May 27. 2024. 9:39

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Battle lines drawn for EU’s packaging waste law

The EU’s proposed packaging regulation, designed to reverse the growing amount of waste generated in Europe, is set to cause frictions as policymakers in the European Parliament and EU countries hash out their position.

Last year, the European Commission proposed overhauling the law to tackle the drastic increase in packaging waste and address fragmentation in the single market as governments introduce country-level policies.

Even before its publication, the reform was proving controversial. And now the European Parliament and EU countries will begin to make amendments, dredging up issues like the balance between recycling and reuse, how to ensure proper waste collection and more.

Collection blank spot

Putting in place waste collection systems is the prerequisite to reaching a circular economy. But while certain items like glass or plastic bottles are supported by specific collection measures like deposit return schemes, this is not the case for all packaging.

The Commission’s proposal is “unfair” said Annick Carpentier from The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), which is calling for a separate collection target for paper-based packaging.

Indeed, some packaging may be banned from the EU market if it is not recycled at scale by 2035 under the Commission’s proposed reform. But collection – a vital element to increase recycling – remains in the hands of EU countries.

“We all know that collection is the bottleneck and we all know that extended producer responsibility has been in place for years and years and years and yet, in some countries, collection is very low for some packaging,” she told EURACTIV.

“That includes beverage cartons, despite our own efforts as industry,” she added.

Environmental organisations, like the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Zero Waste Europe, told EURACTIV that they would be open to separate collection targets.

“Nevertheless, it should be, of course, accompanied by strong design for recyclability requirements that can ensure economic operators will effectively improve the recyclability of their products,” added Larissa Copello from Zero Waste Europe.

Similarly, Delara Burkhardt, a socialist lawmaker in the European Parliament who is working on the file, told EURACTIV that the idea is worth exploring but should not be used to play down the need for strict recyclability criteria.

Yet, the European Commission has pushed back against the introduction of separate collection targets for different types of packaging.

At a European Parliament event on the law, a Commission official underlined that EU countries were already failing to properly implement waste legislation and, therefore, should not be pushed further.

“We believe that you cannot tighten the screws further when obviously the situation is already problematic,” said Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, director for circular economy at the Commission’s environment directorate.

In response, lawmaker Nils Torvalds joked, “You cannot tighten the screws too hard. Well, you can be heavily screwed by a bad approach.”

While Ciobanu-Dordea acknowledged the risk that products could be banned if they do not meet recycling targets, he said there will be time for the industry to adapt and take up the solutions laid out in the new law.

New EU packaging law misses vital collection aspect, industry warns

The lack of waste collection targets in the EU’s new packaging law risks hampering the ability to increase recycling rates and could even see packaging banned in some places if countries fail to properly collect it, the beverage carton industry has warned.

Recycling vs reuse

The proposal may also become a tug of war between those who want ambition on reuse and those who argue recycling can sometimes be more beneficial for the environment.

“I am concerned that the Commission seems to promote the reuse of packaging in all uses, even though recycled products are also needed,” said European Parliament lawmaker Elsi Katainen, who hosted the event on the law.

“The question is not black and white. Studies show that reuse is not always the best solution for the environment, for example, in a quick service restaurant,” she added.

Recycling and reuse is also a “very hot topic” for EU countries, according to Patrik Brodd, a Swedish official from the country’s permanent representation in Brussels, which currently holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.

Meanwhile, environmental campaigners are supportive of the reuse and waste prevention targets and are warning against watering these down.

“The EU, in our view, should resist the temptation to continue business as usual by only focusing on incremental improvements in recycling rates,” said Marco Musso from the EEB.

Strong action on waste prevention is also a priority for both the Greens and the Socialists in the European Parliament.

“Packaging is ridiculously resource heavy, with about 50% of paper and 40% of plastic being used for packaging. The less packaging we produce in the first place, the less raw materials we have to extract,” Green lawmaker Grace O’Sullivan told EURACTIV.

Brussels tables new reuse and recycling targets to slash packaging waste

The European Commission on Wednesday (30 November) tabled proposals to tackle rising amounts of packaging waste in the EU by introducing new targets for reuse and recycling.

EU countries wary about harmonisation

Other elements of the Commission’s proposal risk running into issues. For instance, not all EU countries will support the idea of harmonising waste legislation across the 27 member states, even if this is the surest way of avoiding a fragmentation of the bloc’s single market.

“The need for a harmonised approach is also one of the challenges,” Brodd said. “The EU is quite large and has so many member states that have taken their own initiatives and investment so you need to find a balance there between harmonisation and flexibility and ambition,” he added.

Responding on behalf of the Commission, Ciobanu-Dordea pointed to flexibilities in the proposal, including an exemption from mandatory deposit return schemes for certain materials if countries can prove their collection rates are already high.

With the EU elections coming up in Spring 2024, the clock is ticking for EU lawmakers to reach agreement on the EU’s packaging law before the European Parliament goes into recess.

Moving the law forward is a priority for Sweden, said Brodd, but it is unlikely that EU countries will hammer out their position before the end of its EU Presidency on 30 June.

Meanwhile, campaigners are calling for quick progress on the law.

“There’s really no time to waste,” said Musso, who urged policymakers to avoid delays and complete the review before the end of the parliamentary term in 2024.

On the industry side, ACE is more cautious, saying the legislation should not be rushed through. “It’s necessary to get prepared to innovate, to decide on the needed investments,” said Carpentier.

“At the same time, this is such a big piece of legislation – so far-reaching, quite complex, and so impacting on so many value chains – that I believe we also need to take the time to make it work,” she added.

EU plans harmonised colour code for bin bags

The colour of garbage bags could soon be harmonised across the 27 EU member states under European Commission plans to improve waste collection and boost recycling.