In this ongoing series, Vincent Mooij, Director of SUEZ.circpack®, gives his take on some of the biggest challenges faced by the industry today on its journey towards circularity.
Throughout the series, we encourage readers to send in their own questions on what the industry needs to do to achieve circularity, where it is falling behind, etc. To do so, just send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Circular Packaging Q&A’, or ask us a question via either LinkedIn or Twitter using the hashtag #CircularPackagingQuestions.
Are there any countries in Europe you would say are particularly advanced in their transition to a circular economy, and what can other countries in the earlier stages emulate when it comes to their policy and infrastructure decisions?
VM: When looking at how Europe deals with waste, recycling and the circular economy, the thing that always blows my mind is the huge amount of dissimilarity in approach between the different countries. Even within the 26 EU member states serious differentiations can be observed. This is particularly striking as the technologies which are in place for collection, sorting, & reprocessing of materials are very much standardized.
Apparently, there are other reasons for these differences. Let’s have a closer look at some of them.
We should first understand that the intrinsic economical value of wasted packaging from households is less than zero. This means that the cost for collection, sorting & reprocessing are much higher than the money you can get for it. This implies that in any financially driven society no household packaging waste will be recycled based on pure economics.
In order to deal with this value-chain-deficit, we have seen the emergence of many Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes. The concept was first formally introduced in 1990 in a report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. EPR aims to decrease the total environmental impact of a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal.
EU legislation made EPR schemes for packaging mandatory in all EU member states.
The implementation of these EPR schemes, however, was considered a national matter. This was also reflected in the different recycling targets set for the different EU countries. As countries had different recycling targets, the rules and methods for implementation of these EPR schemes started to diverge. After all, if you can reach your nation’s target by simply collecting rigid plastic packaging, why would you spend more money for collection of other materials to overscore?
So, although standard technology was available, every nation (though its EPR scheme) could differentiate on what sort of packaging materials it would recycle. This means that we now see certain materials only being recycled in some countries (e.g. rigid PolyStyrene packaging), that certain packaging formats (like flexible packaging) are not allowed in some collection systems and that implementation of Deposit Return Systems is also depending on each country. We even see the same differences for laminated cardboard packaging, for which the threshold of non-fibre-based material differs from 0% to 50% between regions (also without technological reason).
With this, the scattered landscape throughout Europe is a fact. Asking me who is the most advanced is almost like asking me to praise the one nation that has created the most difference compared to the other countries. I prefer to opt for another route. Those that in my opinion are truly advanced are the ones looking for harmonization. These are the countries that understand that brand owners and packaging companies work across borders. These are the EPR organizations who are brave enough to surpass themselves and admit that working together is actually the best solution for consumers, producers and the environment!