I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to today's meeting. I am the chief executive of the environmental charity VOICE Ireland, one of the leading national environmental charities advocating for waste prevention through reuse, repair, repurpose and reimagining. We have many campaigns, including Conscious Cup, We Choose Reuse, Sick of Plastic, Return For Change and Picker Pals. We are also active in the development of policy at both national and EU level.
I would like to give the committee our impression of the heads of the circular economy Bill. While there are many good provisions, we would like more ambition to embrace new business models and ways of consumption, moving away from our current disposable economy. We can no longer rely on industry to do the right thing. Over the past three years we have seen our packaging waste exceed 1 million tonnes. This is increasing each year and is expected to be even higher due to Covid. We cannot recycle our way out of this mountain of waste and this Bill can provide the direction we need to change how we consume. As many members said at the latest committee session, producers must take responsibility for designing out waste in products and packaging. They must also invest in new service models. We cannot be content with supermarkets offering new compostable shopping bags or bags made from recycled plastic. This is just nibbling around the edges.
Some in industry tell us that they are only responding to what their customers want. Customers want convenience, which means more prepared meals and more packaging but which came first? Was it providing packaging for perfect produce or the supermarkets making us want that? Supermarkets have conditioned us to choose pre-packaged items in a predetermined amount. Shoppers often do not have the ability to select the quantity they need and are forced to buy bags of carrots that they may never use. If they are able to buy loose fruit or vegetables, it is normally much more expensive per kilo to have the privilege of buying only what they want. I was in Supervalu the other day and a bag of carrots was 50 cent per kilo while loose carrots were €1.50 per kilo. Are we not sick of seeing all our food wrapped in plastic?
Businesses will not change unless our politicians are brave enough to demand new systems.
I worked on Capitol Hill for several years in the 1990s and I cannot tell the committee how many times businesses told me the legislation we were proposing would put them out of business. Needless to say, they found a way to change their systems for the better and comply with the law. We need to build back better. Extracting resources and making and disposing of stuff takes up nearly 50% of our carbon budget and contributes to over 90% of our biodiversity loss.
My mantra, which I say all the time, is "buy the product, not the packaging". Consumers should have the choice when shopping to bring their own container or bag, rent or borrow one or pay for a disposable one. The last option will be achieved through the proposed levies. However, we need retail to change its infrastructure to offer reuse and refill opportunities and make it mainstream. This is being done in zero waste shops around the country, but as Senator Pauline O'Reilly mentioned last time, we should not have to go to many shops to reduce our waste. By making refill and reuse mainstream, we make it much easier for the consumer to shop more sustainably. France has mandated that all supermarkets larger than 400 sq. m must allocate 20% of floor space to reuse and refillables. Items that can be refilled include cleaning products, dry goods, oils, vinegars, nuts, spices, etc.
Catering also must do its part. The waste action plan calls for a ban on the unnecessary use of disposables in eat-in restaurants as well in closed-loop large-scale events, such as concerts and sports events. This mandate should be in the Bill or included in subsequent regulation. As of 2024, Portugal will require the use of reusables for in-house consumption in restaurants. I have witnessed first-hand a food hall containing about 25 restaurants in Lisbon where all the plates, cups, glasses and cutlery were reusable and collected to be washed and used again.
We need to tackle takeaways and meal deliveries. Other countries have piloted reusable containers where the container has a deposit that is returned once the container is returned. The container is then washed and redistributed to the business to be used again. Standardised containers, pooling arrangements, reverse logistics and industrial washing facility infrastructure can be developed throughout the country. However, to achieve economies of scale and create a level playing field, all takeaways and delivery services must comply so we do not have any freeloaders. Developing such a system creates local jobs through delivery, washing and logistics instead of buying cheap packaging from abroad.
We agree with Deputy Bruton that sectoral roadmaps for packaging, textiles, food waste, electronic waste and other streams must be developed with strong reuse, repair and waste prevention targets. Additionally, there are further demands from the environmental community. First, make it mandatory for the Minister to set reuse and repair targets, set bans and impose levies instead of saying he or she "may" do so. Second, impose a tax on virgin plastic to boost viability and take-up of recycled plastic resins, as is done in Italy, Spain and the UK. On the other side of the coin, we call for zero VAT for repaired or reused items as VAT has already been paid when they were first sold. Third is truth in labelling. The statute must declare that containers that claim to be compostable or biodegradable must use one label, "compostable", that meets the EN 13432 standard, which means that the product breaks down to its original constituents within 12 weeks in an industrial composting facility. Right now there is a plethora of labels, which is confusing for the consumer.
Fourth, ban the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, which are forever chemicals, in food contact materials, including food packaging. In a report done by CHEM Trust in the UK, many plant fibre compostable food packagings contain PFAS to create a waterproof and greaseproof barrier. PFAS is the stuff used in Teflon. VOICE has just conducted a test of 11 brands of compostable or paper-based packaging commonly used in Ireland and all of them exceeded the limits for allowable PFAS amounts. The bowl I am holding, which I had a colleague of mine find in the Dáil canteen, was one of the highest rated for PFAS, at 12 times the allowable amount. The sad thing is that this bowl advertised that it is fully compostable and meets the EN 13432 standard. Not only is it touching the food we eat, but it goes to composting facilities, where it breaks down and remains in compost that is used on farmers’ fields. I would like our PFAS report to be admitted to the record. Denmark, last year, and California, just recently, have both banned PFAS in food contact material and we call for a similar ban in Ireland. It is interesting that in Denmark MacDonald's and other companies have been able to switch to non-PFAS materials.
Fifth, demand that supermarkets larger than 400 sq. m devote 20% of their shopping areas towards primary refill and reuse packaging. Sixth, demand that in-house consumption of food and drink as well as large closed-loop events provide reuseable cutlery, cups and delft. Seven, require takeaways and food delivery services to offer reuse options and, where it is not offered, the consumer can bring their own container or purchase a disposable one. Eighth, provide liability relief for repaired and reused items to encourage the repair and sharing economy. Some initiatives such as the repair café and ClonBike, a bike sharing scheme, have had to discontinue due to the inability to secure insurance. At least allow individuals to bring their own containers and if they do, create a personal acceptance of liability should they get sick from a reusable container they did not wash. Ninth, we call for the more frequent review of the food waste prevention roadmap to see if interventions are effective and for interim annual targets to ensure that we meet the 50% reduction target.
Tenth, we call on Government entities to ban the purchase and use of any disposable single-use cup, plate or cutlery. Reusable options must be provided. Thus the Government will lead by example and create the momentum for reuse infrastructure to be established. In the Dáil, Members have many disposable items. Some are compostable or recyclable. I do not know if they are being put in the right bin. Get rid of those, lead by example and use reuse options. These are some of our suggestions and I look forward to working with members as this Bill progresses. I am open to any questions members might have.