Tuuli-Anna Tiuttu Sustainability specialist on a mission to help companies and organizations in becoming more sustainable focusing on concrete and measurable actions.

EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive – Fighting the packaging waste problem

4 min read

reusable and disposable food and drink packaging

A product packaging has several important roles that it needs to fulfil. From looking attractive, having an optimized size, protecting its contents during transport and handling, providing information on its ingredients, being made of sustainable materials to having labels on recycling while minimizing its carbon footprint.

Less is absolutely more in packaging. When I think about the amount of packaging waste I bring to the recycling facility every week, it keeps surprising me how much packaging waste one person can generate. What takes the largest space in the recycling bin is food packaging. As a consumer, I try to avoid food packaging already at the store by carrying reusable vegetable bags with me, for instance. Another problem that I constantly face is: where goes what? I mean, how to sort out the waste right when the labelling is often very confusing. Wouldn’t it be great if the packaging and the waste bin had matching labels on them?

However, the root cause for the packaging waste problem is not what consumers buy but how businesses answer to this growing problem. Therefore it is important to rethink the packaging and the products but also the business models to be fully circular.

In this blog post I look into the draft regulation of Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive in the EU and elaborate its impacts on businesses, such as food and beverages and e-commerce as well as on the packaging materials industry alike.

What is the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive?

Packaging waste in the European Union is growing at an alerting rate impacting negatively to the environment and use of virgin materials. Today, each individual generates approximately 180kg of packaging waste per year. Over the last ten years in the EU, packaging waste increased by more than 20%. By 2030, this number is estimated to further increase by 19% if no action is taken to reduce the waste generation.

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive draft was published in November 30th 2022 and is part of the European Green Deal’s Circular Economy Action Plan that ensures all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.

By leading the way for sustainable growth the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive has three main objectives:

  1. prevent the generation of packaging waste, reducing it in quantity, and promoting reusable and refillable packaging instead of disposable packaging
  2. enable high quality (closed loop) recycling possibilities and ensure that all packaging on the EU market will be recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030
  3. reduce the need for primary natural resources by substituting virgin materials and increase the use of recycled plastics in packaging

What to expect from the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive?

All companies that have any form of production, physical products, logistics and transportation will have to comply with the new EU directive. Basically any company that needs packaging materials at any point of their value chain.

Key targets of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive include:

  1. reduce packaging waste by 15% by 2040 in each member state per capita through reusing and recycling
  2. reuse and refill systems: companies will have to offer a certain percentage of their products to consumers in reusable or refillable packaging, for example take-away drinks and meals or e-commerce deliveries
  3. standardized packaging formats and no over-packaging
  4. unnecessary packaging will be banned in the format of single-use packaging for food and beverages when consumed inside restaurants and cafes, single-use packaging for fruits and vegetables, miniature shampoo bottles and other miniature packaging in hotels  
  5. set design criteria for packaging that facilitates recycling
  6. create mandatory deposit return systems for plastic bottles and aluminum cans
  7. mandatory rates of recycled content in every new plastic product. As result, all new plastic packaging must include 30% of recycled plastic by 2030.
  8. match the labelling of packaging and waste bins to facilitate correct consumer disposal of packaging waste

What is especially thrilling in the draft regulation is that it aims to reduce packaging waste and remove confusion for consumers on which packaging belongs to which recycling bin. Every piece of packaging will have a label showing what the packaging is made of and how it should be recycled. The recycling bins will carry matching labels with the pieces of packaging. Consequently, the packaging and waste bins will use unified symbols everywhere in the EU.

EU: From disposables to reusables and recyclables

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive aims to further reduce the use of disposable packaging and increase the share of reusable and recyclable pieces of packaging. As a positive note the new regulation will place the packaging industry on track for net zero by 2050 and create new, innovative opportunities for companies to grow their business.

E-commerce companies can use reusable packaging like RePack bags to deliver their products ordered through online shops. RePack is established in Finland and introduces reuse as a service, where packaging is reusable and returnable. It works so that a customer chooses at the online store checkout the RePack bag to be used to deliver the products. After receiving the parcel, the customer returns the RePack bag to any Repack hub which can be found anywhere in the world. After this, the online store receives its leased RePack bags back and can reuse them again. The reusable delivery bags can be reused approximately 20-40 cycles.

As another example from food and beverages industry there is McDonald’s. As an environmental impact action to fight single-use packaging McDonald’s France introduced its retro-styled reusable packaging last year (2022). The fast food company is testing the reusable drink and food packaging in few of its restaurants in France and in other European countries. For the moment, the reusable packaging can be enjoyed when eating in the restaurant but not yet for take-away. French people have adopted the reusable packaging in McDonald’s with excitement!

Life cycle assessment: is reusable packaging more environmentally sustainable than disposable packaging?

To sum up, big changes are coming ahead in the packaging reuse and recycling regulation in the EU. The reuse of packaging, such as in the example of McDonald’s has also its environmental and social impact. Producing reusable tableware leads to plastic use, rewashing the tableware consumes water and energy and raises a question if the reusable tableware fulfills adequate hygiene measures. In addition, reusables are not everlasting either. We must calculate their life cycle assessment like any other physical product.

So, which one generates less GHG emissions during the life cycle; reuse of the packaging or its single use? A recent research conducted by EPPA examines the whole life cycle of both reusable and disposable packaging. The results conclude that recyclable, paper-based single use packaging are more environmentally sustainable than reusable packaging. According to the study, changing disposable packaging to reusable packaging would generate 48 percent more CO2 emissions and consume 39 percent more water and require 82 percent more raw materials than sticking to paper-based disposable packaging.

On the other hand, reusables made from recycled plastics or biobased plastics play a crucial role in reducing the need for using paper and cardboard-based materials that affect on biodiversity loss. In that sense, bringing back reusables could be the answer for achieving the low carbon economy. Although in the scale there is energy and water use from washing the items, hygiene issue, microplastics dispersal and worries about the packaging end of life.

The European Commission wants to clarify the production and use of biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics. Biobased plastics producers should focus on sustainable sourcing. Feedstock must consist of a certain percentage of organic waste and by-products. When it comes to biodegradable plastics the producers must ensure good labelling how the packaging can biodegrade and in what conditions. Biodegradable packaging should not permit littering.

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive include also guidelines for producers on how to communicate without misleading the customers about sustainability claims. B-to-C communications can lead to greenwashing if sustainability terminology is not fit-for-purpose. What are your thoughts on the draft regulation on packaging?

Be Smart. Live Sustainably.

Tuuli-Anna Tiuttu
Tuuli-Anna Tiuttu Sustainability specialist on a mission to help companies and organizations in becoming more sustainable focusing on concrete and measurable actions.

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