Goodbye plastic! The EU Packaging Regulation Will Change the Continent
5/10/2024 New Paths Article

Goodbye plastic! The EU Packaging Regulation Will Change the Continent

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) was adopted at the end of April and, according to its supporters, marks a major turning point in European environmental policy.

Guest article from Matthias Mahr

Flags of the EU member states in front of the European Parliament On 24 April 2024, the EU Parliament adopted the Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR).

With the aim of driving forward the circular economy, the PPWR sets strict guidelines for the reduction of packaging waste and the promotion of recycling and reuse. 
By 2030, all packaging on the market must be recyclable or reusable, and minimum percentages for the use of recycled materials in plastic packaging are set. The PPWR also bans the use of certain harmful chemicals, in particular PFAS, in food packaging.

The new EU regulations are ambitious in their scope: they are intended to reduce waste and minimise environmental impact. According to the drivers of this EU regulation, the regulation supports innovation in the field of packaging technologies, as companies now have to invest in new, more environmentally friendly solutions. This will not only reduce the amount of waste, but also strengthen the competitiveness of European companies, according to Brussels. Another positive aspect of the regulation is the increased transparency for consumers through improved labelling requirements. Consumers will thus be able to make more sustainable decisions in future.

However, there are also significant points of criticism from various economic players. The Allianz Verpackung und Umwelt (AVU) and the Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen (IK) have expressed concerns that the regulation is too restrictive in some areas and therefore hinders rather than promotes innovation. One of the main points of criticism concerns the practical feasibility of the required recyclability and the use of recyclates, especially in food contact, where high demands are placed on the quality and safety of the materials.

“These requirements could place an excessive burden on small and medium-sized companies in particular and therefore have the opposite effect to what was intended,” warns Dr Martin Engelmann, Managing Director of the IK. It is not only the plastics industry that fears that the strict regulations will make production more expensive and that these costs will ultimately be passed on to consumers. Above all, the preferential treatment of fibre-based packaging is a recurring point of criticism of the PPWR that has now been adopted. Many regulations on packaging bans, reusable quotas, recycling requirements and use quotas for recyclates would only apply to plastic packaging or provide for exceptions for other packaging materials, emphasise those responsible at IK Kunststoffverpackungen. There is no basis for this unequal treatment of packaging materials – the loopholes even undermine the objectives of the PPWR, according to the IK in Bad Homburg. “Obviously, politicians are often more concerned with symbolic actions against plastic than with the consistent implementation of a circular economy and the reduction of packaging waste. A switch to plastic-coated paper packaging, which consumers perceive as more ecological even though it leads to more packaging waste that is difficult to recycle, is unfortunately pre-programmed. We are calling on decision-makers to remove the loopholes and create the same rules for all packaging materials,” demands Dr Isabell Schmidt, Managing Director for Circular Economy at IK.

Dr David Strack, Managing Director of the independent certification system ‘Susycheck’, agrees with these statements: “Plastic bashing has also found its way into the latest version of the PPWR and could encourage the development of composite packaging that is not recyclable, even though the PPWR actually wants higher recycling rates. The original plan was watered down through negotiations.  Plastics are penalised by recyclate requirements and reusable quotas”. In an interview with Lebensmittel-Praxis magazine, Strack emphasises: “However, companies that are increasingly relying on fibre solutions are firing on a powder keg: end consumers are increasingly recognising that the thermal use of non-recyclable paper packaging has little to do with sustainability. Greenwashing is being exposed and companies are gambling away their reputation!” The former Edeka manager hopes that the compromise proposal that has now been adopted will be revised.

However, the European Parliament and the Commission see the PPWR as an important step towards achieving the EU's environmental goals. “The regulation is a crucial step towards preserving our planet for future generations and putting Europe at the forefront of the global sustainable packaging movement,” said an EU spokesperson. However, while the political objectives are clear, questions remain over its practical feasibility and legal compliance with international trade standards. There are concerns that some aspects of the regulation could be incompatible with WTO rules and that the measures could disrupt existing national systems, according to legal experts.

Frederique Ries, Member of the European Parliament and driving force behind the adoption of the PPWR, emphasises the need for flexibility in handling the regulations: “We must ensure that we achieve a realistic implementation of this regulation that takes into account both environmental protection goals and the needs of the economy. This is the only way to ensure effective and fair implementation”.

The PPWR therefore represents not only an environmental policy measure, but also an economic challenge that will probably require a rethink throughout the packaging industry. The final assessment of its effectiveness depends on the extent to which the regulation effectively leads to a reduction in packaging waste and the extent to which it supports the development of the European economy or hinders it, as PPWR opponents tend to assume. The PPWR is a balancing act between ecological responsibility and economic viability, which to a large extent sets the course for the future of European environmental and economic policy. However, it remains to be seen whether the PPWR can actually put an end to the European patchwork in terms of the circular economy. According to many industry experts, there is already a threat of new national exemptions. One thing is certain, however: all market players involved in the life cycle of packaging will be faced with new, far-reaching obligations as a result of the Packaging Ordinance. It remains exciting!

Author: Matthias Mahr, Editor of Lebensmittel Praxis