The European Commission has set new EU-wide rules for packaging to tackle the growing source of waste. Each European produces an average of almost 180 kg of packaging waste per year. Packaging is one of the largest users of new materials, with 40% of plastics and 50% of paper used in the EU being intended for packaging. Without measures, there would be a further increase in packaging waste of 19% in the EU by 2030, and for plastic packaging waste, an increase of 46%.
The new rules aim to stop this trend. For consumers, they will provide reusable packaging options, avoid unnecessary packaging, limit over-packaging, and provide clear labeling to support proper recycling. For industry, the rules will create new business opportunities, especially for smaller companies, reduce the need for new materials, increase Europe’s recycling capacity, and make Europe less dependent on primary resources and external suppliers. The new rules put the packaging sector on track to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
The Commission also provides clarity to consumers and industry on biobased, compostable, and biodegradable plastics: indicating which applications such plastics are truly environmentally friendly for and how they should be designed, disposed of, and recycled.
Reusable packaging is a very important part of the logistics chain for transporting products, and these load carriers are used multiple times. By using reusable packaging, companies will be more likely to achieve the European goal of waste reduction. The use of reusable packaging is in line with this, and TrackOnline is the online platform that contributes to this.
The proposed revision of EU legislation on packaging and packaging waste has three main objectives. Firstly, to prevent the production of packaging waste: reducing the amount, limiting unnecessary packaging, and promoting solutions for reusable and refillable packaging. Secondly, to stimulate high-quality recycling (“closed loop”): ensuring that by 2030 all packaging on the EU market is recyclable in an economically viable manner. And finally, to reduce the need for primary natural resources and establish a well-functioning market for secondary raw materials by increasing the use of recycled plastics in packaging through binding targets.
The proposal on packaging and packaging waste will now be dealt with by the European Parliament and Council through the ordinary legislative procedure. More information on the proposal can be found on the European Commission’s website.
- The main objective is to reduce packaging waste by 15% per capita per member state by 2040 compared to 2018. This would lead to a total waste reduction in the EU of approximately 37% compared to a scenario without legislative changes. This will be achieved through both reuse and recycling.
- To promote reuse or refill of packaging, which has declined to a negligible level in the past 20 years, companies will have to offer a certain percentage of their products to consumers in reusable or refillable packaging, for example in take-away drinks and meals or e-commerce delivery. There will also be some standardization of packaging formats and clear labeling of reusable packaging.
- To address clearly unnecessary packaging, certain forms of packaging will be prohibited, such as disposable packaging for food and drink consumption in restaurants and cafes, single-use packaging for fruits and vegetables, miniature shampoo bottles, and other miniature packaging in hotels.
- Many measures are aimed at making packaging fully recyclable by 2030. This includes establishing design criteria for packaging, implementing deposit systems for plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and clarifying which very limited types of packaging should be compostable, so that consumers can throw them away with bio-waste.
- There will also be mandatory percentages of recycled material that producers must include in new plastic packaging. This will help to make recycled plastic a valuable raw material — as already demonstrated by the example of PET bottles under the single-use plastics directive.
The proposal will eliminate confusion about which packaging goes in which recycling bin. Each packaging component will have a label indicating what it is made of and in which waste stream it should end up. The same labels will be displayed on waste containers throughout the EU, using identical symbols.
By 2030, the proposed measures would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from packaging to 43 million tonnes, compared to 66 million tonnes if the legislation remains unchanged, a reduction equivalent to the annual emissions of a country like Croatia. Water consumption would be reduced by 1.1 million m³. The cost of environmental damage to the economy and society would be reduced by €6.4 billion compared to the baseline scenario for 2030.
The single-use packaging industry will need to invest in a transition, but the overall effect on the economy and employment in the EU is positive. Just the promotion of reuse is expected to create more than 600,000 jobs in the reuse sector by 2030, many of them in local small and medium-sized enterprises. We expect a lot of innovation in packaging solutions, making it easier to reduce, reuse, and recycle. The measures are also expected to save money: every European could save almost EUR 100 per year if companies pass on savings to consumers.
Removing confusion around bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics
The use and production of bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics have steadily increased. To ensure that these plastics have positive environmental effects rather than worsening plastic pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss, several conditions must be met.
The Commission’s new framework clarifies how these plastics can be part of a sustainable future.
Biomass used for the production of biobased plastics must be sustainably sourced, without adverse effects on the environment and in accordance with the “cascading use of biomass” principle: producers must prioritize the use of organic waste and by-products as raw materials. To combat greenwashing and avoid misleading consumers, producers must also avoid generic claims about plastic products such as “bioplastics” and “biobased”. When producers communicate about biobased content, they must refer to the exact and measurable share of biobased plastics in the product (for example: “the product contains 50% biobased plastics”).
Biodegradable plastics must be approached with caution. They have their place in a sustainable future, but must be targeted at specific applications where their environmental benefits and value to the circular economy have been demonstrated. Biodegradable plastics should never give the impression that they can be safely littered. Biodegradable plastics must be labelled to indicate how long they take to break down, and under what conditions and in which environment. Specific products likely to be discarded, including products falling under the single-use plastics directive, cannot be labelled as biodegradable.
Industrial compostable plastics may only be used if they provide environmental benefits, do not negatively impact the quality of compost, and if there is an adequate system for collecting and processing bio-waste. Industrial compostable packaging will only be allowed for tea bags, filter coffee pods, fruit and vegetable stickers, and very light plastic bags. The products must always indicate that they are certified for industrial composting, in compliance with EU standards.
The proposal on packaging and packaging waste will now be examined by the European Parliament and the Council under the ordinary legislative procedure.
The policy framework for biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics will serve as guidance for the EU’s future work in this area, for example regarding requirements on ecodesign for sustainable products, funding programs and international discussions. The Commission encourages citizens, governments and businesses to use this framework in their policy, investment or purchasing decisions.
Packaging is necessary for protecting and safely transporting goods, but it has a significant impact on the environment and the use of new materials. The amount of packaging waste is increasing, often faster than GDP. Packaging waste in the EU has increased by over 20% in the past 10 years and is expected to increase by another 19% by 2030 if no measures are taken.
Biobased, biodegradable, and compostable plastics are present in our daily lives as alternatives to conventional plastics. Citizens can find them in packaging, consumer goods, and textiles, as well as in other sectors. Since they are called “bio,” consumers have the impression that they are necessarily good for the environment. However, this is only true to a certain extent.
Today’s package to address these issues follows the first package of circular economy measures adopted in March 2022. It included the new regulation on ecodesign for sustainable products, the EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, and new measures to empower consumers and enable them to play a greater role in the green transition.
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