EPA calls for urgent measures to tackle packaging waste

  • Ireland generated over one million tonnes of packaging waste in 2020, for the fourth year in a row.
  • Ireland is continuing to achieve high levels of recycling for glass (84%), paper/cardboard (78%) and metal packaging (71%).
  • Plastics present a serious challenge. Only 29% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2020, a long way off the 2025 EU target of 50%. The majority of Ireland’s plastic packaging waste is being incinerated.
  • Targeted financial and regulatory measures are urgently needed to drive a step change improvement in plastic recycling. 

The EPA has today published its latest figures on packaging waste in Ireland.  Ireland is meeting current EU recycling targets and achieving high recycling rates for some streams such as glass, paper/cardboard and metals. However, recycling rates remain low for plastic at 29 per cent, and the share of plastic packaging treated by incineration was 71 per cent in 2020. 

The EPA data shows that Ireland will face significant challenges in meeting the 2025 and 2030 recycling targets for plastic of 50 per cent and 55 per cent.  
The majority of Ireland’s recycling is done abroad, with just 18 per cent of packaging waste (204,000 tonnes) recycled in Ireland in 2020, mainly glass and wood. 
Most plastic packaging waste was sent for incineration, with less than one third recycled. Diversion to energy recovery is happening due to poor segregation at businesses and homes and challenges finding financially viable markets for lightweight and low-quality plastics. If the current practices continue, Ireland will struggle to meet plastic recycling targets and the climate emissions associated from managing plastic waste will continue to grow. 

Commenting on the figures, Sharon Finegan, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Sustainability said: 
“While Ireland is meeting current recycling targets, future targets will be more challenging, especially for plastic. Achieving the step change improvement needed in plastic recycling requires fiscal and regulatory measures to be introduced without delay. This could include enhanced recycling subsidies, a levy on incineration, introducing performance targets on waste operators, and the implementation of incentivised pricing to encourage Irish businesses and households to properly segregate their waste for recycling”.

Along with improving recycling rates, measures are needed to prevent packaging waste. Ireland’s generation of 1.1 million tonnes of packaging waste per year represents a poor use of materials and energy and is a growing source of emissions. Packaging waste can be avoided and reduced through better product design and by substituting single use for reusable packaging.  

Warren Phelan, Programme Manager of the EPA’s Circular Economy Programme noted: 
“With Ireland’s packaging waste exceeding 1.1 million tonnes per year, we need to intensify efforts to reduce packaging waste. Examples of reusable packaging already in use in Ireland include wooden pallets, kegs, and various plastic bulk containers, trays, boxes and buckets. While just 1 per cent of the packaging placed on the Irish market in 2020 was reusable (approximately 8,000 tonnes), this avoided about 72,000 tonnes of single use packaging.”
The report Packaging Waste in Ireland in 2020, is now available on the EPA website.

The EPA compiles official statistics on waste generation and treatment in Ireland. These are used for reporting on Ireland’s performance in meeting its legal obligations, for policy and waste management planning purposes and to inform the general public. Data are compiled through surveys of waste operators and administrative data sources, in cooperation with other public authorities.  
Key data:

  • Ireland generated 1,118,596 tonnes of packaging waste in 2020, a decrease of 112,209 tonnes (1 per cent) on 2019. The slight decrease was due to a 4 per cent decrease in plastic and a 5 per cent decrease in paper/cardboard.  
  • Approximately 225 kg of waste packaging was generated per person in 2020, down from 229 kg per person in 2019.
  • This included 91 kg of paper and cardboard, 62 kg of plastic, 37 kg of glass, 20 kg of wood and 14 kg of metal packaging per person.
  • In 2020, 62 per cent of waste packaging was recycled, exceeding the current EU target (55 per cent). This is the same recycling rate as 2019. The future recycling targets that will apply from 2025 (65 per cent) and 2030 (70 per cent) will be challenging for Ireland to meet.  
  • Ireland achieved high recycling rates for a number of packaging types: glass (84 per cent), paper & cardboard (78 per cent), wood (48 per cent) and metal (71 per cent).  Based on these figures, Ireland is already on track to meet new EU recycling targets for 2025 and 2030 for glass, wood and metal, while some improvements will be needed to meet the 2030 target for paper/cardboard.
  • By contrast Ireland only achieved a recycling rate of 29 per cent for plastic packaging waste, meaning that our plastic recycling performance will need to improve significantly to meet the new EU recycling targets of 50 per cent by 2025 and 55 per cent by 2030. 
  • Almost two-and-a-half times more plastic packaging waste was sent for energy recovery than was recycled in 2020. The share of plastic packaging waste incinerated for energy recovery has grown year on year from 44 per cent in 2017 to 71 per cent in 2020, contributing an estimated 331,926 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere in 2020.  
  • Plastics are made from fossil fuels; therefore, carbon is built into them and is released as carbon dioxide when incinerated at end of life. On average, as much as 2.7 kg of CO2 is emitted for every kg of plastic incinerated. 
  • Packaging recycling targets are set as a percentage of overall waste generation.  Although preferable to landfill and energy recovery, recycling has an environmental impact because it requires energy for transport and processing and can lead to downcycling of materials particularly plastics. Therefore, we need to intensify efforts to prevent waste and develop a circular economy. 
  • Overall, of the 1,118,596 tonnes of packaging waste generated in Ireland in 2020, just 18% (204,000 tonnes) was recycled in Ireland, mainly glass and wood.

Circular economy: A circular economy is one where materials, including packaging, are recirculated and used again and again and waste is minimised.  To facilitate the move to a more circular economy, the European Commission adopted the EU’s first Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015. It updated pre-existing European waste legislation, tightened existing targets and introduced a range of new targets. The EU’s second Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted in 2020, focuses on accelerating the transition of Europe’s economy towards a more circular model. The Irish Government published a new national waste policy, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, in September 2021.
Recycling means any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations.

Recovery means any operation the principal result of which is waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil that function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function, in the plant or in the wider economy. Annex II of the Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) sets out a non-exhaustive list of recovery operations, which include material recovery (i.e. recycling), energy recovery (i.e. use a fuel other than in direct incineration, or other means to generate energy) and biological recovery (e.g. composting).

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