May 19. 2024. 2:06

The Daily

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Stakeholders clash over environmental impact, viability of EU packaging law

With the EU’s new packaging law open to lawmakers’ opinions, farmers and industry are questioning the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the proposal while green groups warn against a ‘zero-sum approach’ to the matter.

The EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive (PPWR), unveiled by the EU executive last November, aims to introduce new targets for reuse and recycling to tackle rising amounts of packaging waste in the EU.

On average, each European generates almost 180 kilograms of packaging waste per year. In addition, the packaging sector still makes considerable use of virgin materials as 40% of plastics and 50% of paper used in the EU is destined for packaging.

The Commission proposal features a recycling target of 55% for plastic packaging for beverages and takeaway food, as well as 85% for paper and cardboard by 2030. The draft law needs now to be discussed by the European Parliament and the EU ministers.

The Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) will lead the file but the agriculture committee (AGRI) decided to deliver an opinion “which will help steer the proposal in the right direction,” according to the German liberal MEP Ulrike Müller.

“As always, the devil is in the detail,” she said, “[And] there are several topics where I believe we need to second guess the Commission’s approach.”

These would include the role of packaging in the food chain, namely shelf life and food safety, she added.

On the other hand, EU ministers already kicked off their talks, with fierce opposition to the Commission’s proposal led by Italy and Belgium, both pushing for more flexibility in the implementation of the new targets.

But the debate over the new rules put forward by the EU executive has now spread to food stakeholders as well. While there is a general consensus on the need to reduce packaging waste, positions differ when it comes to bringing together environmental and socio-economic concerns.

EU packaging law proposal branded ‘unworkable’ by food industry

A new EU packaging law proposal has sparked major concerns among the EU food industry, who warn it is unworkable for food business operators – but NGOs slammed heavy industry lobbying for watering down the proposal.

At a recent event at the European Parliament, an EU official working at the Commission’s food safety service (DG SANTE) said they have been collaborating with the environment service (DG ENV) and are “aware of the different concerns” that they will consider in the next revision of the directive.

“For example, defining hygiene rules for reuse and looking beyond the plastics recycling span to cover all types of materials is something we will tackle as a priority,” said the official, who is working in the department dealing with food contact materials.

However, the official added that the current foreknowledge, technology and available infrastructure “does not allow us to meet those targets.”

“On our side, our main objective is consumer safety [..] and of course, then it will depend on how we can make this work with the environmental objectives.”

Overpacking or underpacking?

One of the bones of contention is which aspects to tackle in order to get the expected results in terms of boosting waste prevention and recycling.

For Ann Lorentzon, circular packaging expert at the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE), smaller packages can be more effective to reduce food waste, despite using more packaging material.

A 10% of the environmental impact of a product comes from the packaging, according to the expert, “so the environmental impact of the product it’s much bigger, [therefore] if you have a damaged product and you can’t use it, all the resources you have put are spoiled.”

“Don’t under-pack, that’s worse than to over-pack,” she said.

But Marco Musso, policy officer at the green organisation European Environmental Bureau (EEB), warned against “framing the fight against food waste and the effort to reduce impacts of packaging as opposite”.

According to him, there is a risk of a debate which portrays a “zero-sum game” between food security and safety on one side and measures needed to reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste on the other.

“National and EU data shows clearly food waste and single-use packaging waste have grown simultaneously over the last decades,” he pointed out.

Musso also highlighted several studies showing that selling items in bulk is a more “effective way to reduce household waste by allowing people to buy just the right amount to meet their needs” than packaging.

Socio-economic impact needed

EU farmers’ organisation Copa-Cogeca and the industry sector, on the other end, question the science behind the environmental benefits of the proposal against the expected socio-economic impact.

“We support this regulation’s aim to harmonise packaging regulation across the EU,” said Sam Emerson, policy adviser at Copa-Cogeca. “However, it’s also paramount to us that social and economic sustainability are also guaranteed.”

“If you’re going to introduce measures that will inevitably have an economic impact on this sector, I think the environmental impact needs to be evident and clear,” he added.

For Martin Engelmann, director of the German Plastic Packaging Association, the solution would be reducing the executive’s proposal “to what is really necessary” and “particularly with regard to the recyclability of plastic packaging.”

According to him, the current rules “discriminate” plastic packaging which he said was “stupid because it will only lead to a shift from one material to another”.

Packaging makers ‘still concerned’ about reuse targets in new EU law

The European Commission’s new packaging law has drawn criticism from manufacturers, who warn against a shift of focus from recycling to reusing materials. While the new proposal is watered down, concerns remain.