Sustainable Packaging: Why the PPWD’s Vision is Incomplete

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

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Going green is not a new phase in the world of sustainable packaging, it’s a necessity. In the case of sustainable packaging, it has and can make its contribution to climate change mitigation, and at the EU level, to achieving the goals of the very ambitious European Green Deal of climate neutrality.

The European beverage carton industry has a unique opportunity ahead to innovate and lead the path to truly sustainable packaging. Beverage cartons, which are made mostly out of sustainably sourced paperboard, are already a sustainable and low-carbon solution. Yet, more can be done for this product to reach its full circularity potential.

With the legislative revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) on the horizon, beverage cartons can deliver on their full sustainability capability and achieve the industry vision for 2030 and beyond; that beverage cartons will be the most sustainable packaging solution for resilient food supply systems which is renewable, climate positive and circular.

The European Commission’s objective is that by 2030 all packaging should be either recyclable and/or reusable. ACE, The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment, fully stands behind this vision, but we equally believe it is incomplete. We believe that in addition all packaging should use sustainably sourced raw materials, demonstrate low carbon benefits and be recyclable and/or reusable.

Beverage carton industry sets a collection rate target of 90% by 2030, requiring the EU to follow suit

To ensure that materials are recovered for recycling and make their way into new products, packaging must be collected. Consumers expect it, we focus all our efforts to make it happen. To ensure that beverage cartons are recycled requires investments in the right infrastructure to collect the packaging at the municipal level and take it to the recycling facility.

The PPWD has the unique opportunity to introduce a collection target for the recycling of beverage cartons. The beverage carton industry has set a collection rate target of 90% by 2030 and calls for an EU target on beverage carton collection to ensure a level playing field for beverage cartons compared to other packaging choices. This would see:

  • collection and materials recovered and an increased recycling rate
  • helping reach the ambitious recycling targets the Member States need to achieve,
  • and consumers trusting that we are doing what we set out to do – bring a sustainable form of packaging to the consumer while protecting the environment.

Studies focused on the life-cycle assessment of beverage cartons have demonstrated that these have a similar and even slightly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint compared to reusable bottles, making them a uniquely low-carbon packaging solution that can shoulder the EU’s climate ambitions.

Reusability is one of the options that should be explored, but it is not the most sustainable choice in all cases. Food packaging has a clear purpose. It plays an essential role in protecting and making food safe and available to everyone, everywhere. A resilient and sustainable EU food system needs both reusable and single-use packaging, which is also recyclable.

The new PPWD should resist setting mandatory reuse targets for food contact packaging in EU legislation until we have a better understanding of the impacts for food safety and availability, hygiene, shelf-life and food waste. To date, scientific data to assess the impact of mandatory reuse of perishable food is missing. Therefore, any measures targeting reuse targets for perishable food (e.g. milk or juice) should be considered only at a later stage,  and be based on robust impact assessment.

To allow for efficient enforcement, the PPWD needs to cater for packaging specificities

The PPWD also has the opportunity to create a new framework with new definitions, concepts, terms and targets that are clear, enforceable, material and technology-neutral. The definition of what constitutes recyclable packaging needs to be clear enough for all market actors, easy to enforce and applicable in practice.

The recyclability of packaging must be defined for each product category. For example, packaging that protects perishable food has different design requirements as other packaging, e.g. a milk carton requires a different design compared to a water bottle. Any thresholds introduced in this definition have to be underpinned by the reality of the market and what is feasible to achieve in terms of the recyclability of a product or having it recycled at scale.

As the European beverage carton industry, we are very proud of our commitment and pro-activeness of our members, demonstrated through the ambitious 2030 Roadmap adopted by ACE members in March this year. Our members are working with their customers and suppliers to anticipate and develop the innovation needed to further improve the overall sustainability of the products put on the market.

We are all interdependent and can only achieve significant results by working together to enhance the sustainability of beverage cartons. The revision of the PPWD is the right place to start.

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