How Europe is moving towards its recyclable packaging goals

The amount of packaging waste being produced is unsustainable, and Europe is very serious about achieving its circular economy objectives, says Maja Desgrées du Loû, policyofficer for packaging and packaging waste directive, European Commission. In addition, many packaging types are only theoretically recyclable, and providing the definition of what recyclable packaging means, and how materials should be assessed across Europe, will help member states in their effort to reach their recycling targets, she adds.

What are the latest regulations and initiatives by the European Commission’s Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive?

Maja Desgrées du Loû.

We are revising the definition of recyclable packaging, to establish a clear procedure for package assessment that would be the same across Europe. Lack of clarity in this area is not helping member states achieve recycling targets. That is really the core objective of this revision. To define what is recyclable and how packaging should be designed in order to be recyclable. National differences in infrastructure will also be taken into account, although this is a challenge at the EU level.

Currently there is no clear definition or set conditions. We are not starting from scratch, of course, as there are some definitions being used, and a number of schemes and methodologies to assess the recyclability of packaging, but we want to propose an EU-wide approach. This will have a positive impact on the European industry and the free flow of goods, and also on the environment.

This revision will be in line with our circular economy action plan. Our objective is to make sure that by 2030 all packaging that companies are putting on the European market are either recyclable or reusable.

We are also trying to decouple the growth of packaging waste from the economic growth. Packaging waste has been growing even more than our economies in the past 20 years. Packaging units have become lighter, partly due to the switch from materials like glass and metals to lighter materials like plastics or composite materials that are not always recyclable and even less effectively recycled. However, despite this lightweighting trend, there has been an absolute increase in packaging waste relative to population growth. The packaging has increased more than GDP and the population growth. This is clearly not sustainable. It is not circular. And we need to tackle it. We are considering targets requiring companies to introduce more reusable packaging, which is a way to achieve a certain packaging waste reduction by 2030.

What would really ensure that packaging becomes truly circular? 

We have to be a bit realistic here. Some people suggest that we need the environmental footprint matrix available for each packaging format, to measure the overall environmental impact, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and so on, but we do not have the capacity to prescribe this and monitor the implementation of such requirements at EU level. There are millions of packaging formats on the market, and their sustainability depends on many factors. We cannot do this for each one of them.

What we are trying to do is make packaging recyclable and to reduce packaging waste, and that is already a big part of the circularity. At the same time, we are staying material neutral. With our legislation, we will not give one material advantage over another, although the big focus of our work is related to plastic packaging, which has the most challenges, in particular as regards its recyclability. Some people consider renewable materials based on paper better than plastics, others believe aluminium or steel are better than paper, but metals are very circular from the end-of-life point of view but not so much if we consider how they are extracted or how much energy is used or how much emissions are created during their recycling. There are so many factors to consider, including transportation and logistics. This can only be done by the producers themselves.

We will stay material and recycling technology neutral with our definitions. We want all packaging to be recyclable or reusable. Producers can select any material they see fit, as long as they will be achieving certain targets, and as long as their formats are fully recyclable.

Are there packaging materials in the marketplace that address all the needs and concerns producers have?

Of course they are and there is much interesting development happening, for which I would like to praise the industry and all the people working on this. But at the same time, in addition to packaging design, also new recycling and sorting technologies are being developed. We are hopeful that with all this innovation, redesigning of some packaging formats, and switching to reusable models, in some cases, it will be possible to reach our main circularity objectives by 2030.

Are some industries or companies resisting change? How would you address their concerns?

Companies are always a bit reluctant to change, but at the same time they support harmonisation of the internal markets, and they are doing valuable research and innovation. Some are worried about additional costs and having to change product lines. At the end of the day, they must consider the costs and benefits. It is difficult to say what each company should do. However, having different packaging for the same product, for different markets, is also very costly. The world is moving towards greener economies, and those who move faster could have a competitive advantage over others.

Any final comments?

People have to understand Europe is serious about its circular economy objectives. I would encourage companies to redesign their products or packaging to minimise or eliminate unnecessary packaging, while ensuring they perform all the necessary functions. Companies should talk with the appropriate authorities to improve the situation on the ground, to make sure they have access to the recycling and sorting infrastructure they need. With innovation and working together with the authorities, we can move towards the right direction.

Ms Desgrées du Loû is a speaker at the marcus evans EuroPack Summit 2021.