Waste: the Basics

While we might have grown accustomed to paper recycling when it comes to more complex materials we need to do a lot more to achieve sustainability. As humans we’ve been dealing with rubbish since the beginning of time, but a lot has changed in the last 100 years. Industrial manufacturing and economic development have gone hand in hand with a massive increase in the waste we create and we’re running out of excuses. In the EU we create 5.2 tonnes of waste per capita each year. Approximately 100kg of that is food waste. Just 8.2% of all EU waste is created by households, meaning the rest – 91.8% is made by infrastructural and commercial activities. That’s why waste is such an important part of business sustainability practices.

Waste can be defined as the end-of-life of a material, but it all has to start somewhere. Luckily, in OECD countries, overall raw material use has begun to stabilise while GDP continues to rise, showing that we have begun to decouple economic growth from increasing materials use. We’re beginning to find more efficient ways to manufacture goods and to reuse and recycle more than just paper. There’s still a long way to go though. Globally material use has more than doubled since 1990, and more raw materials means more waste.

Waste categories and contamination

In Ireland municipal waste services collect 3 main categories of waste: general, recycling, and food/garden waste. Unfortunately contamination of bins is a big problem. The 2018 EPA Municipal Waste Characterisation Study for Irish businesses showing that 70% of general waste bin contents should be in either the food waste or recycling bin. Additionally, disposable coffee cups account for 3% of black bin contents – annually 14,000 tonnes of non-recyclable materials. Contamination rates have also not improved since the 2008 study, showing that businesses have a long way to go to better waste management.

Landfill and recycling

What happens to all of that waste? In 2018 the EU sent 38% of all waste to landfill and another 38% to be recycled. In Europe alone there are approximately 500,000 landfill sites. In 1999 the Landfill Directive overhauled the industry and since then all operational landfill sites have enhanced environmental management. The problem is that 90% of all these landfill sites were built before these rules were put in place. Today there are only 3 operational landfills in Ireland. 

Energy to Waste

In recent years Energy to Waste incineration has been increasingly used as a method of residual waste disposal to replace landfill as it is a more environmentally sound option. Here is an infographic to show how a Waste to Energy Plant works, reducing the volume by 90%.


The efficiency and financial viability of recycling relies on many factors such as type of initial material, quality of input/low contamination levels, infrastructure capacity and market for the recycled output. 

Metal and glass recycling

Metals are historically one of the most viable and valuable materials to recycle given the huge energy required to extract raw materials and manufacture goods. Aluminium recycling uses 95% less energy than the new raw material. Glass is infinitely recyclable and using glass cullet (crushed recycled glass) in new glass processing can reduce the CO2 emissions by up to 30%. 

Paper recycling

Recycling just one tonne of paper saves enough energy to power a home for nine months, and also saves 31,000 litres of water. Paper can be recycled between 5 and 7 times before the fibres are too weak and short to work with. 

Plastic recycling

Plastics are the most recent addition to the recycling roster and the most challenging. To read more about plastic recycling click here for the Plastics Resource page.

Food waste recycling

Food waste recycling is a slightly different situation to the above truly recyclable materials. Obviously we can’t turn old veg into new veg! Instead, the process of either composting or anaerobic digestion aims to turn food waste into useful compost or biogas. The by-product – digestate is useful as a fertilizer. In this way the waste becomes a useful product for agriculture or fuel purposes.

What happens to our waste?

Where does our waste go? Ireland, with a small population of 5 million, does not have sufficient volume of many waste streams to make domestic recycling an option for most materials. Most of our glass is recycled here in Ireland – 86% and some plastics and steel but the rest is sorted at Material Recovery Facilities and baled for export. 

China banned accepting many categories of overseas waste in 2018 due to increasing contamination and environmental concerns. At its peak the EU sent 10.1 million tonnes of waste to China in 2009; this volume has fallen to 0.6 million tonnes in 2020. Many other countries are following in China’s footsteps, such as Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand which are all planning import bans. These countries were simply not equipped to deal with the sudden increase in waste volume since China’s ban, and with devastating environmental effects. 

This crackdown will inevitably force EU countries to become more self-sufficient in their waste management systems. In the 4 years from 2016 to 2020, the EU’s total export of plastic waste to receiving countries has fallen from nearly 250,000 tonnes to under 150,000 tonnes. In 2020, Turkey was the biggest recipient of EU waste by far, 53% of total volume, with 13.7 million tonnes in 2020. The EU’s total waste export volume has continued to rise despite these bans, and currently sits at 32.7 million tonnes, an increase of 75% since 2004. 

Eurostat EU statistics from 2016 show that 12% of all material production came from recycled products and recovered materials. It is a start, but there’s a long way to go before we can say we’ve eliminated waste.

Business case for reducing waste

In case all this wasn’t enough of an argument for getting to grips with our rubbish, there are also key commercial benefits to practicing good waste management. The most obvious one is that reducing waste will decrease your business costs – general waste collection is priced higher to encourage good use of the recycling and food waste bins. In addition to fulfilling CSR requirements you will be able to reduce CO2 emissions from waste and achieve your sustainability goals. 

Successful waste reduction is also a great marketing and PR angle showing your customers that you are dealing responsibly with your environmental commitments. Communication of your achievements can also have a positive knock-on effect as those in your supply chain could be encouraged to step up.Your business will be in a good regulatory position for further waste legislation down the line, ahead of your competitors.

Check out Where to Start? for tips on developing sustainability strategies for your business’s waste.