LISTEN: Athlone Institute of Technology Takes Part in ‘Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future’ Podcast Series

Can we move away from using plastic? No. Can we make plastic more sustainable and environmentally friendly? Yes.

Welcome to ‘Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future’, a podcast series from The Journal.ie which focusses on sharing big ideas that will impact Ireland’s future and what life will be like in ten years’ time. This week’s episode, which asks ‘can Ireland go plastic free by 2029?’ features Dr Declan Devine, Director of Athlone Institute of Technology’s Materials Research Institute and foremost authority on sustainable plastics.

According to Dr Devine, while it’s true that improper usage and disposal of plastic can have a detrimental effect on the environment, it also has many positive benefits and has become completely indispensable to modern living. “Plastic has many practical applications and low production costs - something that has driven public demand for plastics in areas like food packaging and manufacturing. It’s an incredibly sophisticated tool for extending the shelf life of most perishables while maintaining freshness and has completely revolutionised the way we consume and store our food,” he says.

The use of plastic in food packaging actually lessens the environmental impact of food waste by extending its shelf life from days to weeks. Polyethylene shrink wrap, for example, can extend the shelf life of a refrigerated cucumber by a week, while beef that has been vacuum packed in multi-layer plastic can last up to 45 days on the shelf. By extending the shelf life of food, food waste is kept to a minimum. “From this perspective, plastic is key to reducing the significant environmental impact of food waste in terms of climate, land, water and biodiversity, all of which are impacted by the multiple processes involved in growing and distributing food,” Dr Devine explains.

Currently, more than 1.3 billion tonnes of food is being lost or wasted each year through inefficiencies in the food supply chain. Weak infrastructure, including issues with food storage, processing and packaging, and the ability to keep food fresh, leads to significant income loss for farmers and an increased cost for the consumer. The introduction of sustainable plastics could greatly reduce this wastage.

Dr Devine also highlights the many problems associated with plastic alternatives such as glass and paper, and explains why, despite what people might initially think, they’re not necessarily more environmentally-friendly. Take glass, for example. When it arrives at a Repak recycling centre, it will be broken into pieces and in need of being reprocessed before it can be used again. To achieve this, it will need to be heated to 1,500 degrees Celsius – using up to eight times more energy than would be needed for plastic.

Paper, on the other hand, which can recycled between five and seven times, has its own associated challenges. ”The reason plastic bags were introduced in the 1970s in the first place was because there were so many trees being cut down to make paper bags. So, on one hand we’re using a byproduct of oil to make plastic, on the other, we’re chopping down trees solely to make paper,” he explains.

So, if we can’t get away from using plastics, is there a way to make them more sustainable and environmentally-friendly? Dr Devine believes so. Listen here: soundcloud.com/ireland-2029/could-ireland-go-plastic-free-by-2029

An educational powerhouse defined by a commitment to academic excellence, rigour and applied education, Athlone Institute of Technology has enjoyed a year of considerable success, most notably being named ‘best in class’ for research across Ireland’s technological higher education sector. Further solidifying its reputational prowess, the institute was recently awarded ‘Best Academic Partnership’ at the prestigious national Education Awards for its part in developing SURE, Ireland’s first academic network dedicated to promoting undergraduate STEM research across the technological higher education sector. These accolades build upon the institute’s success in winning the Sunday Times Good University Guide ‘Institute of Technology of the Year’ award in 2018.

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