June 23. 2024. 2:24

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Left-wing lawmakers to prioritise waste prevention in new EU packaging law

Prioritising the most environmentally-friendly ways of dealing with waste, starting with prevention and reuse, should be central to Europe’s new packaging law, lawmakers working on the file told EURACTIV.

The EU’s waste framework directive defines a ‘hierarchy’ for waste management, with prevention and reuse as the most preferred options, followed by recycling, energy recovery, and disposal as a last resort.

As the EU debates its new packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR), left-wing lawmakers are determined to prioritise the measures at the top of the hierarchy, which are the most environmentally friendly.

“Packaging waste is on the increase and it will continue to grow substantially unless we significantly reduce how much of it is produced in the first place,” said Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish MEP, working on the PPWR on behalf of the Greens in the European Parliament.

“That means prioritising upstream solutions, rather than trying to solve the problem by only looking at downstream measures,” she added.

The European Commission’s proposal, tabled in November last year, offers “some good levers” for waste prevention with provisions to increase reuse and refill, bans on avoidable single-use packaging and design criteria to avoid superfluous packaging, said Delara Burkhardt, the lawmaker working on the file for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group.

But while she and O’Sullivan support the proposal, both told EURACTIV it needs to be more ambitious.

“Overall, the Commission’s proposal is a good starting point but the measures could and should be strengthened further if we are serious about tackling the mountains of packaging waste that we produce every day,” O’Sullivan said.

EURACTIV contacted the other lawmakers working on the packaging law, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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.

Prioritising prevention and reuse

The EU’s draft regulation introduces measures to boost waste prevention, including a target to reduce packaging waste by 5% by 2030 and bans on single-use packaging in places like hotels and restaurants.

“I find this very straight-forward and reasonable. We all use washable and reusable cups, bowls and plates at home. I wonder why restaurants should not do the same,” said S&D’s Burkhardt.

“If someone demands to take certain packaging bans out of the regulation, I would like to know from these people what their alternatives are,” she added.

The proposal also introduces targets for reuse, although these dropped dramatically between a leaked draft and the final version of the proposal tabled by the Commission.

As the legislation arrives in the European Parliament, both O’Sullivan and Burkhardt want to see reuse targets bumped up again.

“Particularly in the bottle sector, the level of ambition for reuse should be higher,” Burkardt told EURACTIV, emphasising that the targets include a long transition period and exemptions for small companies to help with implementation.

“These targets are important to kick-start the building-up of the infrastructure needed for a wider roll-out and use of reuseable packaging formats,” she added.

However, the industry is cautious about the recycling and reuse targets included in the regulation, and warns against the potential bans that could follow for those who fail to meet them.

For instance, the beverage carton industry is warning that the proposed 2035 target on recycling leaves them at the mercy of EU countries, who are in charge of collection but won’t suffer the consequences if targets aren’t met.

“If you don’t recycle at scale, you are banned [from the EU market as an industry],” said Annick Carpentier the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), an industry group.

“And that is another ball game,” she said, calling on governments to increase collection rates for beverage cartons to a minimum of 90% by 2030.

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.

Assessing the costs and benefits of reuse

Meanwhile, Francesca Stevens, the secretary general of packaging industry group Europen, likened the bans to “putting a sticking plaster over poorly drafted sections of the legislation”.

“We urge co-legislators to hold off from adopting such restrictions until their implications for human health and the environment have been properly assessed,” she told EURACTIV.

There are also concerns about an overemphasis on reuse, with the industry warning this could ultimately cause more harm to the environment.

“Different life-cycle assessment studies have shown that reuse options have a higher or equivalent environmental footprint compared to single use packaging,” said ACE’s Annick Carpentier. “Hence, we call for the reuse targets to be duly assessed with regard to the proven environmental benefits but also considering health and safety implications and impact on food waste”.

Stevens agrees that, while reuse has a role to play in advancing packaging sustainability, its potential costs and benefits need to be properly assessed.

“Scaling-up reuse at the level of major distribution requires significant investments in infrastructure and reuse systems, which have been grossly underestimated in the impact assessment” done by the European Commission, she said.

“Similarly, to determine when reuse is a better environmental option than a single-use equivalent, targets should have been assessed against a thorough life cycle assessment methodology, including the minimum number of returns of reusable options,” she added.

Asked about concerns that reuse could drive a surge in plastic use or increased carbon emissions, Burkhardt said she suspected these are not about the environment, but about business models.

“Naturally, there is quite some pushback on the innovative parts of the Commission proposal, like the reuse targets. They are threatening established business models that are based on throw-away packaging,” she said.

Meanwhile, O’Sullivan told EURACTIV that there may be cases when reuse may not make sense but this should not lead to point-blank refusal.

“The question we should be asking is: How should we set up reuse systems so that they positively contribute to our sustainability goals? But instead of constructively engaging in this question, we are hearing dogmatic opposition from some sectors who have an interest in maintaining the status quo of single-use packaging used en masse,” she said.

The proposal is currently being discussed by the European Parliament and the 27 EU countries. Both Burkhardt and O’Sullivan want it to be agreed before the 2024 elections to ensure it is quickly implemented and turns the EU’s waste problem around.

EU’s sustainable packaging law under scrutiny

In this special episode of the Beyond the Byline podcast, we take a look at the EU’s packaging regulation – the issues it seeks to address, and whether it has any chances of succeeding where its predecessors failed.