Making Europe’s economy circular: The time is now

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The circular economy lies at the very heart of the Commission’s new regenerative growth strategy for Europe and UNESDA is fully committed to supporting the transition, writes Tudy Bernier.

Tudy Bernier is senior policy manager at UNESDA, the the European soft drinks industry association. 

As we embark on this next phase of Europe’s Circular Economy strategy, our industry needs three things: legal certainty, a long-term vision and a holistic approach, working in partnership with all actors.

Less waste, more valuable resources

The acknowledgment that Europe needs a step-change towards a circular model where waste is turned into a valuable, secondary raw material, is music to our ears. Making our packaging more circular and sustainable is a core priority. We need to create efficient collection schemes to increase collection of all beverage containers – ensuring the availability of high quality rPET and continuing to recycle aluminium and glass.  Only by doing this, can we guarantee a well-functioning internal market for secondary material.

Many of our members – including Suntory, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola – have announced ambitious targets for sustainable, recycled content.  They continue innovating to make our packaging sustainable – lightweighting aluminium cans and introducing 100% rPET bottles.

In tackling packaging waste, three things matter: collection, collection, collection. We need the right infrastructures and technologies in place and all stakeholders are playing their part to achieve higher collection targets alongside reducing packaging through innovation and lightweighting.

We support both Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) for beverage packaging – which need to be introduced more widely across the EU wherever alternative systems fail to accelerate the transition towards a circular model; and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes covering various packaging types and materials – which are already in place in a number of EU countries but need optimising.

We welcome the Commission’s intention to take measures to improve the performance of EPR schemes – particularly on eco-modulating producer fees – and to examine how they could be applied to a wider range of products and included into producer ownership models. We call on the Commission to provide guidance to Member States for harmonisation of efficient collection schemes to accelerate implementation timeframes. This includes limiting free-riding and ensuring that all actors contribute to the funding and running of schemes.

Recycling techniques are an important step in the circular loop. Today’s highly efficient mechanical recycling schemes must be complemented by new, innovative technologies – including enhanced recycling. By combining mechanically recycled PET, enhanced recycled PET and renewable PET, our industry can reduce its carbon footprint while delivering products in a safe and sustainable packaging. Policymakers can empower the industry to realise its circularity objectives by taking action to unleash recycling innovation – including validating pending authorisations for mechanical recycling and providing a clear regulatory framework for enhanced recycling.

Clarity and legal certainty are key

While there is much to get our teeth into we need more clarity in several areas: The Commission states that it “will present a sustainable product policy framework applicable to raw materials, intermediate and consumer products by 2030” and we ask that particular attention be given to the definition of a “sustainable product” and how industry can help in delivering sustainably. Our industry has already taken significant steps – including committing that by 2025 100% of our plastic packaging will be recyclable and contain a minimum 25% recycled content. In parallel, under EU law, collection rates for plastic bottles must reach 90% by 2029 and several countries are already meeting those targets. It would seem logical that a product that is entirely recyclable, uses recycled content and enters a highly efficient collection scheme, should be defined as sustainable.

A circular Europe must also be a competitive one. The transition means changing our production processes and investments to compete in the EU and beyond. EU authorities must provide legal certainty on which packaging formats are considered sustainable so that producers can make the right investments and guarantee employment in the European internal market. They must also promote consistent policies and avoid contradictory measures that could hinder efforts to reduce carbon footprint or lead to the banning of products which are both recycled and use high levels of recycled content. Eg. we regret the French government’s decision to phase-out all SUP by 2040 as this could imply that circularity for certain products should not be pursued.

Empowering consumers as part of a multi-stakeholder approach

We are delighted to see Commission policy carving out a role for the EU’s 450 million citizens in helping to create a circular economy. Our consumers, employees and collaborators are enthusiastic to get involved.

We also note the aim that consumers have access to clearer information on environmental aspects of products.  We support a common, European approach that provides fact-based, fit-for-purpose information on the sustainability of food and drink products. A proliferation of different labels risks confusing people and we would welcome Commission action that ensures the proper calculation of a product’s environmental footprint.

Giving circularity a chance to deliver on environmental objectives

It’s time to consider waste as a true resource. Innovations such as alternative recycling methods and bio-based packaging hold great potential and must be fully explored, not stifled.

Transitioning towards circularity means providing a clear direction and roadmap with no contradictions. Our sector is committed to making its packaging more sustainable and tackling plastic waste.  We need long-term visibility and assurance that we won’t see a ban on certain packaging that renders our investments redundant.

As policymakers, economic players, consumers and citizens we are travelling this journey together. The soft drinks industry is excited to work with all stakeholders in transitioning towards a new circular world.

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