An EU-wide ban on landfill for recyclable waste would provide a much-needed push for the circular economy by increasing the amount of secondary raw materials available on the market, says Erika Mink.
Erika Mink is Vice President for Public Affairs at Tetra Pak International, a multinational food packaging and processing company of Swedish origin. She spoke to EurActiv’s Publisher and Editor, Frédéric Simon.
On 4 March, the Environment Council will have its first discussion on the new circular economy package that was re-tabled by the European Commission in December. Why is Tetra Pak interested in that policy debate?
As a manufacturer of packaging, we want to use raw materials in a sustainable way, in the minimum quantity possible and get it back into the recycling loop.
On the recycling side, we have been involved in setting up waste collection systems ―the Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes — which collect materials separately from household waste, sort them and send them to the recyclers, like Fost Plus does here in Belgium.
Then on the materials side, we have been working to ensure that what we use to produce our packages come from acceptable sources. We started with paper, which is the main part, to make sure that we can trace it back with our global suppliers.
So all of the wood used in the paper can be traced back?
And does it mean it is also 100% sustainable?
We can say it is 100% certified according to the FSC standard, which means it is not only traceable, but the whole management of the forest is also taken into account.
You have two levels of certification. One is to ensure it is legal and ethical sources for which there is an FSC standard – that’s the basis. And on top of that you have additional requirements on biodiversity and overall forest management. And only if you can do that, you are allowed to carry this logo on the package.
So how much of Tetra Pak’s products are certified in this way?
We are committed to offering our customers all over the world the FSC standard.
Working on the wood fibre was just the first step. And then we wanted to have the entire package coming from renewable resources, including the plastic layer on top and inside the package.
The package I’m holding now [see picture] is the first that is fully made from renewable materials. It is made from paper board and sugar cane-base ethanol, with which we’re making the plastic lining and the closure. And this was first of its kind which we launched last year.
Sugar cane-based ethanol? This has almost become a dirty word nowadays…
No, not at all! Because they also need to conform with sustainability standards.
So that sugar cane is certified as coming from sustainable sources?
Yes. We don’t have a logo to print on the package but that is also a pre-condition for our sourcing.
Turning to the circular economy package: The Commission proposed an EU target for recycling 75% of packaging waste by 2030. Will it be easy to meet this target? What will it take?
One should aim high as we look towards 2030. For us, that means implementing the waste hierarchy, meaning that no packaging should go to landfill. This would require separating at source and obliging EPR scheme organisations to collect all packaging materials. And by doing that, you create an incentive to sort out the waste and sell it to a recycler.
Collecting everything seems to be a massive challenge, especially in Central and Eastern European countries and, which are lagging behind. How can these countries bridge the gap?
They may need a bit longer. As producers, we face challenges to get enough collected in those countries. But they can also benefit from the experience of Germany or Belgium, which have a much higher recycling rate.
The key thing for that to happen will be source separation. That’s why we feel a ban on landfill will create another push forward. And that’s very simple, instead of one bin, you would have two: one for packaging and one for the rest. And getting that established nation-wide would be a major step forward for those countries.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes are already in place in countries like Belgium. What are the challenges for putting similar schemes in place in Central and Eastern Europe?
There are collection schemes already in place in those countries. What’s required is stronger enforcement of separate collection at source and minimum standards for those EPR schemes. Because there are multiple schemes in place but the rules are very vague for those organisations, so competition may not always happen on equal grounds.
So we think it is extremely important to have minimum requirements for EPR schemes included in the packaging and packaging waste directive. There has to be a much higher level of transparency on their performance and operations. And they must also be obliged to collect all the materials, so they cannot pick and choose what they like. These requirements would also help secure the internal market.
How detailed should the EU be? Is there not a risk of overregulation?
There are fundamentals, for example, ensuring the geographical coverage of EPR schemes in the country. Or that they have to collect everything for which they charge fees. They must also have established rules for fee calculations, for measuring performance, etc.
It’s fairly basic but it must be required and enforced through the competent authorities in the member states. So there needs to be an authorisation mechanism to ring fence EPR schemes at national level.
