Expert: EU needs a 90% collection target for beverage cartons to boost recycling

"The recycling of beverage cartons is technologically possible. It is already being done in various countries. But collection and sorting need to be ensured, Dragos Popa told EURACTIV [Wachiwit / Shutterstock]

The European Commission should introduce a 90% collection target for all beverage cartons by 2030 to ensure they are properly collected and sorted and boost recycling in the sector, says Dragos Popa.

Dragos Popa is a consultant with Roland Berger, which recently wrote a study on recycling beverage cartons, commissioned by The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor.

The European Commission is preparing to revise the packaging and packaging waste directive with the aim of creating a circular economy in Europe. Roland Berger recently completed a study on this for the beverage cartons industry, what were your main findings?

We have worked closely with the beverage carton industry, represented by ACE (The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment), and with some of the individual members to conduct the study and reach the conclusions presented to the European Commission.

The main finding would be our recommendation to the Commission to implement an EU-wide target for collecting 90% of all beverage cartons by 2030. That would also lead to a recycling rate of 70% by 2030 in our optimistic scenario.

Based on the conclusions of our recent impact study, which considers both a comprehensive statistical analysis of the targets’ impact on the actual realisation (ex-post) and the extensive review of case studies in countries where similar national targets exist (e.g. Belgium and Germany), we believe that an EU-wide target would lead to a significant improvement of the existing performance in the mid-term.

Are you hearing from the European Commission that they will implement that? Or do you think there’s still more work to be done to persuade them?

We’ve had good discussions with various members of the European Commission. We’re optimistic that we may be able to convince them.

It’s also important to ensure a level playing field is maintained across Europe. In our study, we presented quite a detailed argument about why we believe the current set up, where PET and other containers have some advantages, could be righted by giving beverage cartons a clear target.

The beverage carton industry has invested a significant amount in recycling capacities to ensure there is demand for this material on the market. They will continue to invest significant amounts – we’re talking €120-150 million – invested by the beverage carton industry, so they need the feedstock to supply these new recycling capacities.

And do you think the beverage carton industry can reach the point where they operate in a 100% closed-loop system?

Yes, we believe so. The efforts of the industry have been in that direction. There are clear plans across Europe to invest in approximately 100,000 additional tonnes of recycling capacity just for poly-aluminium, on top of the approximately 50,000 that exist or are in construction already.

So, there’s a clear plan to develop the demand side, which would then ensure full circularity. But again, for these investments to close the loop it’s also very important to have the feedstock. That can only be ensured if the entire value chain is incentivised to contribute to collection.

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What are the main barriers that the industry needs to overcome to reach the EU’s aim to have 100% of packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030?

Collection and sorting are barriers. The recycling of beverage cartons is technologically possible. It is already being done in various countries and there is a very clear plan to further invest in such recycling capacities. But it’s the collection and sorting that need to be ensured.

In Belgium, there is a collection target for beverage cartons and a recycling rate above 80%. Similarly, in Germany, there is a very high collection rate. Since 2019, the country has had a dedicated target for beverage cartons. These two countries are very good examples of what a target can lead to.

What are the current levels of collection across Europe and how much does it vary between different countries? How can the EU drive better collection?

Today, on average, the rate is around 50% across the European Union. It varies quite a lot. We have several countries that are very good examples – Germany, Belgium and Spain have recycling rates close to or above 70% and increasing.

Then there are other countries, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe, where beverage carton recycling rates are below 50%, in some cases significantly lower, even around 30%.

There are several key levers. On the one hand, sorting is very important. Once the beverage cartons reach the sorter, it is important that they are perceived as valuable material, that there are incentives to sort them separately and ensure they reach a recycler.

Unfortunately, in many cases today, if they are collected with paper and board, they are either sorted out as rejects or in other regrettable cases, they are sorted out and sent to landfill. This is clearly something we need to avoid in the future and there need to be incentives for the entire value chain.

Obviously, the Packaging Recycling Organisation (PRO) is responsible for enforcing these targets at the national level. It would be the PRO that would ensure companies across the value chain are implementing collection and sorting requirements.

A second very important lever is consumer awareness. It’s always best to have the consumers doing the separation at source. If there is a clear target specifically for beverage cartons, then the PROs will also communicate this more clearly/ intensely (via municipalities or even directly to the consumers). The level of consumer awareness and education would significantly increase collection.

The third lever is uniformity. This is another complex topic that the EU is looking at – uniformity in terms of collection and sorting. We have a very heterogeneous landscape across Europe when it comes to collection, both in terms of the number of fractions and in terms of the streams and what materials are collected.

Even within particular countries, this differs. France is a very good example. There are municipalities where you have two fractions, others where you have four or five. Alongside this, the colour of bins and what is accepted differ. Across the European Union, the landscape is very diverse.

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You mentioned Belgium and Germany. What are they doing right and how can other countries learn from that? Does Europe need more deposit return schemes?

It’s not a deposit return scheme. Germany has a deposit return scheme that does not include beverage cartons. In both Germany and Belgium, the extended producer responsibility (EPR) system ensures high recovery performance for beverage cartons.

Belgium has a single PRO, which is one of, if not the best, performing in Europe. It has very clear guidelines and multiple fractions, also a collection method across the entirety of Belgium. In terms of waste management, the Belgian PRO is doing a very good job of enforcing a very similar approach to collection and sorting across the country.

EPR fees in Belgium are at the level that permits enough financing to cover all the collection and sorting costs across the value chain and also allows them to invest in very good and sustainable communication campaigns with consumers.

Beyond that, the entire process is also fully digitalised when it comes to the interface of the producers and collectors. That allows very good traceability of all the waste volumes every day in real-time.

Germany has historical advantages because the country has had composite targets for more than 20 years. Another key element, although this may or may not be best practice, is that Germany uses a lightweight fraction quite consistently across most of the country. There is a high level of consumer awareness that beverage cartons should be put in the lightweight bin.

In Germany, beverage cartons also need to go through a highly performing sorting station, so you have the guarantee that they are sorted out, which does not necessarily happen if they are mixed with paper and board.

When it comes to how much recycled plastic they contain, how can the EU ensure that recycled plastic in contact with food is safe?

Obviously, when it comes to using recycled plastic, it needs to be food grade and only food-grade is then allowed to be used in food packaging, such as beverage cartons. The implementation norms and legal aspects are already in place.

Is there enough supply of high-grade plastic to be used in beverage cartons?

That depends on the area and country. It also depends on the rate of flexible packaging. The industry is focused on improving that, but in general, the collection and recycling rates of flexible plastics packaging are below 30% EU-wide.

Finally, if all of these collection and recycling targets come into force, how much of a benefit would that be to the environment?

The benefit to the environment would be very big. Based on the assessment of other technical consultants that have worked with ACE, beverage cartons have the lowest CO2 footprint by far. (PET has around double the CO2 footprint of beverage cartons, single-use glass has four or five times the footprint of beverage cartons). From that perspective, stimulating a circular loop for the beverage carton industry keeps a level playing field.

But even if beverage cartons do have the lowest CO2 footprint, they still have a carbon footprint. The introduction of the target would increase the recycling performance of beverage cartons significantly, up to 90%. We calculated this would mean eliminating approximately 300,000 cars in addition per year.

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