EU Waste Regulation – Blazing a trail for circular consumer packaging?

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

Plastic_bottles [Lisa Risager / Flickr]

Consumers appreciate recyclates in packaging as long as it doesn’t affect the quality, functionality and price of the product. But how do companies remain competitive in view of added costs for high-quality recycling and the low price of virgin plastics? Michael Laermann tries to find the answer.

Michael Laermann is a sustainability consultant, freelance editor and founder of Reason & Rhyme, a strategic consulting and communications firm.

More and more packaging is made from post-consumer recycled waste. We are already used to bottles made of discarded plastic and packaging made of recycled paper or pulp. More recently, there has been news about food-grade packaging manufactured from such renowned brands as Magnum ice cream, Knorr powdered stock and Zott Italian mozzarella.

For packaged goods companies, the motivation to use secondary packaging material is driven by a shift in consumer awareness and a rapidly changing regulatory environment. The circular economy, including new waste and recycling laws, will be the number one priority of the new Commission’s upcoming “European Green Deal”.

In their “EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”, the Commission asserts that “all plastics packaging placed on the EU market should be designed to be either reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner.”

Under the amended EU Packaging Waste Directive, PET bottles will need to contain at least 25% recycled plastic as from 2025. From 2030, the target will be 30% for any plastic bottle placed on the market.

The declared goal is to push companies use 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics in their packaging by 2025 – quadrupling the current demand. Meanwhile, in the UK, the government has proposed a tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content as from April 2022.

Is recycled plastic safe for food packaging? EU seems to think so

The European Commission is preparing to fast-track approval of 140 recycling processes for use in food and drinks packaging, despite warnings that second-hand plastics risk containing toxic chemicals that are dangerous for human health.

In response to regulatory pressure, in February this year 70 business organisations submitted voluntary pledges to produce or use more recycled plastics, with the aim to increase the market for recycled plastics by at least 60% by 2025.

In October, six of the world’s biggest users of packaging committed to increase the use of recycled plastic in packaging fivefold, going from an average 4% recyclate in 2018 to 22% in 2025.

Towards a new normal

These combined efforts go in line with the trend that consumers are increasingly concerned at their role in contributing to the plastic crisis. Fifty years after the introduction of the recycling symbol, they expect manufacturers to take action and help them consume in a more responsible manner by providing them more eco-friendly products.

A global study by IPSOS shows that every second consumer would be willing to buy goods made from recycled materials, while a indicates that nine out of ten respondents would choose a product packaged in less plastic when offered a choice between two goods of the same quality.

Since the buying public perceives product and packaging more and more as an entity, they see it as contradictory – or even as an act of greenwashing – if a product that is declared to be sustainable comes over-packaged or in unsustainable packaging material.

From this perspective, products with recycled packaging are considered in line with consumer expectations and part of the mainstream market rather than “green” niche. Sustainable packaging is no longer a choice for brands, but a corporate necessity.

Make use of recycled plastic mandatory, EU told

Europe’s market for recycled plastics will never pick up unless regulators make a decisive move and impose a minimum amount of recycled materials into new products, said a wide coalition of businesses, local authorities and environmental NGOs.

Make or break

While some companies are more compliance-driven, others take a lead with circular business models in hope of reaping the benefits of cost savings, increasing brand valorisation and – eventually – gaining in market share. For these pioneers and their customers, packaging must be circular. A tough challenge, considering the low market price of virgin plastics.

A prime example is Werner & Mertz, according to Reader’s Digest “the most trusted consumer brand” in the household cleaner category in Germany. Pursuing the cradle-to-cradle principle, the company uses sophisticated laser and extrusion technology to recuperate PET and HDPE from domestic waste streams.

“To ensure customer acceptance, our 100% recycled plastic bottles have to be fully transparent while keeping the product’s retail price,” explains Timothy Glaz, Head of Corporate Affairs. “It’s not about positioning ‘green’ at a premium but providing sustainable quality products to the mass market.”

New regulatory stimuli ahead

To facilitate the uptake of recyclates in packaging at competitive prices, the costs for recycled compared to virgin plastic would need to be brought down. The EU Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in 2015 has already led to concerted policy and regulatory efforts in support of more sustainable packaging.

The “Single-Use Plastics Directive” is only a beginning. Under the revised EU Packaging Waste Directive, stricter “Essential Requirements” for packaging products are currently in the making. The criteria for eco-design, green public procurement, and other relevant product legislation are equally under review.

Recyclers claim EU carbon quotas from saved energy, CO2 emissions

French recyclers were in Brussels last week with a big ask – EU regulators must reward the whole recycling value chain for preventing emissions of global warming gases, they claimed, a message received with caution by the European Commission, which points to a lack of data.

A key regulatory incentive now being prepared by the European Commission are eco-modulated EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) fees. Similar to a “bonus-malus” system, they would financially reward companies that put easily recyclable or recycled packaging onto the market: The higher the recyclability, the lower the fees, and the higher the competitiveness. Some EU Member States are also considering tax incentives.

On the consumer side, the challenge remains in how to communicate the positive impact of sustainable packaging in an effective and trustworthy manner without it being perceived as greenwashing.

The trust in eco-labels is low due to their proliferation, lack of comparability and doubts about their validity. For this reason, product labelling is currently under review by the EU and we can expect to see action to tighten the rules.

A good starting point is the ongoing work by the European Commission on the method, which measures the life cycle environmental performance and relevant impacts of products, including CO2 footprint and the depletion of natural resources.

Corresponding information for packaging products might be of interest not only for consumers but also for “green” public procurement.

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