Sorting through the trash talk to solve Europe’s packaging waste crisis

As a raft of new evidence makes the case for reusable packaging, opposition to waste prevention and reuse appears increasingly untenable for policy makers working on Europe’s new packaging law, write Jean-Pierre Schweitzer and Marco Musso.

The EU regulation on packaging and packaging waste has been one of the most intensely lobbied and debated files of this political term. Policy makers across institutions have complained about an endless influx of meeting requests, untransparent studies and increasingly aggressive lobbying strategies.

Now only about six months remain for Brussels to strike a deal before the Union’s focus shifts to the upcoming European elections: a race against time to provide a credible solution to the packaging waste crisis, as promised in the Green Deal and the latest Circular Economy Action Plan.

In the last weeks new evidence has emerged which bolsters the Commission’s proposals on waste prevention and reusable packaging, in particular for the food and beverages sector. Preliminary results from the Commission’s scientific body, the Joint Research Centre, show predominantly favourable results for reuse systems compared to their single use packaging equivalents.

At the same time, 58 experts in life cycle assessment have recently urged caution around using industry-funded life cycle assessment (LCA) data to make general conclusions in the packaging sector. Their letter also firmly pointed at recent studies from the single-use packaging industry which were either untransparent or based on unrealistic assumptions.

Is paper the new plastic?

Single-use paper packaging has also come under the spotlight. Campaigners warned through new research that, though paper-based packaging has successfully marketed itself as a sustainable alternative to plastics, it has merely exacerbated the environmental pressure from the sector.

Paper packaging is already the biggest packaging waste stream in Europe according to Eurostat data. Paper packaging used in the food sector is particularly problematic, as it is usually combined with plastic or chemical coatings, and it rarely includes recycled content or is successfully recycled into new packaging. The raw materials for paper packaging are also increasingly imported from developing countries, contributing to global deforestation.

Single use paper straws now widely used as an alternative to plastics were also found to contain the highest levels of PFAS when compared to alternatives. Similarly, tests of paper-based take-away packaging and tableware in Europe showed that 32 out of 42 tested items had been deliberately treated with PFAS. Overall the message is clear: policies resulting in a simple substitution of single-use materials can have unforeseen consequences and offer no adequate solution to the packaging waste crisis. 

The opportunities of circular packaging systems

Besides its increasingly evident environmental benefits, the transition to reusable packaging systems provides an unmissable opportunity for Europe’s economy. Instead of pouring precious – and increasingly scarce – resources into short-lived throwaway items, efficient reuse systems will enable businesses and consumers to reap the utility offered by packaging, and preserve value over longer periods of time. This transition will not only cut unnecessary emissions and material extraction, but also reduce public waste management costs which are driven by littering and the uncontrolled growth of single-use waste.

Addressing Europe’s packaging waste crisis will require important industrial transitions in a sector which is still predominantly dominated by a linear paradigm of take-make-dispose. This has prompted legitimate concerns about a socially just transition away from throwaway packaging. However, the rolling out and operation of reuse systems at scale will generate economic value and jobs throughout Europe, and boost competitiveness and innovation, as European businesses become global leaders in pioneering convenient and attractive reuse options. For this to happen, it will be crucial to provide businesses with clear and ambitious reuse targets for 2030 and 2040 that will provide the confidence to innovate and invest.

No time to waste talking rubbish

In light of the new evidence, opposition to a more pragmatic and systemic approach to reducing Europe’s dependency on single use packaging looks increasingly difficult to defend.

However, entrenched positions within the European Parliament which are focused on defending the interests of single use packaging still appear hard to budge. Belgian Member of the European Parliament Frederique Ries, who leads on this file, is still struggling to counter misleading claims and gather support for key reuse and waste prevention measures. In the Council, EU governments show broad support for waste prevention, but are still undecided on the technical implementation of the legislation, including how much flexibility they should be granted on aspects like waste management and deposit refund systems.

Due to the packed agenda of policy makers finalising multiple Green Deal policies, the packaging regulation may need to be wrapped up as early as March 2024 in order for it to be completed before the European elections.

As a natural resource-constrained region with material consumption largely exceeding planetary boundaries, Europe cannot afford to waste any more time to embrace waste prevention and reuse as key components of its industrial strategy and future-proof competitiveness – starting with packaging.