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Government must take the lead in ending plastic waste

Fine Gael has another chance this week to join the rest of the Dail in supporting waste bill, writes Eamon Ryan

In our heart of hearts, we know this throwaway culture has to change. (Lynne Cameron/PA)
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We are sick and tired of plastic waste. All those bottles and cups littering our most scenic spots. Watching David Attenborough on Blue Planet II, we realise that this trash is polluting our waters, wildlife, and food chain.

In our heart of hearts, we know this throwaway culture has to change. We are starting to realise the false economy in shipping so many raw materials backwards and forwards across the world. What we want instead is a new circular economy which treats our natural resources with care.

Then there is the ticking time bomb of climate change. For every kilogrammes of plastic we use, six times that weight of greenhouse gases is released into our atmosphere. We have to change tack rather than allow our planet to become so polluted and burned.

That was why the Green Party introduced the Waste Reduction Bill in the Dail last year. We were helped by the environmental organisations Voice Ireland and Friends of the Earth, and inspired by the work of Ellen McArthur, who saw the scale of plastic pollution in her time sailing around the world, and set up a foundation in her own name to do something about it.

The bill directs the Government to take action in three specific areas. Firstly, we want a ban on single-use items such as plastic forks, straws and plates in shops, restaurants or takeaways. There is no reason this could not happen tomorrow. Wooden, paper, and compostable alternatives are already available and can do the job just as well.

Secondly, we want to end single-use plastic coffee cups, which we would achieve by putting a 15c levy on every non-recyclable cup so that retailers and manufacturers switch to reusable and compostable alternatives. The money raised from the levy would go to pay for a new municipal compost bin collection system that would gather all those used cups, plates, knives and straws and convert them into valuable compost.

Thirdly, we want to introduce a 20c deposit and refund scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans. It would need a significant increase in the 'producer responsibility' contribution from the manufacturers to pay for the collection and refund system. We know from many other countries how it can work and that it also typically brings recycling levels up more than 90pc.

There would be substantial additional revenue streams from the higher volume and quality of recyclable materials and there would also be savings for the State in lower litter collection costs. There would be no cost for the consumer other than for those who decide not to collect their own refund. This is a win-win-win solution for the environment, economy and society.

The Labour Party kindly gave us its Dail time to introduce the bill and it got widespread support from all parties with the exception of the Independent and Fine Gael TDs in Government. It seemed they were spooked by an industry lobby which did not want any change to the status quo. Companies like Coca-Cola were able to take a position in favour of a deposit refund scheme in the UK but to argue against it in Ireland at the same time. It was as if our country didn't matter.

Because the Government is in a minority, the bill passed second stage and went into a year-long process of detailed scrutiny in an Oireachtas committee, where the proposals were properly tested.

The Government maintained its opposition despite agreeing in principle to what we were trying to do. It came up with a variety of half-baked alternatives such as designating Cashel in Co Tipperary as a test site for a deposit refund scheme.

Months later it ditched the idea when it realised it would be next to impossible to seal off the town from the rest of the country to measure what effect such a test was having.

It also argued our measures were not enough on their own, which is true. We need to cut down every type of plastic use and ensure non-recyclable packaging is removed everywhere. However, the measures in our bill were taking us in the right direction and have widespread public support. Doing nothing should no longer be the default option.

Earlier this summer, it looked like the game was up for the Government when the European Commission came up with a new plastics strategy promoting exactly the sort of measures proposed in our bill.

Last month, in his state of the union address, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said one of the last acts of this European Parliament should be to pass the regulations which would compel governments to end plastic waste.

Fine Gael, however, still wants to play for time. It has stalled the progress of our bill to committee stage by availing of a legal technicality. Government can block any further debate on the introduction of the sort of levy we have in mind by refusing to issue a money order, which is needed before such a debate can even take place.

As if that was not bad enough, it is out trying to prove its environmental credentials on social media, telling everyone else how important it is for people to start cutting back on single-use plastics, which it is oh-so concerned about itself. The party is one step away from those old Barney videos, telling young children what is the right thing to do.

It is making the fundamental first mistake in environmental politics of putting all the responsibility on the individual rather than putting the systems in place so that it is easy for people to do the right thing. While individual responsibility is important, we will not achieve the change we need if we turn every act into a daily virtue-signalling exercise.

On Tuesday, the Green Party will be returning to the Dail to press a motion calling for our Waste Reduction Bill to be debated at committee stage. There is a new Minister for the Environment, and Fine Gael has a chance to change tack by voting with the rest of the Dail.

Failure to do so would say a lot about its priorities. Like the refusal to increase the carbon tax in the last budget despite dire warnings from the UN in the same week that the world has 12 years left to prevent runaway climate change, it would show how little they really care about what is happening in our natural world.

We look forward to hearing what the party has to say.

Eamon Ryan is leader of the Green Party and TD for Dublin Bay South

Sunday Independent

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In our heart of hearts, we know this throwaway culture has to change. (Lynne Cameron/PA)