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EU to make all packaging recyclable by 2030

© Shutterstock / Evgenii PanovImage of plastic bottle waste

The European Commission has proposed new rules to incentivise the use of reusable packaging options, get rid of unnecessary packaging, limit overpackaging, and provide clear labels to support correct recycling. 

  • The Commission intends to incentivise the use of more sustainable materials as well as make recycling easier for consumers.
  • On average, each European generates almost 180 kilogrammes of packaging waste per year and, without new measures, this number is expected to increase dramatically.
  • Companies will benefit from new business opportunities and less dependence on virgin materials, while the packaging sector will be supported in its climate goals.

What are the new rules?

Under the new proposals, packaging will become fully recyclable by 2030. This will involve setting design criteria for packaging; creating mandatory deposit return systems for plastic bottles and aluminium cans; and clarifying which types of packaging are compostable so they can be disposed of into biowaste.

There will also be mandatory rates of recycled content that need to be included in new plastic packaging. This will turn recycled plastic into raw material, which is already happening with PET bottles in the context of the Single-Use Plastics Directive.

Moreover, companies will have to offer a certain percentage of their consumer products in reusable or refillable packaging, such as takeaway food or e-commerce deliveries. There will also be some standardisation of packaging formats and clear labelling of reusable packaging.

To address what the Commission defines as “clearly unnecessary packaging”, certain forms of packaging will be banned, such as single-use packaging for food and beverages when consumed inside restaurants, single-use packaging for fruits and vegetables, and miniature toiletries in hotels. 

Clarifying biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics

Even though the use and production of biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics has been on the rise, there is still confusion about their disposal, which the Commission intends to tackle in its new framework.

Biomass used to produce biobased plastics will have to be sustainably sourced, with no harm to the environment and in respect of the cascading use of biomass principle: organic waste and by-products should be prioritised as feedstock. In addition, to fight greenwash, producers need to avoid generic claims such as ‘bioplastics’ and ‘biobased’. When communicating on biobased content, producers will have to disclose the exact and measurable share of biobased plastic content in the product.

Biodegradable plastics must be approached with caution, the Commission said, adding that “they have their place in a sustainable future, but they need to be directed to specific applications where their environmental benefits and value for the circular economy are proven”. Biodegradable plastics should not provide a licence to litter and must be labelled to show how long they will take to biodegrade, under which circumstances and in which environment. Products that are likely to be littered cannot be claimed to be or labelled as biodegradable.

Industrially compostable plastics should only be used when they have environmental benefits, they do not negatively affect the quality of the compost and when there is a proper biowaste collection and treatment system in place. Industrially compostable packaging will only be allowed for tea bags, filter coffee pods and pads, fruit and vegetable stickers, and very light plastic bags. The products must always specify that they are certified for industrial composting, in line with EU standards.

What are the measures looking to achieve?

On average, each European generates almost 180 kilogrammes of packaging waste per year. Packaging is behind 40% of plastics and 50% of paper used in the EU, driving demand for virgin materials. Without action, the bloc is expected to see a 19% increase in packaging waste by 2030, with plastic packaging waste rising by 46%.

The Commission wants to reverse this trend by providing more reusable packaging options for consumers, eliminating unnecessary packaging, limiting overpackaging, and providing clear labels to support correct recycling. 

The main target is to reduce packaging waste by 15% by 2040 per Member State per capita, compared to 2018 levels. This would lead to an overall waste reduction in the bloc of 37%, compared to a scenario without changing the legislation. 

This will result in 43 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 66 million without any changes, while water consumption will be 1.1 million cubic metres lower. The costs of environmental damage for the economy and society would be reduced by €6.4 billion relative to the baseline 2030.

The proposals are key building blocks of the European Green Deal’s Circular Economy Action Plan and its objective to make sustainable products the norm. They also respond to specific demands of Europeans as expressed at the Conference on the Future of Europe

How will it affect businesses?

Single-use packaging industries will have to invest in a transition, but the EU expects the measures to have a positive overall impact on the economy and job creation. Boosting reuse alone is expected to lead to more than 600,000 jobs in the reuse sector by 2030, many of them at local small- and medium-sized companies. 

Innovation in packaging solutions is expected to make it more convenient to reduce, reuse and recycle. Packaging companies will need smaller amounts of virgin materials, easing pressure on the supply chain, while the sector as a whole will be on track for climate neutrality by 2050.

Consumers, meanwhile, will benefit from clearer instructions to recycle and could also save almost €100 per year each, if businesses pass on their savings to consumers. 

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said: “With the new rules we propose crucial steps to make sustainable packaging the norm in the EU. We will create the right conditions for the circular economy principles – reduce, reuse, recycle – to work. More sustainable packaging and bioplastics are about new business opportunities in the green and digital transition, about innovation and new skills, local jobs and savings for consumers.”

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