June 23. 2024. 12:20

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‘Huge challenge’ to achieve EU packaging recycling goals, industry says


Packaging manufacturers and the recycling industry have warned of big challenges ahead before the EU can achieve its planned targets to rein in packaging waste.

By 2030, all packaging placed on the EU market must be designed for recyclability, according to the European Commission’s packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR), presented in November.

“And we as packaging producers take full ownership of that obligation, and we really stand behind that,” said Marzia Scopelliti, public affairs manager at EUROPEN, the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment at a Brussels conference on Thursday (30 March).

At the same time, under the proposed regulation, all packaging must be recycled at scale by 2035. And achieving this target will be “quite challenging”, Scopelliti said.

Indeed, many EU countries do not yet have the infrastructure in place to increase recycling rates – whether it’s at the collection stage or later on in the waste sorting and treatment process.

Consequently, the majority of waste collected in the EU is currently sent abroad, where it ends up in landfill or incineration. In 2020, EU waste exports to non-EU countries reached 32.7 million tonnes, an increase of 75% since 2004, according to Eurostat, the EU statistical agency.

“The Commission is planning to issue early warning letters to 19 Member States because they will fail to meet the recycling targets. Obviously, there is the need to introduce some additional measures in that area,” Scopelliti said.

A key concern for EUROPEN is the proposed reuse targets for packaging, which Scopelliti said risk being counterproductive by undermining existing recycling schemes.

“We really would like to avoid a shift of investments from recycling to reuse. Hopefully, that has been considered in the [EU Commission’s] impact assessment,” she said.

According to a recent study by the European Investment Bank, an investment gap of €6.7 to €8.6 billion must be filled to achieve Europe’s goal of incorporating 10 million tonnes of plastic recyclates into final products each year by 2025.

“The challenge is huge,” said Sophie Sicard, president of the recycling branch of the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC), which organised the Brussels event.

“Can we address it alone as a recycling industry? Absolutely not. This is a collective challenge,” said Sicard.

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.

A ‘quantity and quality challenge’

For Sicard, meeting the EU’s plastic recycling goals is a “quantity and quality challenge” along the whole value chain, starting from feedstock and material collection.

According to EuRIC, only 10% of the plastic waste generated worldwide is recycled, climbing to 38% when it comes to plastic packaging in the EU. The rest is sent to landfill or incinerated.

“We have been making a lot of progress, but the quality of the feedstock for recycling is not there today,” Sicard said, pointing to improvements needed in chemical and mechanical recycling processes for plastics.

This is contrast to paper-based packaging, which has achieved an 82% recycling rate in the EU. Last year, the industry even committed to reaching a 90% recycling rate for fibre-based packaging by 2030.

But meeting higher goals will require additional effort on waste collection by governments at national and local levels, the industry says. For beverage cartons, collection needs to go up to 90% to reach a 70% recycling rate, according to the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), a trade association.

And as things stand, waste collection and sorting remains inconsistent across the EU, with significant investment required to develop infrastructure, said Wolfgang Ringel from TOMRA, the Norwegian collection and recycling company.

“We have some really big sorting plants definitely, but we also have smaller ones which do not have the necessary capacity to deliver the outcome which is needed, so that’s a big challenge,” Ringel said.

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.

Addressing the cost challenge

The fundamental issue hindering recycling is cost: producing plastics from virgin raw materials is currently cheaper than from recycled products. Recycled plastics also often contain impurities and are not available in sufficient volumes to tip the market in their favour.

These issues need to be addressed if policymakers want recycled plastics to be more competitive, Sicard said.

“If the prices are evaluated compared to the virgin material, then we will fail collectively, and we will not reach the recycled content [targets] because those have just not the same production cost. Wreducee cannot align on virgin plastics production. This is not true, and this won’t happen,” Sicard added.

The solution to these obstacles is a holistic resource system composed of three different elements: separate collection, mixed waste sorting, and depository return systems, Ringel argued.

Separate collection “won’t be enough to carry us over the line of the 55% plastic recycling target”, and mixed waste sorting is thus necessary to achieve the recycling goals and greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

“We are burning plastics like crazy. That will not work, it is not a sustainable approach,” he stated.

Beverage carton producers are also taking steps to reduce plastics currently used in bottle tops and as a protective layer on the inside of cartons. By 2030, the industry has pledged to use only recycled materials or bio-based plastics.

Beverage cartons will only use recycled or renewable materials by 2030, industry says

Beverage carton producers have pledged to make cartons from 100% renewable and recycled material and cut down on their plastic consumption by 2030 to increase their sustainability and help meet global climate goals.