How do we influence decisions made at the product design stage to ensure circular economy design principles are adopted- can a viable, fully recyclable single polymer plastic be manufactured?

Even effective plastics recycling can be problematic insofar as it is a source of microplastics into the wider surrounding environment; and the manufacturing of plastics is increasingly based on fracked gas, with its disproportionate climate impact. Instead can we ask the question: how do we best encourage the development of extensive reuse infrastructures in our supermarkets and supply chains? Alternatively: How many opportunities can you find in your manufacturing processes to eliminate plastic and other single use packaging from the supply chain completely?

For the Local Government Sector – How can the event / planning / waste licencing systems be used to reduce the use of single-use plastics. For example, Should planning rules for events include provisions relating to the use of single use plastics for beverages and food?

Government has a crucial role to play in the move away from single use packaging and from plastic, but this requires changes mostly at national government level, rather than at local level. Due to the serious impact that plastics, and the breakdown into microplastics, have on the wider marine environment and other natural environments; and due to our requirements to cut back on fossil fuel use to curb the worst impacts of climate breakdown (of which plastic manufacture inevitably contributes), it is essential that we rapidly and systematically move away from plastic as a raw material where ever possible. Despite its versatility, durability and low cost, plastic use needs to be seriously curtailed to those items only for which readily available alternatives are more difficult to find, such as medical and electronic uses for example.

In our household we have endeavoured to move away from plastics and packaging where possible and we have found that many everyday items of plastic or packaging can be readily substituted or eliminated. Following are some of the items which can readily be eliminated from the supply chain in their plastic form, in favour of their natural material form, which is readily and safely biodegradable:

• Kitchen utensils (in favour of wooden or metal utensils which are longer lasting as well as being more beautiful and pleasant to use – I’ve yet to find a good alternative for spatulas… to get the last of the food out and not waste in one area to avoid waste in another).
• Shopping bags (cotton, jute, hemp, bamboo alternatives).
• Small meat/fish bags (plastic or metal boxes or glass jars of a suitable size).
• Small dry goods bags (smaller versions of the eco-friendly shopping bags – easy to make from remnant material).
• Cartons (if refill infrastructure was readily available for milk, yoghurt, soup, juice etc. then plastic, including mixed material, cartons would be readily avoidable)
• Kitchen film (beeswax wrap covers, a covered bowl or lidded box).
• All single use household items such as paper tissues, kitchen paper and serviettes; plastic straws; single use plates, bowls, cutlery, cups, plastic glasses, fire lighters… all have alternatives which are reusable, or are readily avoidable and as such the plastic packaging that accompanies them all can be readily avoided.
• Shampoo and conditioner containers (refill or as bars rather than liquid).
• Soap (as unwrapped or paper/card wrapped bars).
• Washing up liquid and washing detergents (refill bottles or plastic-free cardboard or paper containers).
• Dental floss (silk or bamboo) and tooth brushes (bamboo handle; also available with natural bristles).
• Tooth paste (tooth powder in metal tin, or home made powders using existing kitchen ingredients).
• Even for multiple-use items there is a turnover of plastic which ultimately breaks and needs to be replaced, at the expense of more fossil fuel use; such as household and garden furniture for example.
• Plastic clothing in its many forms (instead use cotton, wood, bamboo, hemp etc. to eliminate microplastic generation via washing machines).

European legislation is already moving in the direction of limiting the use of some of these items, but here in Ireland we could work with both legislation and with manufacturers to phase out the vast majority of plastic from our shop shelves and thus our homes.

In addition to the above, electronic devices such as mobile phones are designed to be replaced as regularly as possible to maximise profits at the expense of not only reliability and durability, but at the expense of environment and society as well. It would be an easy matter to introduce/strengthen legislation around repairability of all electronics to extend their durability, and to ensure that software upgrades do not encourage phone replacements. There is a waste element for both the electronics themselves and for the extensive packaging that they are presented in.

By phasing out plastics and in-built waste at manufacturing level via national legislation, the restriction of plastic use at festivals/events would be unnecessary. However one of the ways that a certain amount of waste could readily be eliminated or reduced via local government interventions is the establishment of storage yards/buildings at bring sites for the extraction, storage and resale of good but unwanted items. One of the private waste companies in Clare already offers this service and sells items as diverse as scaffolding planks, concrete blocks, bicycles, dolls, books, gates, piping, signs and an old aeroplane body. Currently the local authorities are limited in doing this work by, apparently, a legal issue around ownership of the items by the recycling company once they arrive at the council yard. Surely it should be an easy matter to divert good but unwanted items to storage for resale to the public as a zero resource, zero energy service to avoid new purchases with the associated carbon and resource footprint.

Continue to section 3 – Discussion on Deposit Return Schemes
Back to section 1 – Citizen Engagement in the Circular Economy
Index page of report

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

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