Plastic, waste and the greenwashing of climate action

11 Nov 2019

Image: © bogdandimages/

When it comes to climate and the environment, oversimplifying a complex web of issues lets the Government off the hook with greenwashing policies, writes Elaine Burke.

A public consultation was launched last week by Richard Bruton, TD, Minister for Climate Action and Environment, who wants to see levies applied to single-use disposables such as coffee cups.

Less disposables means less waste and, concurrently, less pollutants getting into wildlife ecosystems. The proposal is also intended to drive more conscious consumerism: if coffee in a single-use disposable container costs more, we are more likely to start bringing our own cup for refills instead.

There are good intentions for the environment and for waste management behind this proposal. It is not, however, a climate action policy.

Yes, everything we consume has a carbon footprint and minimising that is a step towards a lower carbon economy overall. But disposables – and, the bogeyman du jour, single-use plastic – are not the big fish to tackle when it comes to emissions.

Bizarrely, Bruton was quoted widely last week as saying: “How we use and dispose of our resources is crucial – in fact it accounts for 60pc of our emissions.”

I can’t account for where the Minister came up with that figure, but 60pc of our carbon emissions, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, comes from energy use.

Reducing emissions, you’ll know by now, is top of the agenda when it comes to climate action. This is what the Paris Agreement and EU 2020 targets demand. Ireland, a known laggard when it comes to reducing emissions, has the third-highest emissions of greenhouse gases per capita in the EU.

‘There’s a point where the amount of responsibility being passed on to end users – and not manufacturers and industry – becomes unreasonable’

Yes, as part of our climate action goals, we need to change consumer behaviour. We need to change everything about our consumption and its outputs. But there’s a point where the amount of responsibility being passed on to end users – and not manufacturers and industry – becomes unreasonable.

Last week, I discovered that even NCAD lecturer Enda O’Dowd, a man with a degree in plastics, can’t get his head around what can and can’t go into his domestic recycling bin from day to day. So much packaging is now made from composite materials – which is not theoretically impossible to recycle, but the techniques and facilities certainly aren’t in your local plant.

Where is the levy on industry for producing these Frankenstein materials with no responsible sustainable life cycle in mind? Where’s the incentive for businesses to switch to reusable packaging via return schemes? Where are the waste management facilities that account for the type of waste we are now dealing with?

Then there’s the great greenwashing myth of ‘compostable’ bioplastics. While many keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

While bioplastics may support a small reduction in the carbon footprint of plastics, the ‘compostable’ element of their disposal only applies if they are added to an industrial composter at 50 degrees Celsius, not the garden variety compost heap of eggshells and discarded veg.

With climate at the top of the consumer agenda, brands, services and governments will do anything to look more environmentally friendly. But looks can be deceiving.

Focusing on the end consumer makes for a great photo opportunity with the Minister having his Keep Cup refilled at a coffee shop but, Nero-like, he is refilling while the world burns fossil fuels.

The carbon footprint of plastic and its environmental impact is not insignificant, but our climate action leaders have bigger hills to climb and little time in which to conquer them all. These uphill climbs require a Government with the conscientiousness to invest in better public transport and sustainable energy networks, the guts to take on powerful industry lobbies, and the ability to win over people affected with just transition policies.

The situation in the midlands, where ESB is set to close two peat-burning power stations, will test the Just Transition plans of this Government. Today, three ministers will face the realities of this complex challenge where it will be difficult to please powerful stakeholders and disadvantaged individuals while taking the actions necessary. Hard decisions have to be made with public support to back them up, because we aren’t going to weather the disruption necessary to mitigate the climate crisis unless we’re all on board for the greater good.

These are the problems that can’t be papered over with a thin policy that whittles a great global challenge down to the end user only. This is the Government’s time for real and sincere climate action.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.