March 4. 2024. 10:22

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EU Commission rejects priority industry access to recycled PET bottles

The European Commission has rejected calls from the soft drinks industry to reserve recovered PET bottles in priority for recycling into new food-grade plastics, saying this risked causing distortions on the market for secondary materials.

PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, a form of polyester frequently used in the beverage industry because it is strong, lightweight and safe for use in food-contact applications.

Although the collection rate of PET bottles is around 50%, new bottles placed on the EU market contain on average only 17% of recycled PET, while the rest is ‘downcycled’ into other applications – often textile products.

According to the soft drinks industry, this hinders the potential to recover PET plastics for recycling into new plastic bottles, which require high-quality plastic suitable for packaging coming into contact with food.

The industry has called for legislators to address the issue by granting beverage manufacturers priority access to the material they put on the market. They suggested doing this by introducing a ‘right of first refusal’ for manufacturers in the EU’s packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR), which was tabled by the Commission last November.

“The other industries are free-riding on us,” argued Klára Hálová from the soft beverage producer Mattoni 1873, the leader in the non-alcoholic beverage market in Central Europe.

Speaking at a EURACTIV event on Tuesday (28 February), Hálová said competition for recycled PET coming from other sectors like the textile industry is causing the price of collected PET to skyrocket.

“It is really not sustainable and not affordable. We should, in my view, follow the basic principle of extended producer responsibility, which means we place on the market, we collect, we aim to recycle,” she said, asking the Commission for “a proportionate, fair access to the material”.

New EU laws risk promoting ‘downcycling’ of plastic bottles, industry warns

European Commission plans to include mandatory recycled content targets for all plastics in a makeover of packaging laws expected this summer risk derailing attempts by plastic bottle manufacturers to reach closed loop recycling, the industry has warned.

The European Commission dismissed those calls, however.

Mattia Pellegrini, head of unit at the Commission’s environment directorate, said the EU executive had already partially addressed the issue with the introduction of a minimum condition for deposit-refund systems (DRS) in the EU’s packaging law.

“There is a DRS system, both for beverage bottles and for metal cans, and there is an annex in the proposal which is called ‘minimum condition for DRS systems’,” Pellegrini pointed out, saying the idea came from input provided by stakeholders, including the beverage industry.

“Not only we have mandated the DRS system in order to increase the recycling, the quality of recycling, and the closed loop. But we have also said that, if you build a new DRS system – because in many countries it does not exist – you have to respect this minimum condition,” he added.

However, EU regulators cannot give priority access to recycled PET to the beverage industry as this would cause a “distortion in the market,” Pellegrini said, rejecting the industry’s call for a ‘right of first refusal’.

“We had an extensive discussion with all the other centres of the Commission, and our conclusion was that we cannot intervene in that way by essentially not allowing for full competition in demand,” he explained.

Environmental campaigners say other EU laws can be used to shield beverage producers from competition for raw materials coming from the textile industry.

One of these is a proposal for a directive to protect EU consumers against unfair commercial practices, said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green umbrella group.

According to Schweitzer, the proposal, published in March 2022, could be used to “challenge green claims from the textile industry on the inclusion of recycled PET in their products”.

Another solution could be found with the upcoming review of the Waste Framework Directive, Schweitzer argued, saying that the fashion industry is greenwashing consumers about the content of recycled PET in clothing but might soon have to face extended producer responsibility schemes (EPR).

“The textile sector is benefitting from access to recycled materials, but in practice, they do not contribute to the waste management system, they do not contribute financially to this, but they may soon face an EPR in the context of the waste Framework Directive review,” he explained.

“What we would hope for is if there is eco-modulation, then there should not be a kind of reward necessarily for textiles including PET, it should be more about textiles reincluding textile material products,” Schweitzer said.

High recycling rate of PET bottles questioned in new study

PET bottles used as packaging for soft drinks and mineral waters are often touted as the greenest type of plastic, with one of the highest recycling rates in the industry. But those claims are new being challenged by new research.

EU countries not ready for new recycling targets

The Commission’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), tabled in November, sets new targets for recycling and reuse in order to reduce waste.

Under the new regulation, member states will be required to reduce packaging waste by 5% by 2030. By the end of 2025, 65% of all packaging waste should be recycled, including 50% of plastic, 50% of aluminium, 70% of glass, and 75% of paper and board.

However, many countries do not yet have the infrastructure for increased recycling.

In April, the Commission will produce an ‘early warning report’ assessing the recycling capacity in the different EU member states. And according to Pellegrini, “the picture will not be very positive, in the sense that the majority of member states are at risk of non-compliance” because of lack of recycling infrastructure.

The pressure on infrastructure will not only come from the packaging and packaging waste regulation, Pellegrini added, but also from the EU’s waste shipment regulation, which seeks to ban the export of plastic to non-OECD countries.

At the moment, EU countries send most of their waste abroad. In 2020, EU exports of waste to non-EU countries reached 32.7 million tonnes, an increase of three quarters (+75%) since 2004, according to Eurostat estimates.

“The Commission has been insisting with member states, also within the context of the recovery resilience facility, to really ask them to invest as much as possible in building that infrastructure,” Pellegrini said.

> Watch the full EURACTIV event below: