Project Summary

Packaging can take many forms. It can consist of paper, metal, glass or even textile, although current-day products are more likely to be packaged in plastic. Single-use packaging makes a significant contribution to the problem of marine litter. In 2016, two-thirds (67%) of Irish packaging waste was recycled; however the recycling rate of this material is only 31%. Plastic packaging use is reportedly high in Ireland at 57.9 kg per year per person (kg/p/yr), compared with an average figure for the EU-28 of 31.9 kg/p/yr, although it has been argued that this difference might reflect the different reporting method used in Ireland.

The main focus of the Re-Wrapped project is to critically compare alternative methodologies from across the EU for compilation of packaging waste statistics, and to determine the factors influencing the behaviour of producers, retailers, consumers and waste processors in order to understand why plastic packaging consumption so high and recycling so low in Ireland.

Waste policy in Ireland and in the EU

In Ireland, as in other European countries, policy is based around the waste hierarchy of prioritising prevention and reuse ahead of recycling and energy recovery with landfill as a last resource. There are many EU directives and regulations on waste collection, separation, recycling and final disposal, e.g. Waste Framework Directive (European Parliament, 2008) providing the overall legislative base and establishing relevant concepts and criteria, with recent additions of the EU Packaging Waste Directive (EU 2018/852) and in May 2019 the EU formally approved the Single-Use Plastic Directive. The Irish waste policies align with EU directives and are outlined in ‘A Resource Opportunity – Waste Management Policy in Ireland’ (DECLG, 2012).

Packaging waste

In 2016, on average, 169.68 kg of packaging waste was generated per capita in the EU-28. This quantity varied between 59.1 kg per capita in Bulgaria and 220.55 kg per capita in Germany, with Ireland having one of the highest quantities of packaging waste with 208.5 kg per capita. Packaging waste consists of paper and cardboard (41%), plastics (19%), glass (19%), wood (16%) and metals (5%) in EU Member States. Ireland follows a similar order, though plastic represents a higher (28%) proportion of the total packaging waste generated. This packaging can be differentiated into three three groups of packaging (i) sales or primary packaging, (ii) grouped or secondary packaging and (ii) transport or tertiary packaging.

Plastic consumption and pollution

The global production and consumption of plastics have increased by a factor of 20 in the past 50 years; from 15 to 311 million tonnes (MT) between 1964 and 2014 and it is expected to double over the next 20 years (MacArthur et al., 2016). In 2017, Europe consumed 51.2 MT of plastic, of which approximately 40% was used for packaging, and of which only 40% (16.7 MT) was collected and recycled (Plastics Europe, 2019).

Plastic is used for a huge range of packaging due to its durability, light weight, versatility and strength, but with the production and use of plastic has come plastic pollution. A significant amount of single-use and disposable plastic packaging end up in our environment and oceans (Andrady, 2011; Schnurr et al., 2018). A recent study carried out by the (European Commission, 2018), identified that five of the top ten waste items were plastic packaging waste: beverage bottles and cups, food wrappers and packets, bags, drink cups and lids, and food containers.

Irish waste management systems

In Ireland, the three-bin system has been implemented with mixed recyclables, compost and residual waste. Local authorities prepare waste management plans; however, the private sector is typically the service provider for collecting household, commercial and industrial waste. The collected waste is selected at MRF’s (Material Recovery Facilities) and either processed in Ireland or sent abroad for further treatment. The enforcement of legislation is undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Ireland.

by D Maguire, EPA Waste Statistics

Project Team

Project Investigator
Craig Bullock

Lead Researcher
Nicolai Thorball

Emmanuel Reynaud

John Gallagher

Research References

Andrady, A.L., 2011. Microplastics in the marine environment. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 62, 1596–1605.

DECLG, 2012. A Resource Opportunity – Waste Management Policy in Ireland.

MacArthur, D.E., Waughray, D., Stuchtey, M.R., 2016. The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics, in: World Economic Forum.

Plastics Europe, 2019. Plastics – the Facts 2018 – An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste date [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.26.19).

Schnurr, R.E.J., Alboiu, V., Chaudhary, M., Corbett, R.A., Quanz, M.E., Sankar, K., Srain, H.S., Thavarajah, V., Xanthos, D., Walker, T.R., 2018. Reducing marine pollution from single-use plastics (SUPs): A review. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 137, 157–171.

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