Europe must set the bar high on packaging reuse systems to curb waste

This article was published on Euractiv. Delphine Lévi Alvarès, coordinator of the Rethink Plastic alliance and of the #WeChooseReuse campaign, and Jean-Pierre Schweitzer report.

The revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) is a rare opportunity to scale up a competitive reuse sector in Europe and reverse a half-century addiction to single-use packaging and record levels of waste.

Europe is simultaneously faced with the highest levels of packaging waste in history and the lowest ever levels of reuse. Packaging waste is currently at 178 kg per person per year.

At the same time reuse has rapidly declined in all Member States where data is available. In the case of Denmark, refillables for beverages declined from 93% to 13% between 1999 and 2019.

In other policy areas, Europe is desperately looking for solutions to reduce its unsustainable dependencies on natural resources, particularly gas and oil. Yet, fossil fuels continue to make up one of the main feedstocks for packaging. 

Last year, the NGO alliance Rethink Plastic published an analysis showing that increasing reuse to 50% by 2030 in the takeaway food, e-commerce and household care sectors could save 3.7 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions, 10 billion cubic metres of water and nearly 28 million tonnes of materials.

In the context of the Green Deal, the EU committed to making all packaging reusable or recyclable in a cost-efficient manner by 2030. The revision of the PPWD is meant to deliver on this objective as the current legislation clearly failed so far, notably by focusing too much on managing packaging waste rather than on preventing and reducing packaging in the first place. 

Policy makers’ suggestion to establish reuse targets could play a critical role in supporting reduction and reuse of packaging.

Yet, it has been met with repeated backlash from producers of single-use packaging, who argue that reusable packaging may have a bigger environmental footprint compared to single-use alternatives.

These arguments are often based on debatable assumptions, fictitious reuse models which do not seem to reflect real-world performance and are made without disclosing the data behind their results.

It is clear that reuse systems need to be designed in a way that 1) minimises impacts from key areas such as washing and transportation, 2) guarantees access to reuse systems to all and 3) ensures the interoperability of different schemes and packaging designs.

Using the PPWD revision to set clear standards for not only the design of packaging but also the systems within which they operate, such as pooling systems, is a clear opportunity to deliver resource and climate savings

The definition of reuse is crucial and should focus on reuse systems which can be easily measured and are certain to achieve multiple uses. The EU and its Member States have the responsibility to prevent “fake” reuse from flooding the market and undermining the intention of the transition to a circular economy.

Many brands are already marketing products as reusable even though they are not actually designed to be reused or are still sold in single-use plastics.

Such practices should be prevented through stringent requirements in EU legislation on the labelling of packaging and the forthcoming legislation on green claims.

This autumn the European Commission must seize the opportunity to set the bar high on reuse, and answer the call of more than 100,000 citizens, businesses and local authorities committed to zero waste, to phase-out wasteful single-use packaging.