Analysing the causes: Record increase in packaging waste volumes
New record for EU packaging waste: Eurostat reports an increase to 188.7 kg per inhabitant in 2021, marked by the strongest growth in ten years. However, experts warn against overinterpreting the figures.
The European statistics authority Eurostat recently reported that packaging waste generation in the EU reached a record level in 2021. A total of 188.7 kg of packaging waste was generated per inhabitant, which is 10.8 kg more per person than in 2020, the strongest increase in ten years, and almost 32 kg more than in 2011. The amount of packaging waste in the EU amounted to 84 million tonnes, of which 40.3 percent was paper and cardboard. Plastic accounted for 19.0 percent, glass 18.5 percent, wood 17.1 percent and metal 4.9 percent. As a result of the stricter regulations introduced in 2020 for Member States to report on their recycling, the recycling rate fell from 41.1 percent in 2019 to 37.6 percent in 2020. In 2021, the recycling rate rose again to 39.7 percent.
However, according to Sven Sängerlaub, BDVI Chairman and Professor of Packaging Technology at Munich University of Applied Sciences, this data should not be overinterpreted: “The Eurostat figures are mass data. Important key data on material efficiency, pack sizes, recyclability of individual packaging and substitution effects cannot be read from it.” What is striking is the steadily increasing consumption of fibre-based packaging. This is often recycled, which relativises its environmental impact.
Sabine Egidius, PR/Marketing Manager at the German Association of the Corrugated Board Industry (VDW), takes a similar view: “Single-material corrugated board packaging is attracting a great deal of interest as part of sustainability strategies because it is easy to recycle and can be fully returned to the material cycle. The recycling rate for corrugated board in Germany is already 95 percent.”
Regulate Yes, But How?
A study presented by the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (GVM) and IFEU in June 2023 also sees light at the end of the tunnel with regard to packaging volumes: the experts argue that the peak in packaging consumption was passed in 2021, at least in Germany. They predict that the consumption of packaging will continue to fall in the future. At the same time, the use of recycled materials and recycling rates are set to increase. While packaging consumption (excluding wood) was still at 16 million tonnes in 2021, the study calculates that it will fall to 14 million tonnes by 2030 and to 11.7 million tonnes by 2045. “This corresponds to a reduction of 13 percent by 2030 and 27 percent by 2045,” says GVM Managing Director Kurt Schüler. In addition, while the study took into account national and European regulations that have already been adopted, planned or expected regulations such as the new European Packaging Ordinance (PPWR) were not included in the forecasts, although their general guidelines are likely to have similar effects in terms of reducing packaging waste.
Günther Dehoust, Senior Researcher at the Öko-Institut, also recognises a positive trend: “Many efforts to reduce the amount of packaging have been effective in recent years. At the same time, however, consumption and therefore the volume of packaging has also risen sharply.” According to the researcher, new areas such as e-commerce have also been added. “Of course, this not only leads to an increase in packaging waste in households, but also in businesses due to the need for transport packaging,” emphasises Dehoust in an interview with FACHPACK360°. There have already been corresponding efforts to find solutions to this.
However, Sabine Egidus warned against rigid reusable quotas for e-commerce and certain transport packaging, as envisaged by the EU Commission in its draft European packaging regulation: “From our point of view, it is always important to find the optimal packaging for a specific product and the respective transport requirements. In our industry, optimal naturally means: the best possible in terms of protection and eco-balance.”
Dehoust sees the use of disposable bottles for water in discounters, for example, as a serious misguided development that is contributing to the increase in packaging volumes: “The fact that discounters predominantly do not use reusable packaging has led to an increase in disposable packaging for drinks.” In areas such as these, Dehoust is calling for intervention: “We need ecologically sensible reusable systems and in certain cases we need to make disposable packaging more expensive.” A packaging tax that is calculated according to climate and environmental damage is one possibility here, Dehoust states.
The debate on the comparison of environmental impacts is currently in full swing. The IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen is not opposed to “promoting reusable packaging as long as it is proven to be ecologically beneficial”. However, the association also emphasised that single-use beverage bottles have recycling rates of over 97 percent (GVM 2022) and a steadily increasing use of recycled material. "today's disposable bottles are recycled and don't need to shy away from ecological comparison with reusable bottles,” says IK Managing Director Dr Isabel Schmidt.
It is apparent that the reduction of packaging waste requires a differentiated approach. While the promotion of more sustainable packaging solutions and the increase in recycling rates are having an effect, the discussion about optimal packaging strategies — for example between single-use and reusable systems — remains a critical issue.