So I understand you are supportive of a landfill ban. Do you believe this is achievable by 2030?
Yes, I do. Maybe not for everything but for packaging it’s definitely possible. We have been working on this for over twenty years so the experience is there, the knowledge is there, the technologies are there to a large extent. It’s now about setting the right framework to make it work.
In terms of funding, part of it comes from the EPR schemes but should there be other sources? What should be the overall mix?
It is the role of municipalities to take care of waste management. But there is an additional cost if there are two bins instead of one and it’s only normal that those costs are covered by industry. Those costs are typically covered by the producers, who are our customers. And companies like Tetra Pak ensure that there are recycling solutions in place. This is where we put our money—ensuring that whatever these organisations collect, there is a place for it to go.
One of the key principles of the circular economy is to make products more easily recyclable, by design. Has Tetra Pak adapted its designs for recycling purposes?
All our packages have to fit into the existing recycling infrastructure, and the highest requirements clearly are in Europe. That’s why we test them in Europe and make sure the material goes to the recycler and that the plastic is properly separated from the paper, for example.
I understand Tetra Pak has invested in developing biodegradable materials?
Not biodegradable but bio-based. What we use is classic polyethylene but instead of coming from fossil fuels, it comes from bioethanol. This is because we need to guarantee a shelf life of two years and if the pack is biodegradable, you just can’t ensure the food or drink is kept in good condition, especially in hotter regions like Brazil or Southern Europe.
Where does the ethanol come from? How do you ensure it is sustainably sourced?
We have just started this process of switching to bio-based polyethylene and right now there is not enough available. There are technological solutions to produce these materials form European feedstock, but it requires severe investments. So we would appreciate a framework at European level to incentives the use of these materials.
Back to your question, in Brazil there is a sugar cane initiative, where the whole supply chain and NGOs discuss what sustainable sourcing means in this specific context.
How much of the sugar cane comes from Brazil?
100%. But bio-based packages represent probably around 10% of our total production at the moment, so it’s still relatively small.
How much do you expect it to grow over the coming years?
This will very much depend on where the investments go. Right now there is still a price premium for this kind of material. And with the low oil price, everybody is very careful about making investments in this material because it is so price sensitive.
But renewable materials are really the long term solution to keep sustained access to raw materials so we have to do something. And again, for the packaging industry, the technology is fairly well advanced so it could make sense to have requirements in the packaging and packaging waste directive to incentivise this.
What kind of incentives are you thinking of?
Right now, incentives to promote bio-based materials are already mentioned in the action plan put forward by the Commission. This should now be translated in later proposals. Specifically, to say that member states shall take initiatives to promote an increased use of renewable materials in packaging.
There is already a similar proposal for the use of recycled material, which we believe is very valid. But we also believe it would be important to promote the use of renewable materials in order to help this transition from a fossil-based to a renewable-based economy.
In Germany, the Hamburg city council recently decided to ban coffee capsules and disposable packaging from all its public spending. Do you see such initiatives as helpful?
I think they sound better than they are in reality. The issue they want to address is probably litter, and that is a behavioural issue that you cannot prevent by banning certain types of products. So I don’t think banning a product will do the trick.
Some environmental NGOs propose an annual cap for residual waste per person – meaning what cannot be reused or recycled. Is this an idea you would support?
It’s always a good idea to compare, have resource efficiency indicators for the economy. The question is what to do with these indicators. I don’t think you can prescribe anything but you can aim for certain reduction targets for sure.
The circular economy package was withdrawn in December 2014 and re-tabled in December last year. Are you happy with the new proposal and do you think it can now be adopted quickly?
From our perspective, the package is a very good starting point. But we believe it can still be strengthened in three areas: 1) Making sure what can be recycled is recycled — and for packaging, no more landfill by 2030; 2) Recognise renewable materials as equal to recycled materials; and 3) A wider scope that looks not just at recycling but at the whole economy and material flows ―including imported raw materials― to make sure they come from acceptable sources.
And 2030 is a decent time frame to drive change. I don’t think a longer time frame would help.