Reduce, reuse, recycle: EU outlines sweeping new legislation to curb packaging waste

Published late last week, the proposed revisions to EU legislation on Packaging and Packaging Waste has been brought forward because the bloc has documented a significant increase in packaging waste and litter over the past two decades.  Official figures for 2020 state that 35% of packaging waste was landfilled, littered or burned to generate energy-from-waste.

“The need for change is obvious,” said Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius. “If we don’t stop these trends, the volume of plastic waste could increase by 46% by 2030. So clearly we need a systemic change.”

The new proposals are intended to reduce packaging production in the first instance, improve recyclability and scale the market for recycled content. The headline ambition is for EU member states to reduce packaging waste, on a per-capita basis, by 15% by 2040, against a 2018 baseline.

Some packaging formats, such as packaging used to house beverages, will need to be made fully recyclable by 2030, under the proposals. The EU has stated that there will be applications for compostables that are not recyclable, but that these applications will be “extremely limited”. There will also be an overhaul of recycling labels to help boost recycling rates, with the same labels set to be used on all bins across the bloc.

The European Commission is set to produce design criteria for packaging that will lead to the phasing-out of unnecessary and hard-to-recycle components. These include miniature toiletries in hotels and disposable cups and cutlery used for dining in at restaurants and cafes.

Additionally, the Commission will set out mandates that plastic packaging producers will need to include a certain proportion of recycled content within their packaging. The UK has already taken a similar move, taxing producers who fail to meet a 30% recycled content threshold. The EU has not yet proposed a threshold.

Spotlight on refill and reuse

Given that only 9% of the plastics produced to date have been successfully recycled, many green groups had been hoping for the proposals to cover reuse and refill as well as recycling.

The European Commission has acknowledged that reusable and refillable packaging has become less available over the past two decades. It will bring forward a requirement for certain companies, including food and drink takeaway firms and online retailers, to offer a certain percentage of their products in reusable formats. A proposed percentage has not yet been provided.

This requirement will be supported by a new labelling system for reusables and a harmonization of packaging. This latter measure is being brought in to address concerns about packaging being transported over large distances for cleaning and refilling, thus increasing the carbon footprint of the packaging. A harmonized system would mean that packaging could be cleaned more locally.

These proposals have ruffled some feathers with some producers of fibre-based and bio-based packaging, who argue that their offerings would be better for many applications than reusables, in terms of environmental impact and customer experience.

The Commission has also pre-empted concerns about the employment and economic impact of its proposals, particularly on the packaging manufacturing and waste management industries.

“Single-use packaging industries will have to invest into a transition, but the overall economic and job creation impact in the EU is positive,” it has stated. It is forecasting the creation of 600,000 jobs in circular economy sectors this decade.

Green policy boon

Last week was a busy one for EU-based green policy analysts, with the bloc pushing forward a string of amendments and proposals ahead of the festive break.

Another key green policy proposal concerned the certification of carbon removals, both using nature-based solutions and man-made technologies. This was a key topic of debate at COP27 in Egypt last month.

The proposed regulation includes four criteria for removal credits, namely quantification (accurately measured and unambiguous); additionality (going beyond existing practices and legal targets); long-term storage and sustainability. This latter requirement means that removal schemes should also contribute to other sustainable development objectives, not harming efforts relating to climate adaptation, biodiversity and so on.

The European Commission will set up an expert group to support the development of the certification. Its first meeting will take place in early 2023.

The Carbon Trust has stated that it wants the requirements on long-term storage to go further. The organisation’s associate director in Europe, Pauline Op de Beeck, said: “The EU should define exactly how long technologies will store carbon in order to be certified as permanent removals, and clearly distinguish these from technologies which temporarily absorb carbon.”

Elsewhere, EU Ministers agreed on a common negotiating position for the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD). The Directive is intended to ensure that corporates are held responsible for any breaches of international environmental laws and standards, or violations of human rights, in their value chains.

Member states agreed that the Directive should cover companies’ entire supply chains, but not the entirety of the downstream value chain. There was also an agreement on whether the Directive should cover the financial services sector – a proposal opposed by France, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and others. The compromise was that member states should, optionally, be able to decide whether to include or exclude finance platers.

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