Re-Gen calls for voluntary scheme in the single use plastic cups and containers debate

Around 63 million single-use plastic cups are in circulation in Northern Ireland every year and a consultation is underway here which is looking at a voluntary scheme, levy or ban in an attempt to reduce production and circulation.

Joseph Doherty, Managing Director of Re-Gen Waste, says the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ consultation on single use plastics is welcome as it creates debate and discussion.

“There is no simple answer to the issue of single use plastic cups and containers but I’m in favour of a voluntary scheme. It will allow the industry to shape the scheme, has the least impact on producers and means that they can be involved in the innovation required in changing the design of products. A voluntary scheme can be shaped by industry leaders and, in my opinion, is the right choice.

“At present, single use plastic cups and containers from black bins are going to Waste to Energy Plants and landfill sites and that is something we don’t want to see happening in the future. The biggest issue is when paper cups are lined with plastic and the two materials can’t be separated in the recycling process. Alternatively, if the product can be separated it creates micro plastics that cannot be removed from the water in the paper-making process. We need a process whereby the plastic lining of paper cups can be removed and the plastic and paper can both be recycled.”

It is unlikely that the packaging industry will welcome additional costs introduced but, at this time, a voluntary scheme or levy appears to be the only realistic option. Adding a levy at the point of sale may be significantly more effective than imposing a levy on producers who are developing the products. It also offers the greatest opportunity for recycling in the kerbside collection. Making recycling as easy as possible for householders is a priority.

“I don’t support a ban on single used plastics as they have become an integrated element in the food, hospitality and retail industries,” adds Mr Doherty.

“They are lightweight and offer convenience to consumers but we can be assessing their reduction, reuse and recycling capability. Our focus needs to be on reuse. However, a total ban is the most blunt instrument which will impact the packaging industry immensely.

“There are reuse options already available like reusable coffee cups and self-fill containers which customers can fill with shampoo or coffee in many retail spaces. But change will only come with an integrated communications campaign to encourage consumers to change their behaviour and use more self-fill cups and containers regularly. It will take time to become mainstream but, unfortunately, will never be 100 per cent effective. We all have our part in adopting reusable cups, like the one Re-Gen distributes.”

An estimated 2.5 billion disposable cups are sold in the UK annually and less than 0.5 per cent are recycled. This has issues for virgin materials and litter.

The DEARA consultation covers two types of food containers: Scope 1 (which are filled at point of sale) and Scope 2 (which are used for pre-filled and pre-packaged foods). Plastic is useful in protecting and transporting food which has few, if any, feasible alternatives.

“While re-usable cups have been used for a number of years only a small number of people use them and that trend is unlikely to change by 2035 – the date when the UK Government’s recycling target should reach 65 per cent of all waste. We need to remove the plastic linings of single use plastic cups so that they can be recycled. Card, glass and metal are great materials but they don’t offer the versatility and ‘long life’ that plastic offers. It is important that food remains in optimal condition to that it reaches the consumer without any decay or contamination.

“I would like to see a consistent approach across the three Devolved Administrations, the UK Government and Republic of Ireland while observing what is happening in neighbouring countries,” concludes Mr Doherty.