Recycling of packaging waste: the collection conundrum

Deposit schemes for glass and plastic have proven successful in countries like Germany. Should the new legislation require such schemes across the EU? [itsflowingtothesoul / Shutterstock]

The EU has a goal to increase packaging waste recycling, but reaching it will depend on whether local authorities increase and improve collection.

When it comes to municipal waste recycling, rates vary widely across the European Union – from 67% in Germany to 9% in Malta.

And even in countries with similar recycling rates, the methods of connection vary significantly. Some countries have extensive at-home sorting while others don’t. Some countries have so-called “extended producer responsibility schemes” – or taxes on industry for the waste they create – while others have deposit schemes putting the onus on consumers.

The European Commission is preparing a revision of the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive which will aim to dramatically increase the EU’s recycling rate. To do this, they are looking at greater harmonisation of the collection schemes being used locally in member states – and perhaps applying the idea of extended producer responsibility across the board.

Under this principle, the industry’s financial responsibility for a product is extended to include the management of the stage after consumer use. The cost of recycling is thus shifted from the consumer and government to the producers.

But this leads to two obvious questions about harmonisation: which of the different collection schemes used in Europe should be incentivised across the EU, and what happens after collection?

For instance, deposit schemes for glass and plastic have proven successful in some countries like Germany. Should the new legislation require such schemes across the EU?

“These discussions happened already under the single use plastics directive,” said Rozalina Petrova, a staffer at the cabinet of EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius. “The question whether to introduce a deposit refund scheme, or another arrangement under extended producer responsibility, was left open to take account of subsidiarity – local conditions or arrangements,” she told EURACTIV at a recent event.

“Deposit refund schemes are an excellent example of behavioural science. In this way the waste really gets value for the one that holds it. But then the question is whether there are trade-offs with other materials, in case we perceive as valuable only the stuff where we get back a refund, while the others aren’t managed as properly.”

Different materials

The collection method used has implications for forms of packaging that are made up of different materials. Beverage cartons, for instance, are made of multiple layers of aluminium, plastic and cardboard. This can pose challenges for recycling and requires proper collection and sorting that makes full closed loop recycling possible.

“Of course there’s different leverages you need to activate to make sure collection reaches a high level and high quality – one is uniform collection across the country, if not across the EU,” says Annick Carpentier, director general of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), an industry group. “The other is the quality of the sorting. Extra sorting steps can be taken to make sure we can separate beverage cartons from the other packaging.”

“The polymers and aluminium has been maybe not so much recycled in the past, but now there are investments ongoing including from our industry – for instance our members have unvested €8 million into a plant in Germany to recycle the polymers and aluminium, and €29 million in Poland to sort the fibres,” she adds.

Currently, 30% of the polymers and aluminium are recycled. “The objective there is to go much further and reach 70% recycling on all the elements.”

For complex products like beverage cartons, proper sorting becomes essential. This is why the industry is looking for the packaging and packaging waste directive revision to set clear EU-wide standards for what needs to be done.

Key to this will be improving the quality of the sorting, establishing uniform collection and increasing consumer awareness so people understand what they can do to ensure their packaging waste is recycled.

“Separate collection is certainly the way forward, there are some member states where collection is functioning extremely well and we’ve reached recycling rates of 70% to 90%,” says Carpentier. “It’s essential to have such a target, it would provide predictability and higher volumes and therefore investment incentives.”

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New packaging technologies

In addition to discussions about the best collection method, there are also more fundamental questions about what collection is for.

In addition to recycling, collection can also be for reuse, which is considered more desirable from an environmental perspective. So if the directive’s revision is able to spur more investment in recycling technologies, it can also spur more investment in technologies allowing reuse.

Tracworx, an Ireland-based company building digital infrastructure to allow more collected waste to be recycled, sees a business opportunity in the directive’s revision. The company’s tracking technology allows packaging producers to implement traceability and a deposit return scheme on their assets. Customers can even use a smartphone app to see how they can have the product collected for reuse and what rewards they could get for doing so.

Chris Kelly, the company’s co-founder and CEO, says harmonised collection across the EU is essential for the system to work. “As a company we have worked with a lot of businesses already operating returnable packaging models – think kegs, pallets, cylinders or glass bottles – and throughout these system, you see glaring inefficiencies particularly surrounding collection,” he says.

Kelly says some companies can lose up to 70-80% of their returnable packaging assets in a year, causing significant financial pressures. “All of the companies that we work with have been forced to establish their own delivery systems whether in house or third party to ensure the collection of these assets. Recovery represents the single biggest and most important hurdle that must be resolved in order to enable returnable packaging.”

One of the greatest challenges with returnable assets at the moment, Kelly says, is that when they are recovered by a third party there is often no idea of where to return the assets.

“As such companies are slow and reluctant to sign up to a returnable packaging model as there is no clear framework for them to easily recover their assets. Municipalities could help with this recovery process by offering to collect and return the assets of companies and furthermore providing them with the playbook of how to tag their assets to ensure a safe return.”

Firms like Tracworx are hoping to see the directive’s revision include incentives for companies that reduce their packaging waste as well as disincentives or penalties for single-use packaging. They would also like to see the establishment of recovery partners who help companies reduce their loss of packaging assets.

The Commission’s proposal, previewed in an action plan presented in March last year, is expected to be tabled in July. A public consultation document published last year identified increasing and improving collection as a main goal. But exactly how that will be done will depend on what the proposal looks like, and how the legislation will change during the negotiation process in the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.

On packaging recycling, EU aims to close the loop

Not all recycling is equal. As the European Commission prepares to revise the EU’s packaging waste directive, policymakers want to remove degradation and waste from the process.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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