EU Packaging Regulation: A Step Forward or a Stumbling Block?
2/2/2024 Sustainability Look into Europe Article

EU Packaging Regulation: A Step Forward or a Stumbling Block?

With the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, the European Union is endeavouring to counteract the growing problem of packaging waste in Europe and create the basis for a circular economy. However, associations see technical errors in the current proposals and are calling for amendments.

European flag with the paragraph symbol made of yellow stars Hardly any other legislative project has attracted as much attention in the packaging industry in recent years as the PPWR.

In 2021, every person in Europe generated an average of 190 kg of packaging waste. Without countermeasures, this figure could rise by almost 20% by 2030, the EU fears. In November 2023, the Commission therefore presented a draft revision of EU legislation on packaging and packaging waste (PPWR). These proposals are key elements of the Circular Economy Action Plan of the European Green Deal and aim to make sustainable products the standard. The draft sets binding targets for waste reduction, reuse and the minimum percentage of recycled material in plastic packaging. Both the European Parliament and the Council have now published their positions on this and proposed additional amendments, on which an agreement is to be reached in the upcoming trilogue negotiations by April 2024.

Hardly any other legislative project has attracted so much attention in the packaging industry in recent years. The debate has been conducted with great commitment, with industry associations investing considerable resources in lobbying to ensure that their interests are taken into account in the final legislation. However, very few were satisfied with the result.


Plastics Industry Fears Patchwork

It is expected that the final legislative text will retain the cornerstones of the draft: All packaging placed on the market must be recyclable. Furthermore, a minimum proportion of recyclates for plastic packaging will be introduced and gradually increased. The member states are granted a high degree of flexibility in many areas.

This flexibility has met with considerable resistance from stakeholders, as they fear a fragmentation of the European internal market and a jeopardising of the goal of sustainable, Europe-wide packaging recycling. In a statement to the German government, 16 associations with strong memberships therefore emphasised: “In many places, the possibility of creating different requirements for packaging at national level has been added. As a result, packaging that fulfils all EU requirements could be excluded from certain national markets. The consequences would be impaired supply chains, cost increases and obstacles to efficient, cross-border recycling.” The IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen, as one of the signatories of the statement, also criticised the numerous special rules for plastic packaging, exemptions for paper, cardboard and carton packaging for reusable quotas and packaging bans as well as national exemption options. According to IK Managing Director Dr Martin Engelmann, the decision is “a step backwards for the circular economy and will lead to a patchwork of different packaging regulations in the EU internal market”.


Concerns About a Lack of Fairness

Many of the planned measures aim to make packaging fully recyclable by 2030. These include defining design criteria for packaging, introducing mandatory deposit systems for plastic bottles and aluminium cans and specifying which very limited types of packaging must be compostable. There are also to be binding quotas for the proportion of recycled material that manufacturers must integrate into new plastic packaging. 

In view of these targets, the umbrella organisation of the plastics recycling industry in Europe (EuRIC) emphasised the urgent need for fair prices for recycled plastics. The organisation criticises measures by the European Parliament that could allow Member States to give packaging producers preferential access to recycled materials, which could threaten the economic viability of recycling and affect prices. The opinion emphasises the importance of a fair, sustainable price for recycled materials and warns that preferential access could distort the market and breach EU competition law.

In addition to reducing the use of packaging and increasing the use of recycled materials, the PPWR also focuses on the reuse and refilling of packaging. To require this, manufacturers are to offer a certain percentage of their products in appropriate packaging. This applies, for example, to takeaway drinks and meals or deliveries in e-commerce. There should also be a certain standardisation of packaging formats and clear labelling of reusable packaging – with certain exceptions, such as wine. European brewers are outraged by this and sense discrimination. The brewing sector is particularly concerned about a future EU regulation that could impose mandatory reuse targets and recycling obligations for beer, while exempting other, competing alcoholic beverages from these requirements. “There is no reason for beer to be subject to reuse targets and deposit system requirements while other sectors such as wine and spirits are exempt.”

The European Union is facing a crucial phase in the implementation of its environmental and economic policy objectives with the revision of legislation on packaging and packaging waste. The upcoming negotiations offer an opportunity to find a consensus that takes into account both environmental protection and economic interests.