Multiple-use and recycling: Which EU countries are leading the way?
5/15/2023 Look into Europe Countries / Market Report

Multiple-use and recycling: Which EU countries are leading the way?

The European Commission presented a proposal on EU-wide regulations for packaging in November 2022. The goal is to reduce packaging waste by 15 percent per member state and per capita by 2040 compared to 2018. This is to be achieved through more recycling, but also through reuse – for example in the form of reusable solutions.

Drawing of green Europe on blue globe Brussels wants to get a grip on the waste problem with higher recycling quotas and multi-use systems.
Consumption and recycling of packaging materials in EU states Croatia has the lowest waste generation per capita, but at 54.2 percent, only a small proportion is recycled.

According to the latest EU figures, each citizen produces an average of 177 kilogrammes of packaging waste per capita and year. With 226 kilogrammes, Germany takes the top spot, followed by Luxembourg, Italy and Ireland. The Croatians produced the least packaging waste in the Union with 66 kilogrammes. Germany is also ahead in terms of total volume: in 2019, almost 19 million tonnes of packaging waste were recorded. Italy was in second place by some distance with 13 million tonnes. The EU Commission expects packaging waste to increase by a further 19 percent and plastic packaging by 46 percent by 2030.

Brussels wants to get a grip on this with higher recycling quotas and reusable systems. For example, all packaging is to be fully recyclable by 2023. According to the Commission's plans, the most important measure to increase recyclability is the definition of design requirements that all packaging must fulfil to ensure that it can be recycled.

Where does recycling work?

Whether packaging can and will be recycled still varies greatly in the member states. Croatia, for example, has the lowest waste generation per capita, but with 54.2 percent only a small part is recycled. Only Hungary (48.1 percent), Romania (22.6 percent) and Malta (40 percent) recycled less packaging material and could not reach the current minimum rate of 55 percent set by the EU. The statistics take into account the total amount of packaging waste generated and recycled consisting of all packaging materials, e.g. glass, paper and cardboard, metal, plastic, wood and others. The recycling targets are also weighted according to material groups.

In terms of the targets for plastic packaging, France broke the bar and, with 21.4 percent, was unable to reach the target of 22.5 percent, making it the only country with Malta (10.2 percent) that failed to do so.

Paper and cardboard packaging is one of the most recycled packaging types in the European Union (EU-27). In recent years, almost all EU Member States reported a recycling rate of more than 70 percent, and six even achieved rates of more than 90 percent. 

Malta also brings up the rear here and can only show a recycling rate of less than 50 percent for paper and cardboard packaging.

Germany, with a rate for all packaging materials of 68.1 percent, was just above the EU average of 64.2 percent and thus still has some catching up to do – especially in view of its high packaging volume. Belgium, with a recycling rate of 79.2 percent, is already in a much better position and the Netherlands, with 78.8 percent, is only just behind the front-runner.

However, the picture only becomes complete when the collection rate is taken into account. All EU Member States and EEA/EFTA countries are required to achieve 60 percent recovery of packaging materials. Recovery includes energy recovery of packaging waste, other forms of recovery and total recycling. Recovery rates were below target in Poland (59.9 percent), Hungary (55.3 percent), Croatia (54.7 percent), Romania (42.5 percent) and Malta (40.0 percent).

EU-wide reusable packaging regulations

As a second pillar of waste reduction, the EU has taken up the cause of reusable packaging and criticised that there has been a sharp decline in the last two decades. Therefore, in future, companies are to offer consumers a certain percentage of their products in reusable or refillable packaging. In order to facilitate returns, the Commission plans to standardise some packaging formats and prescribe clear labelling for reusable packaging.

For Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Germany, Belgium, Croatia and the Netherlands, the deposit system for beverage bottles and cans made of glass, PET and aluminium is nothing new. In some cases, the industry has already introduced voluntary deposit systems for reusable packaging. In some member states of the European Economic Area (EEA) there are also legally required Deposit-Return schemes – mainly for beverage containers. Countries in the south such as Spain, Portugal and France are just starting to set up deposit systems. At the same time, the European Union is preparing a harmonised regulation for reusable packaging.

The European Commission argues that mandatory systems are most successful in reducing so-called littering. Deposit systems would ensure that as much packaging as possible is returned to the cycle. “However, a considerable part of the recycling potential (especially – but not only – between Germany and Denmark) is lost due to consumers buying drinks in one country and throwing away the packaging in another,” the Commission stresses in a communication. Fragmentation of the common market could be avoided by harmonising national systems or introducing a mandatory deposit refund system for the entire EEA.

Cross-border best practice examples exist in areas such as transport and industrial packaging: Standardising plastic crates and pallets for food and other products can often already create a closed loop.

However, reusable is not always the better solution, especially when long transport routes between collection points, cleaning and refilling are necessary. In some cases, disposable packaging can therefore be more ecological. It is therefore important to consider and weigh up the environmental impacts of reusable and disposable packaging on an individual basis.