Recycling rates for packaging in the Irish Republic have been something of a success story, with the country now ranked eighth out of the EU 27 - ahead of Sweden, the UK, France and Denmark.
Repak operates the sole scheme for packaging recycling in Ireland, and takes on the responsibility of meeting Ireland’s packaging recovery and recycling targets that are set out in the Packaging Directive. It operates by charging its 2,338 member companies packaging levies for the amount and type of packaging they use on their products.
This then funds packaging recycling collections run by local authorities and waste contractors using a network of more than a million household recycling bin collections, 2,000 bring banks and 90 recycling centres, as well as supporting commercial collections. Repak members cover around 60% of the market and around 7% self-comply, which means that about a third of all packaging is still unaccounted for and effectively being supported by those that are compliant.
Despite this gap, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest figures for 2009 show a packaging recycling rate of 65% and a recovery rate of 70% for the Irish Republic, with 680,000 tonnes of material being recovered. This comes from a recycling rate of less than 15% in 1998 and puts it ahead of the Packaging Directive target of 60% recovery due in 2011.
Looking at Repak’s 2009 versus 2008 comparable data, the biggest jump in material recycled is seen in plastic packaging, which increased almost 30% to almost 80,000 tonnes. Another jump seen was in refuse-derived fuel (RDF) - around 21,000 tonnes of paper and plastic packaging waste that was previously sent to landfill for being too contaminated has now found an outlet in RDF. These figures represent a whopping 260% increase on 2008 figures, and reflect Ireland’s increase in the use of mechanical biological treatment (MBT) technology, with the RFD going into home and European export markets.
However, there has been some discrepancy with Repak’s 2009 figures and those recently released in the EPA’s National Waste Report 2009. The EPA reports a 70% recovery rate for packaging waste in 2009 against Repak’s estimate of 65-67%. Repak is urging caution in the EPA figures.
Repak head of sales and marketing Darrell Crowe explains: “We think that the 70% recovery figure quoted in the EPA report may reflect a one-off bounce in 2009 figures that was caused by the stock-piling of material in 2008 following the collapse of the markets. Obviously we are delighted with a 70% rate, but we believe it has been over-inflated due to this bounce.”
It suggests 2010 figures may not compare so well if the EPA’s 2009 figures are used as a comparison.
That said, both sets of numbers show very positive results for packaging waste recovered from the waste stream. Crowe also points out that packaging recovery currently accounts for around 62% of all municipal solid waste recovery/recycling, which shows its success, but also the need for the Government to focus more on boosting recovery of other waste streams, such as non-packaging biowaste.
But these high figures also mean that Ireland is getting close to the ceiling rate for packaging recycling, with further recovery likely to be from energy from waste, RDF or SRF rather than pure recycling. Figures for RDF and SRF went up in 2009 and 2010, and Crowe estimates they could go up another 30-40%.
So boosting pure recycling rates will get tougher, particularly as Repak finds its income shrinking because the total amount of packaging on the market is contracting due to the poor economic climate. While Repak has not seen its membership shrink, it has seen its income fall from less than €29m (£24.8m) in 2008 to just over €26m in 2010 and, like other businesses, is finding it tougher to get its invoices paid.
In order to push the waste industry to achieve further recycling, the packaging scheme believes there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, the first being the level of landfill tax.
Crowe explains: “One of the big challenges we are facing is the very low cost of landfill, which is currently below €30/tonne - that brings the total cost of landfill [the landfill levy and gate fees being €50-€60/tonne] below the cost of recycling which is around €80-€100/tonne. That’s a big challenge, and one that will undermine our achievements.”
He adds that by having such low landfill tax and gate fees, Repak feels there is more dependence on its subsidies to maintain its current packaging recovery and recycling rates.
“Ireland is getting close to the ceiling rate for packaging recycling, so boosting pure recycling rates will get tougher”
Crowe says that former Irish environment minister John Gormley had attempted to address this by increasing the landfill tax through his Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) 2011 Bill, which was published on 11 January 2011. But this was not passed during his time as minister, and it is unclear whether the new Fine Gael-led Government will take the Bill any further. Repak believes higher landfill tax and gate fees are needed to give the Irish waste industry the clarity it needs to invest in alternatives to landfill.
He adds that current and existing waste policy “has a big question mark” over it. The industry is currently unsure whether the new Government will introduce its own waste policies or draw on existing proposals that had been put forward.
This question mark over policy extends to other areas too. The last administration in Ireland proposed a 75% recycling rate by 2013 for all used packaging, and it is unclear whether the new Government will make this become a reality. If it does, Crowe says it would raise concerns because “this is a very tough target” and would require a much greater level of investment and support.
The concern is that to achieve this target would involve tackling more difficult-to-recycle materials, which have fewer established markets and higher costs involved with segregation and separation, as well as increasing overall recycling participation. With 2013 only a couple of years away, Repak also asserts there is not enough time to achieve this. Economic consultant Indecon has estimated that the target could realistically be achieved by 2018 at the earliest.
On the topic of enforcement, Repak has proposed that a central body, such as the EPA, takes on the function of enforcement, and it is also behind the idea of an environmental court that would deal with any breaches of environmental regulations. Greater enforcement would obviously benefit the organisation because it would mean more producers paying towards compliance and therefore the recycling system.
Another area of concern in the current waste policy is the proposal to implement a ‘full cost’ model rather than the current shared cost model. This would see packaging producers bear the full cost for recycling packaging. But Repak believes responsibility should include consumers because they have a role in how they purchase packaged goods.
Crowe says: “We don’t have 100% coverage of the market so it is an unfair burden on those who are members, which are bearing the cost of non-compliance.”
A full-cost model ignores the concept of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, he explains, whereas the current shared cost model sees householders, producers and contractors all paying towards the cost of packaging recovery, with the bulk of costs borne currently by producers.So the Republic of Ireland may have had a positive start to packaging recycling, but it knows that building on its current success will involve a clear direction from the Government to drive investment in the market and greater enforcement to catch those free-riding the system.
REPAK IN NUMBERS
How much packaging was recycled during 2009?
Glass: 117,361 tonnes
Paper and card: 294,000 tonnes
Plastic: 79,600 tonnes
Metal: 51,700 tonnes
Wood and other packaging: 100,000 tonnes