EU lawmakers back plan to cut packaging waste

EU lawmakers have backed divisive plans to make all packaging in the EU recyclable by 2030 despite intense lobbying from businesses ranging from paper manufacturers to Camembert makers.

In a vote on Wednesday, MEPs in Strasbourg approved a detailed law that could also ban all “ultra-light” plastic bags and harmful chemicals in packaging.

Brussels’ proposal reflects the complexity of reducing the annual amount of rubbish generated by packaging in the bloc from more than 80mn tonnes. It runs to 118 pages with 13 annexes and will affect hundreds of companies including takeaway chains, medical appliance manufacturers, fruit growers and beer distributors.

Frédérique Ries, a liberal Belgian MEP who led negotiations on the law, hailed parliament’s vote as “a strong message in favour of a complete overhaul” of packaging and waste management in the EU.

Other single-use items that could be banned include hotel mini toiletries, plastic stickers on fruit and small sachets for sugar in cafés.

Ahead of the vote on Wednesday, one EU diplomat said it could be the most lobbied piece of EU legislation “ever”, adding: “Everything is packaged so every industry has an interest.”

Finland, home to large paper packaging companies, and Italy, which has a highly integrated recycling system, have been most opposed to targets for reusable containers.

But even countries with an ambitious green agenda are seeking exemptions, the diplomat added. Denmark wanted allowances for its beer industry, while France was seeking an exemption for packaging of luxury goods such as perfume.

Waste, particularly from plastic, has become a highly contested issue as countries try to tackle worsening environmental damage. Negotiations over a global treaty to cut plastic waste stalled on Monday after opposition from large petrochemical producers.

The EU’s packaging law sets targets for the provision of reusable containers across different sectors and for cutting unnecessary packaging intended to “increase the perceived volume of the product, including double walls, false bottoms and unnecessary layers”, the proposal said.

There are targets for levels of recycled content in packaging and a requirement that all packaging can be recyclable by 2030, a cornerstone of the bloc’s effort to create a circular economy.

Pascal Canfin, a liberal French lawmaker who chairs the parliament’s environment committee, said EU consumers produced more than 180kg of packaging waste a year per person, adding: “We need to reduce this if we want to be serious about resources.”

Line chart of Annual recycling rate of packaging waste (%) showing EU recycling levels have fallen since 2017

But the obligations, particularly for reusable containers, have riled industries across the EU, in some cases pitting them against each other.

Europen, which represents the wider packaging industry, said that an EU-wide approach to packaging was long overdue. But Francesca Stevens, its secretary-general, said too many allowances were being given for “governments to set their own sustainability and waste standards, introducing new national barriers, undermining the sustainability goals and stifling investment in the infrastructure needed for the circular economy”.

Plastics manufacturers have called out a proposed ban on shrink wrap used in distribution of consumer goods but Plastics Europe, the trade body, acknowledged the rules could be a “catalyst to transform plastic packaging”.

Yet paper and cardboard producers such as Huhtamäki and Smurfit Kappa were adamant that a rush to produce reusable packaging, usually made from hard plastic, would do more damage to the environment than good.

“We have spent a generation getting to the [recycling] level that we have today . . . if you put in mandatory reuse targets the most recycled packaging product [cardboard] would be marginalised,” said Alex Manisty, head of strategy at packaging company DS Smith.

Billboards posted across train stations in Brussels this week by an alliance of takeaway and paper packaging operators, including McDonald’s and Huhtamäki, accused Brussels of “wringing Europe dry”. It cited a study commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance that found reusable packaging in the fast-food sector would consume 64 per cent more freshwater over its life cycle than single-use containers.

Mohammed Chahim, a Dutch socialist MEP, said lobbyists had spread flyers reading “save our takeaways” around parliament in reaction to proposed targets for reusable cartons for food delivery groups. “That’s really ridiculous,” he said.

Even Camembert producers have joined the fray, initiating a campaign last week to save their traditional wooden packaging, also used by oyster sellers, which could be banned after 2030 because it cannot be recycled. The crusade prompted comparisons with revolts against the EU’s 1995 “bendy banana” law that set shape requirements for bananas.

Brussels is working on an exemption to the recycling obligation for products such as Camembert and Gorgonzola that have a special geographical status, but it will be up to the EU’s 27 member states and MEPs to agree.

Commission officials have also defended the reuse targets as modest and intended to kick-start the growth of more reusable packaging that will improve as systems for returning and washing containers spread.

“We see [recycling] is not going to be enough so we need to look at the potential of reuse and banning some of the packaging that is not necessary,” said environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius on Wednesday.

According to a presentation of unpublished data from the commission, seen by the Financial Times, it found that compared with single-use paper cups, cardboard trays and paper containers for a hamburger meal, plastic reusable containers used less water and were less carbon-intensive.

But climate campaigners worry the EU’s targets do not go far enough. Marco Musso, senior policy officer for circular economy at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “Even if all the measures . . . were all fully implemented this would not be enough to achieve even 5 per cent reduction of packaging waste by 2030.”

The rules will have to be negotiated with the EU’s 27 member states before they become law.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds