The EU has set its sights on reducing empty space in packaging, with new rules on this issue forming a core part of its recently announced Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive revisions. How will all of this affect the industry, and how can companies get ahead of the curve? Jo Bradley, business development manager at Sparck Technologies, explores the options.


Despite somewhat depressed Christmas trading, parcel shippers and couriers have been under huge stress this season. Severe weather and industrial action have added to the perennial problem of driver and warehouse operative shortages, and the pressure isn’t over yet – with so many delayed Christmas deliveries, the rate of returns in January is said to be up by 25%.

So, every available delivery vehicle has been loaded to capacity. But loaded with what, exactly? Quite possibly, mostly fresh air. The scandal of goods being shipped in vastly oversized boxes, with all the waste both of materials and transport capacity that this entails, shows no signs of abating.

However, change may be imminent – the European Commission has a plan.

At the end of November, the Commission published a draft Regulation on packaging and packaging waste. This includes a wide range of proposals covering packaging design, materials, re-use and recycling, but importantly, it also includes Article 9, headed ‘packaging minimisation’. This requires that “packaging shall be designed so that its weight and volume is reduced to the minimum necessary”.

It goes on: “Empty space shall be reduced to the minimum necessary… for grouped and transport packaging, including e-commerce packaging, in relation to the total volume of the grouped or transported products and their sales packaging… and space filled by paper cuttings, air cushions, bubble wraps, sponge fillers, foam fillers, wood wool, polystyrene, Styrofoam chips or other filling materials shall be considered as empty space”.

Businesses will have to ensure that the empty space ratio is a maximum of 40% – and if the sales packaging is the e-commerce packaging, the same rules apply. This has major implications for the e-commerce sector where lax practices on the use of wasteful, oversized boxes are commonplace.

The target date for implementation may be 2030, but the issue can, and should, be addressed right now. There are plenty of sound reasons for doing so, with many retail businesses stepping up to lead the way.

So, while we thoroughly support the Commission’s aims, we really don’t see why companies should be waiting until 2030. They can get ahead of the curve, right now, saving the planet and their bottom line. 2023 should be the year of the right-sized package, especially when right-sized automated packaging systems currently in existence already offer a solution to the issue and are available now.