EU’s controversial packaging waste law facing delays
An overhaul of the European Union’s packaging rules, aimed at driving more sustainability in the sector and reducing waste, is being delayed by the complexity of the legislation, according to several lawmakers working on the file.
Tabled in November last year, the draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) includes higher recycling and reuse targets to reduce waste but lawmakers in the European Parliament are finding it complicated to agree.
“Progress in the negotiations is very slow, which is understandable, given the diverging positions of the political groups, the often very technical aspects of the proposal and the sheer amount of articles [in the law],” said Delara Burkhardt, a German MEP who is speaker on the file for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in Parliament.
“It therefore seems unlikely that the originally foreseen timeline can be kept. Taking a few more weeks to find good and solid compromises seems reasonable,” she told Euractiv, saying the European Parliament is still aiming to be ready this autumn.
This was echoed by Massimiliano Salini, the negotiator on the proposal for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). Speaking to Euractiv, he said negotiations are proceeding, but the file is complex, with numerous interests at stake. In light of this, it has been pushed back to give lawmakers more time “to reach a balanced text”.
The law, which covers many different packaging sectors, has divided the European Parliament, with those on the left pushing for more environmental ambition and those on the right adopting a more cautious stance.
For instance, the Green lawmaker negotiating the law, Grace O’Sullivan, told Euractiv that it “must be meaningful and effective in reducing the mountain of packaging waste we are creating every day in the EU”.
“To achieve the waste reduction we desperately need, my priorities are to get rid of superfluous packaging and over-packaging, and to facilitate the setting up of effective reuse systems across Europe,” she added.
The most contentious issues are those concerning waste prevention and waste reduction, said Burkhardt. “Particularly reuse, the ban of certain single-use packaging formats and generally the shift away from the current throw-away single-use packaging model is still heavily contested,” she added.
According to Salini, other controversial articles include the definition of recyclable packaging, recycled content requirements for plastic packaging, and the definition of compostable packaging.
The Parliament’s lead negotiator on the file, Belgian centrist MEP Frédérique Ries, sought to address some of these issues in a recent series of draft compromise amendments to the text.
Her proposal includes removing “refill” from the reuse and refill targets, something some see as positive as refill can be difficult to measure. Meanwhile, reuse targets for non-alcoholic beverages have been increased.
However, Ries changed the wording around 2040 targets from “ensure” to “aim”, decreasing the clarity for investors, and has removed all reuse targets for takeaway food packaging, including for cold and hot beverages, causing concern among environmentalists.
Ries’s office did not return Euractiv’s emails and phone calls asking for comment.
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The packaging regulation is a major part of the EU’s drive to tackle waste but there is growing concern that legislators in the European Parliament and the Council of EU member states are running out of time to scrutinise the proposal before the European elections in June 2024.
Parliament is expected to agree its negotiating position by the end of the year, and would then need to come to a final agreement quickly with EU countries in order to rubberstamp the law ahead of the European elections next June.
But the time pressure risks damaging the final law, according to the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), an industry group representing carton manufacturers such as Sweden’s Tetra Pak and Switzerland’s SIG.
“It’s a real pity to have such a time pressure for such a complex file,” said Annick Carpentier, director general of ACE, pointing to a precedent with the Single Use Plastics Directive, which was also adopted in a hurry but lacked clarity and caused issues with missing implementing rules.
“I really think it is somehow regrettable that there’s no more time to understand the issues, maybe have a dialogue with industry and NGOs,” she said, warning that lack of time hampers constructive debates and leads to more dogmatic approaches.
This concern is also shared by other segments of the packaging industry.
“With the discussion becoming increasingly politicised, I see a real risk of positions moving further apart rather than focusing on a constructive dialogue that can deliver a future-proof legislative framework,” said Francesca Stevens from Europen, a trade association representing the packaging industry value chain.
Meanwhile, the EU’s nascent packing reuse sector is also watching the Parliament with bated breath.
“We are concerned about the proposed exemption for cardboard boxes from the reuse targets for transport packaging,” said Julie Guilbaud from Reusable Packaging Europe, an industry group.
“If cardboard boxes are excluded, the reuse targets would apply to a small share of the transport packaging market and would therefore be insignificant to reduce waste,” she told Euractiv.
“We have also conducted a legal assessment of this exemption through a third party, which concluded that it violates the principles of EU law, specifically proportionality and non-discrimination. The exemption will create an uneven playing field for transport packaging operators,” she added.
Environmental campaigners are also worried about potential delays and the direction in which the European Parliament might be going, as additional derogations and watering down key prevention and reuse measures are being discussed.
“We’re concerned about further delays that would only benefit those actors that don’t actually have an interest in clearer and better rules to deal with the uncontrolled growth of packaging waste,” Marco Musso from the European Environmental Bureau told Euractiv.
“These rules are needed because the current situation of vague and enforceable requirements is actually not giving a service to anybody. So, failure to swiftly agree on a credible set of rules for the packaging sector would be unjustifiable,” he said.
This delay would be significant, he added, due to the upcoming European elections, leaving legal uncertainty and ever-increasing amounts of packaging waste.
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