Glass packaging already has one of the highest recycling rates in Europe, but better collection of a greater amount of glass is needed to meet Europe’s goal of a 75% recycling rate and, eventually, reach complete circularity.
Dating back to the 1970s, there is a long history of sorting and collecting glass packaging for recycling and reuse in Europe.
“Glass is a great example of a circular material. It is already achieving outstanding results in waste collection and recycling,” according to Virginijus Sinkevičius, Europe’s environment commissioner.
But it is yet to reach complete circularity – some glass is still wasted and new glass is still made using carbon-intensive production.
Currently, 76% of glass packaging is collected for recycling. Meanwhile, glass packaging contains on average 52% recycled content. The industry is determined to reach 90% collection by 2030 and the European Commission has set a target of 75% recycling by 2030.
“Glass is a very simple and permanent material that can be endlessly and easily recycled into new glass applications, without any degradation of its quality. The challenge to increase recycled content is to have access to recycled glass. That’s why improving collection is so important for us,” said Vanessa Chesnot, senior product policy manager at the European Container Glass Federation, an industry group.
Improving the uptake of recycled content would bring major environmental benefits: a 10% increase of recycled content in the furnace decreases energy consumption by 3% and CO2 emissions by 5%, according to Chesnot.
In order to close the gap, there needs to be harmonised rules at the national level, but more flexibility at the local level, according to the needs and population of the area, as well as more information for consumers about how to recycle glass.
“To reach the 75% recycling target by 2030, we need to collect more, but we also need to collect better,” Chesnot said, drawing attention to the different challenges faced by consumers when it comes to collection and recycling.
“That’s where the need for separate collection of glass come
s into play. We also have to take into account different types of consumers,” she explained.
Concern over reducing weight
The European Commission is planning to revise the packaging and packaging waste directive in order to help meet more ambitious environmental targets.
But while Chesnot believes the revision will help boost the circularity of packaging, she warned against mooted plans that risk unduly discriminating against glass packaging because of its weight.
This could happen because of a best-in-class approach whereby the lightest product in a particular category of packaging and material would be considered the benchmark and other products would have to be within a certain margin of this.
Although the idea might seem tempting, it risks promoting more lightweight plastics, Chesnot warned. That concern is partly shared by environmental NGOs, who fear that such measures could push producers towards lighter, non-recyclable packaging such as plastic, cutting down on material use but possibly increasing the amount of waste.
Not all agree, though. Rob Buurman from the Dutch NGO Recycling Netwerk, argued that there is a case for limiting the weight of glass used in packaging.
“What we need at some point is to have a certain standard which you can only deviate to a certain degree from,” he told EURACTIV, referring to whisky producer Johnnie Walker which uses two bottles, different in weight, for the same amount of liquid.
Reuse must be local
Chesnot also voiced concerns about reuse targets. While reuse is favoured over recycling when it comes to waste prevention, she said it can only happen if there is a consumer culture to support it and an adequate distribution network in place.
Larissa Copello from the campaign group Zero Waste Europe echoed these concerns, saying reuse must be done on a local level.
According to her, any reuse targets should also be supported by standardisation of packaging to ensure objectives are easier to meet with a lower carbon footprint.
“When you use glass, it’s better to have as short a distance as possible and that’s why it’s important to leverage the logistics and transportation,” Copello said. “As well, standardisation in this type of material across sectors will be key so [bottles] don’t need to be collected and sent over the country,” she told EURACTIV.
For Zero Waste Europe, it is essential that glass packaging is reused as much as possible, she added, referencing a study that found single-use glass – bottles used once and then recycled – has having the greatest impact of all types of packaging.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]