Ireland generated 1.2 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2021 – EPA calls for measures to urgently tackle packaging waste

  • Ireland generated 1.2 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2021.
  • Ireland is continuing to achieve high levels of recycling for glass (84 percent) and paper/cardboard (73 percent).
  • Plastics present a serious challenge. Only 28 percent of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2021, a long way off the 2025 EU target of 50 percent. The majority of Ireland’s plastic packaging waste is being incinerated.
  • Ireland’s overall recycling rate fell from 62 percent in 2020 to 58 percent in 2021. It must reach 65 percent in 2025.
  • Fiscal measures to incentivise householders and businesses are also urgently needed. The new levy on waste sent for recovery, and increases to the landfill levy, will reward better practices of segregation of waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today published its latest figures on packaging waste in Ireland.

Ireland generated 1.2 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2021 - EPA calls for measures to urgently tackle packaging waste Ireland is meeting current EU recycling targets and achieving high recycling rates for some streams such as glass, paper/cardboard and ferrous metals. However, in 2021, the overall recycling rate for packaging waste fell by four percent to 58 percent putting the 2025 target of 65 percent at risk. While the quantity of packaging waste being recycled is increasing every year, it cannot keep up with the total increase in packaging waste being generated in the first place.

Plastic packaging waste recycling rates remain low, at 28 per cent. Most plastic packaging waste was sent for incineration, with less than one third recycled. Ireland will face significant challenges in meeting the 2025 and 2030 recycling targets for plastic of 50 per cent and 55 per cent.

Commenting on the figures, Micheal Lehane, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Sustainability said:

“Urgent measures are needed to reduce the quantity of packaging waste generated in Ireland each year. Our current rate of production and consumption of packaging represents a poor use of materials and energy and is a growing source of emissions. With Ireland’s packaging waste exceeding 1.2 million tonnes per year, we need to intensify efforts to avoid unnecessary packaging use in the first instance. Packaging waste can be avoided and reduced by replacing single use with reusable packaging, current examples include pallets, boxes and trays, and through better product design such as lightweighting packaging.”

Poor segregation practices at businesses and homes is leading to high volumes of packaging waste being diverted to energy recovery. This includes materials which can be recycled.

Improved separation by householders and businesses at source is needed to collect higher quantities of recyclable packaging materials. Ensuring waste charges to businesses and householders are clearly incentivising reduction and recycling of packaging wastes will support better separation of materials. Continued awareness and enforcement measures are also needed to support better behaviours.

Warren Phelan, Programme Manager of the EPA’s Circular Economy Programme noted:

“The fall from 62 per cent to 58 per cent recycling in 2021 is disappointing but not unexpected. Better practices are needed by householders and especially businesses, where there are significant opportunities to divert good quality materials from the residual bin. The new levy on waste sent for recovery, and increases to the landfill levy, will reward better practices of segregation provided customer charging is appropriately incentivised.”



The EPA compiles official statistics on waste generation and treatment in Ireland. These are used for reporting on Ireland’s performance in meeting its legal obligations, for policy and waste management planning purposes and to inform the general public. Data are compiled through surveys of waste operators and administrative data sources, in cooperation with other public authorities.

Key data:

  • Ireland generated 1,238,838 tonnes of packaging waste in 2021, an increase of 120,243 tonnes (11 per cent) on 2020.  There has been an increasing trend in pack waste generation since 2016.  (This increase was driven by the updated municipal characterisations that showed increased paper and plastic packaging percentages.)
  • Approximately 247kg of waste packaging was generated per person in 2021, up from 225 kg per person in 2020 and 229 kg
  • This included 100kg of paper and cardboard, 73 kg of plastic, 34 kg of glass, 19 kg of wood and 17 kg of metal packaging per person.
  • In 2021, 58 per cent of waste packaging was recycled, exceeding the current EU target (55 per cent). This is a drop of 4% from 2020.  The future recycling targets that will apply from 2025 (65 per cent) and 2030 (70 per cent) will be challenging for Ireland to meet.
  • The majority of Ireland’s recycling is done abroad, with just 18 per cent of packaging waste (225,000 tonnes) recycled in Ireland in 2021, mainly glass and wood.
  • Ireland achieved high recycling rates for a number of packaging types: glass (84 per cent), paper & cardboard (73 per cent), wood (51 per cent) and metal (58 per cent).  Based on these figures, Ireland is already on track to meet new EU recycling targets for 2025 and 2030 for glass, wood and ferrous metal, while some improvements will be needed to meet the 2030 target for paper/cardboard, aluminium, and plastic.
  • By contrast Ireland only achieved a recycling rate of 28 per cent for plastic packaging waste, meaning that our plastic recycling performance will need to improve significantly to meet the new EU recycling targets of 50 per cent by 2025 and 55 per cent by 2030.
  • Almost two-and-a-half times more plastic packaging waste was sent for energy recovery than was recycled in 2020. The share of plastic packaging waste incinerated for energy recovery has grown year on year from 44 per cent in 2017 to 70 per cent in 2021, contributing an estimated 413,590 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere in 2021.
  • Plastics are made from fossil fuels; therefore, carbon is built into them and is released as carbon dioxide when incinerated at end of life. On average, as much as 2.7 kg of CO2 is emitted for every kg of plastic incinerated.
  • Packaging recycling targets are set as a percentage of overall waste generation.  Although preferable to landfill and energy recovery, recycling has an environmental impact because it requires energy for transport and processing and can lead to downcycling of materials particularly plastics. Therefore, we need to intensify efforts to prevent waste and develop a circular economy.
  • Overall, of the 1,238,383 tonnes of packaging waste generated in Ireland in 2021, just 18% (225,000 tonnes) was recycled in Ireland, mainly glass and wood.

Circular economy: A circular economy is one where materials, including packaging, are recirculated and used again and again and waste is minimised.  To facilitate the move to a more circular economy, the European Commission adopted the EU’s first Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015. It updated pre-existing European waste legislation, tightened existing targets and introduced a range of new targets. The EU’s second Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted in 2020, focuses on accelerating the transition of Europe’s economy towards a more circular model. The Irish Government published a new national waste policy, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, in September 2021.

Recycling means any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations.

Recovery means any operation the principal result of which is waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil that function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function, in the plant or in the wider economy. Annex II of the Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) sets out a non-exhaustive list of recovery operations, which include material recovery (i.e., recycling), energy recovery (i.e., use a fuel other than in direct incineration, or other means to generate energy) and biological recovery (e.g. composting).

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