Packaging: recycling has been canned in favour of reuse

The packaging sector has been united in opposition to the new and unexpected focus on reuse, in a proposed revision to the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The supply chain had been working to reach targets for recycling and recycled content. Much of the industry's past investment in recycling would be redundant if the change survives further scrutiny. But are the EU’s proposals for reuse and refill actually going to work? Everyone wants to follow the three Rs ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’, but when it comes to food and drink packaging, ‘reuse’ is not that easy.

The controversial targets for reusable packaging (shown below) have been reduced after intense industry lobbying, but they still represent a significant change in direction:

  • 20% of cold and hot takeaway beverages by 2030 and 80% by 2040
  • 10% of takeaway ready-prepared food by 2030 and 40% by 2040
  • 10% of alcoholic  and non-alcoholic beverages (excluding wine and spirits) by 2030 and 25% by 2040
  • 5% of wine (not sparkiing) bottles by 2030 and 15% by 2040
  • Other targets for reuse of e-commerce and transport packaging will also apply

These targets apply regardless of the materials from which packaging is made.

European Aluminium, The European Federation of Glass Packaging Makers and twelve other associations point out that there is no analysis of environmental, economic and social impacts, including customer behaviour, to back up the new measures. Consumers are just getting used to sorting waste packaging for recycling at home and in public places. If these reuse targets are confirmed, they will have to adopt completely new behaviours for the measures to be a success. As Unilever put it last year, ‘unlocking the full potential of the reuse economy requires a shift in mindset of how people shop’.  So far, there are few signs that this will happen. Manufacturers are already testing out reusable packaging in pilot projects. Refill stations and outlets for dry goods have appeared on the high street, but consumers seem to be tiring of this approach with dedicated refill shops going out of business. Starbucks has been trying to get customers to use refillable cups for a while. They found that although 69% of people own a reusable coffee cup, only 17% use them every time they buy a hot drink. If customers can’t remember to carry their coffee cup with them, how are they going to manage the complexity of reusable food and beverage containers? Customers would have to take these containers back to the supermarket or to a returns service. The temptation will be to just opt for the single use packaged equivalent.

A fundamental change to the packaging itself will also be needed. Beverage and ready-prepared food containers, will need to be taken back, cleaned, sterilised and refilled by brand owners and providers. This immediately rules out cartons and some types of plastic, which are not sufficiently robust and can’t be sterilised. Resealable metal containers need to be sufficiently strong to withstand several cycles. All this means that only heavy-duty packaging will be suitable. Opponents point to Lifecycle Analyses showing the energy required to transport such containers back and forward from refill facilities, tips the balance in favour of single use lightweight recyclable materials.  

There are supporters of the new targets. The Reloop Platform, an NGO which brings together recyclers and environmental groups, has been equally in favour of both refillable and deposit return systems. The main difference between the two approaches is that the latter collects packaging for recycling rather than reuse, and it can be integrated with existing waste management systems. Paying a small deposit on a container then getting it back when it is collected for recycle, is easier to implement. Barcode technology can automate the process for a local authority area. Either the original purchaser or the collector can claim back the payment. If the European Commission wants to make a change for the better, then deposit return schemes should be the way to go. 

The abrupt change of direction in the draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive will reduce business investment, confuse consumers and set back the implementation of sustainable packaging. The European Commission and politicians should take heed of the industry and go back to the three Rs: Rethink, Re-evaluate, Revise. 

This article was updated on 1st December 2022

Published: 23 November 22

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