Paper, plastic, tin or glass? As the European Commission readies a revision of the packaging and packaging waste directive, research highlights the positives and negatives of various packaging types.
There are few people who would say they’re in favour of packaging waste. Buying a product that comes with too much packaging that seems unnecessary, or packaging known to be difficult to recycle, tends to annoy people. But as consumers, it’s difficult to feel much control over the situation.
The European Commission says regulation is necessary to both stop unnecessary packaging and make sure that the packaging that is necessary is recycled and reused.
174.1kg of packaging waste per inhabitant was generated in Europe in 2018, according to the Commission. Last year the EU executive presented a circular economy action plan which sets the goal of making all packaging fully recyclable by 2030 and promised to revise EU laws in order to get there. That revision of the packaging and packaging waste directive is due shortly.
Stakeholders had their say in a public consultation concluded earlier this year, and one of the most discussed topics has been whether the revision should prioritise certain types of packaging over others because they are easier to recycle or have less greenhouse gas emissions.
Product and packaging design has emerged as a central question. “How you define circularity is important,” Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish lawmaker who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the new circular economy action plan, said at a recent EURACTIV event.
“A big part is the process of product design. If you have a bad product design, you can collect whatever waste streams you want but the level of reuse is poor. So there you need the extended producer liability.”
It’s a question shoppers at the grocery store used to be routinely asked before disposable bags were phased out entirely: paper or plastic?
Now, it’s a question policymakers are asking when it comes to packaging in general. Paper offers a number of advantages over plastic when it comes to environmental impact.
“We have at the moment the lowest carbon footprint compared to alternative packaging solutions, demonstrated by lifecycle analysis,” says Annick Carpentier, director general of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), an industry association.
“That’s explained from different elements including the use of renewable material and the recyclability of beverage cartons. It’s also due to the efficiency of transporting beverage cartons because of their light weight. It allows [logistics operators] to pack more than other packaging alternatives.”
ACE’s members, which includes the Swedish multinational Tetra Pak and its Swiss rival SIG, have set a goal of having a 70% recycling rate for beverage cartons put on the market, up from 51% today.
Eventually, the aim is to reach 100% renewable and/or recycled content by 2030. They have a science-based target initiative which aims to reduce the environmental footprint of carton in line with the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement.
But will this be sufficient to achieve climate neutrality by 2050? NGOs say more than just targets are going to be necessary. A complete rethink about the supply chain is needed, and this means that even if a certain type of material might have less environmental impact in one set of conditions, it might have more in another.
“It’s difficult to compare the greenhouse gas emissions of packaging materials without considering the system which the packaging is used within,” says Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, policy officer for products and circular economy at the European Environment Bureau (EEB), a campaign group.
“For example, the way in which factors such as package weight and transport interact with the carbon footprint depends on the length of the supply chain, the mode of transport etc.,” Schweitzer says.
Glass, he says, may be heavier but “if it’s being used to supply beverages for a local supplier the impact of the weight may be negligible.” There are also emissions savings if the packaging is reused compared to only being used once. According to the EEB’s analysis, a 20% reuse rate in the take-away food sector in the EU could save almost one million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
“Ultimately, if we are stuck with ultra-processed industrial products from a far-off land ultralight plastic packaging might be the best option. In contrast, when we produce locally either we don’t need any packaging or it can be reused. Depends what you want really.”
Carpentier says reuse is often a good option, but it doesn’t suit every situation. “Renewable options should be part of the portfolio of packaging on the market, but there shouldn’t be a dogma that in all cases reusable options are better,” she says.
Reusable options can be more expensive, requires a frequent rotation to be viable, and can run into problems if the material is easily breakable. “We’re not saying that reusable is not good, there is a place for reusable options on the market for given applications. But not across the board without thinking or lifecycle assessment.”
A recent Circular Analytics report found that beverage carons generally have a better carbon footprint than glass bottles when lifecycle analysis is taken into account.
The question for the Commission of whether packaging can become climate-neutral therefore depends on what material is being used, what it’s being used for, whether it’s being collected, and whether it’s being recycled.
So in the revision of the EU’s packaging legislation, the question is whether to propose a mandatory recycled content proportion, or to instead focus on increasing collection. Mandatory recycled content targets may not work for every type of material, and a focus only on meeting targets could end up ignoring the bigger picture.
“The Commission’s objective by 2030 is to have all packaging recyclable or reusable – we believe this is incomplete,” says Carpentier. “By 2030 all packaging should be low carbon, sustainably sourced and recyclable and/or reusable.” Targets should be technology neutral, she says, but should also take into account a full lifecycle analysis that would incentivise the use of materials with lower greenhouse gas impact.
The legislation also needs to not just increase recycling but also fix bad packaging design, says the EEB’s Schweitzer. “Unharmonised Extended Producer Responsibility systems across the EU mostly apply a price determined by the packaging material, without consideration of the environmental impacts of the packaging or its end of life,” he says.
“Secondly, out of date and loosely defined essential requirements in the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive permit almost any packaging on the European market. For these two reasons there is no legal obligation and very little economic incentive for companies to change their packaging design.”
Schweitzer says the problem with the Commission’s approach is that they are focused too much on collection and recycled content and not enough on rethinking the way packaging is designed.
“The revision presents an opportunity not only to increase recycling but to reimagine how we deliver products without creating waste,” he says. “The focus needs to be not only on increasing recycling rates, but also on reducing the levels of waste in absolute terms and increasing reuse.”
“This could include an overall reduction target for the total amount of packaging waste per material stream, measures on avoidable or unnecessary packaging which can be phased out, and reuse targets for sectors where there is a proven potential for reuse.”
For her part, Carpentier says the paper industry encourages a more holistic vision for the directive’s revision but should keep in mind that packaging is a necessity, not a luxury.
Banning packaging is neither practical nor desirable, she insists. “There is nowadays a feeling that packaging is superfluous and we could get rid of it altogether,” Carpentier says. “That’s a misconception because packaging protects food, allows their safe transport and storage, and allows us to avoid food waste.”
“Paper can pack products without refrigeration for up to six months and sometimes even more,” she notes – which saves electricity by avoiding refrigeration in hot climates. Simple targets that don’t take these wider lifecycle analysis impacts into account could risk incentivising the use of the wrong types of packaging for the wrong situations.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]