ReWrapped: Plastic Packaging Waste

ReWrapped has critically compared alternative methodologies for compilation of packaging waste statistics across the EU. It has also examined factors influencing the behaviour of producers, retailers, consumers and waste processors in order to understand why plastic packaging consumption appears so high.

Single-use packaging, particularly of plastic, makes a significant contribution to the problem of marine litter. In 2019, just under two-thirds (62%) of Irish packaging waste was recycled, but the recycling rate for plastic was only 28%. Plastic packaging use is reportedly high in Ireland at 65 kg per year per person (kg/p/yr), compared with an average figure for the EU-28 of 33 kg/p/yr. We argue that, while plastic packaging consumption could indeed be high in Ireland, its position as an outlier compared with other countries is mainly due to the particular Waste Analysis reporting method used in Ireland and weaknesses in the application of the alternative Placed-on-the-Market method by other Member States.

ReWrapped Reports

ReWrapped has examined the comparability of Irish and EU packaging waste statistics reporting, reviewed the situation with regard to the collection of data on very lightweight plastic bags, and undertaken interviews and a survey of producers, retailers and waste processors. A survey of consumers has also been completed. The project concluded in December 2021 and our final report can be found here and will shortly be available on the EPA website. Please email the PI (below) for the more detailed reports on producers and consumers.

Webinars were undertaken in July 2021 and February 2022 with industry stakeholders, policy makers and regulators. Information and recordings from the webinars can be obtained from the project team by using the contact details below.

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. The Waste Framework Directive provides the overall legislative base and establishing relevant concepts and criteria, with recent additions being the EU Packaging Waste Directive (2018/852) and the Single-Use Plastic Directive (2019/904). Irish waste policies align with EU directives and are outlined in ‘A Resource Opportunity – Waste Management Policy in Ireland’ (DECLG, 2012).

Packaging waste

In 2019, on average, 177 kg of packaging waste was generated per capita in the EU-27. This quantity varied between 74 kg per capita in Croatia and 228 kg per capita in Ireland. This waste consists of paper and cardboard (40.6%), plastics (19.4%), glass (19.1%), wood (15.6%) and metals (5.0%). Ireland follows a similar order, though plastic represents a higher proportion (28%) of the total packaging waste generated.

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

Principal Investigator:

Craig Bullock

Lead Researchers:

Nicolai Thorball & Celia Somlai

Communications Lead:

John Gallagher

Partners and advisers