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Commission set to be deceived by paper and cardboard industry on packaging’s sustainability

Some of Europe’s biggest forests are now emitting carbon and losing biodiversity. Paper and card remain a major driver of EU forest degradation. Yet, the responsible Commissioners are likely to lower the ambition on packaging reuse in favour of single use paper products in new laws expected to be published next week, caving into industry lobbying.

Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, on behalf of the Rethink Plastic Alliance, reports.

A critical moment for Europe’s forests

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is in Finland to manage the growing political tension between forestry industries and the need to protect the declining sustainability of European forests. Meanwhile campaigners, from Greenpeace in Finland and Sweden, have raised the alarm as in both countries the rate of clear cutting may exceed sustainable levels, driving up the countries’ emissions and threatening biodiversity. 

Under genuinely sustainable forestry management systems forests should be a sink of carbon emissions. New legislation on both deforestation and packaging could help to prevent the most aggressive types of logging and reduce the demand for single use paper and pulp based products from the packaging sector. Paper and card make up the biggest application of Europe’s forestry products.

Paper and cardboard are also the biggest waste stream in the packaging sector. Paper packaging waste has rapidly grown in recent years driven by the growth of single-use formats, as well as online and food delivery services. Paper has also benefited from the shift away from plastic products, despite evidence from the packaging industry themselves suggesting swapping plastics for alternative materials may increase emissions.

Last month, a draft proposal for the soon upcoming revision of Europe’s packaging laws was leaked to the public. The proposal included long expected measures to promote reuse and recycling of packaging. Urgently needed as waste levels have grown to a record high while reuse is in total decline. 

Proposed measures on reuse targeted the beverage, take-away, e-commerce and transport sectors in particular. The packaging industry reacted aggressively to the proposals, slamming reuse targets as unprecedented, claiming that they pose an existential threat and questioning the sustainability of reuse models.

Life cycle assessments not reliable

Studies comparing single use and reuse models tend to rely on life cycle assessments (LCAs). Existing LCAs of reuse and single use models have shown both better results for single use and reuse models. However, the results of LCA are easily skewed to favour different product groups, notably when they do not reflect real world conditions or extrapolate results. Furthermore, LCAs do not address all relevant environmental impacts, such as land management and biodiversity loss in the case of paper, marine pollution in the case of plastics, and for both paper and plastic, the risk of human exposure to toxic chemicals contained in these products.

In a scenario where the Commission will lower its ambition on reuse, following a barrage of industry funded LCA studies, environmental campaigners fear that low reuse targets, particularly for 2030, could make reuse systems challenging to set up. Effective reuse is dependent on well designed pooling systems at scale to achieve maximum efficiency. Earlier this year 100,000 environmental NGOs, reuse businesses and citizens called for ambitious reuse targets in the packaging law. A similar call was echoed in a letter sent this month from the Austrian, German, Dutch and Luxembourgish governments to the Commission.