Packaging bans for fresh produce from 2030, limits on PFAs, crackdowns on empty space, and high collection and reuse targets are among the measures adopted by the European Parliament for the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation; industry players are broadly optimistic that the text will help harmonize the Single Market, yet fear the consequences of misplaced restrictions.

Reportedly, packaging generated a €355 billion turnover in the EU in 2018. Levels of packaging waste continue to increase, with a calculated figure of 66 million tonnes generated in 2009 rising to 84 million tonnes in 2021; this translates to 188.7kg of packaging waste per EU citizen and, without further intervention, is expected to rise to 209kg in 2030.

Therefore, the new legislation responds to increasing calls for a circular economy, waste avoidance, action against single-use packaging, and a phasing out of ‘non-sustainable’ packaging. These concerns were expressed in proposals 5(1), 5(3), 5(4), 5(5), 11(1), 11(4), and 20(3) of the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The text was approved with 476 votes in favour, 129 against, and 24 abstentions.

New rules

A series of rules have been provisionally agreed upon with the European Council. Packaging reduction targets of 5% by 2030, 10% by 2035, and 15% by 2040 have been set, with EU countries required to reduce their plastic packaging waste in particular.

Packaging for unprocessed fresh fruit and vegetables; foods and beverages filled and consumed in cafés and restaurants; individual portions like condiments, sauces, creamer, and sugar; and miniature packaging for toiletry products and plastic carrier bags below 15 microns will be banned from 1st January 2030.

Except for lightweight wood, cork, textile, rubber, ceramic, porcelain, and wax materials, all packaging will be expected to fulfil strict recyclability criteria. Plastic packaging will also be held to minimum recycled content targets, and minimum recycling targets by weight of packaging waste will also be enforced.

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, also known as PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’, will be prohibited above certain thresholds in food contact packaging to combat negative impacts on human health.

By 2029, 90% of single-use plastic and metal beverage containers of up to 3L in size must be collected separately, either through deposit return systems or other solutions capable of meeting the target.

Final distributors of beverages and takeaway food will be expected to give consumers the option to bring their own containers and, by 2030, offer a 10% discount on products served in a reusable packaging format.

Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage packaging will be held to their own reuse targets by 2030. These will not apply to certain products, such as milk, wine, aromatized wine, and spirits.

Transport and sales packaging and group packaging will have their own 2030 reuse targets – and, in any of these cases, Member States will be permitted to grant a five-year derogation from the requirements under certain conditions.

A maximum empty space ratio of 50% has also been set in an effort to reduce unnecessary packaging. This will apply to grouped, transport, and e-commerce packaging.

Manufacturers and importers will also be expected to minimize the weight and volume of their packaging.

Going forward, the Council must formally approve the agreement before it can enter into force.

“For the first time in an environmental law, the EU is setting targets to reduce packaging, regardless of the material used,” said rapporteur Frédérique Ries. “The new rules foster innovation and include exemptions for micro-enterprises.

“The ban on forever chemicals in food packaging is a great victory for the health of European consumers. We now call on all industrial sectors, EU countries and consumers to play their part in the fight against excess packaging.”

Initial reactions

APEAL, the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging, generally approves of the new measures, believing they will help harmonize the internal market for packaging and achieve a circular economy. In particular, it praises the text’s new design for recycling criteria, designed to apply to all packaging, and category-specific packaging recyclability performance grades.

A new performance grading system has been introduced, APEAL explains, with its ‘clear’ criteria said to make it ‘the first of its kind’. Three defined recyclability percentages – A (95%), B (80%), and C (70%) – are laid out for compliance by 2030. By 2038, APEAL says, grades A and B ‘will either stimulate innovation among current poor-performers or remove them from the packaging market’.

In the organization’s view, this measure will be an important factor in ensuring that packaging materials are designed for recycling, collected, sorted, and recycled at scale.

Furthermore, APEAL is satisfied that the European Parliament has adopted eco-modulation of fees based on these recyclability performance grades. It expects that ‘permanent materials’ will benefit from these measures; for example, reporting that steel achieved a 78.5% recycling rate in 2021, it considers the material a ‘model material for a circular economy’.

On the other hand, it expresses its disappointment that steel pails, drums, intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), and canisters are categorized as transport packaging. It argues that these formats are ‘clear examples of sales packaging, which are consumed by the end-user and explicitly labelled as sales packaging in national legislation and guidelines of several EU Member States’.

“We appreciate the strides taken and congratulate all the European Institutions for their foresight and efforts in adopting the final legislation”, said secretary general Steve Claus. “However, we would have liked to see clearer clarification of packaging categories and design for recycling criteria at this stage. We look forward to dialogue with the EU institutions to determine details surrounding setting of the criteria for design for recycling per each grade.”

Metka Cavka, head of EU Affairs, continued: “We agree with the requirement that all packaging needs to be recyclable, but regret that it comes into effect only after 2030. And that the requirement for packaging waste to be recycled at scale, meaning collected, sorted and recycled is set at a modest 55 %, which we consider insufficient.”

Similarly, Cepi has welcomed the outcome of the vote, stating that it ‘supports the trialogue agreement and avoids delaying the legislative process’. With the goals of circularity and phasing out fossil-based materials now thought to be in general agreement, the organization pushes for the EU to start making progress towards the Regulation’s objectives.

Like APEAL, Cepi takes note of the text’s interest in harmonizing packaging rules under the EU Single Market, as well as the desire to boost the performance of national recycling systems. It believes that the packaging industry and its customers must team up with the local authorities enforcing the legislation to improve material collection for recycling, which it uplifts as a ‘key factor’ in improving the EU’s recycling rate.

It goes on to warn that any delays in taking action could set the industry back in meeting the Regulation’s targets in time. It also encourages EU Member States to endorse the agreement when the Council vote takes place in the autumn.

“Our position is to support the PPWR’s agreement and its adoption without delays,” said Jori Ringman, director general at Cepi. “Everyone needs legal certainty to meet the very ambitious objectives set in the PPWR.”

The Alliance for Sustainable Packaging for Foods (ASPF) is less optimistic. It argues that the text ‘raise[s] serious trade and food safety concerns’ and ‘will almost certainly negatively impact global supply chains and food security’ – highlighting that over 37 million Europeans already ‘cannot afford a quality meal every second day’.

Even single-use packaging options that, by design, help perishables maintain their quality, safety, and freshness will be banned under the new laws, ASPF warns. Consequently, it fears that food waste will increase; that fewer healthy foods will be available to consumers; and that manufacturers will be forced to rely on more durable plastics in food packaging applications.

The organization notes the text’s preference for recyclability over composting, which is feared to ‘limit options’ for fresh food manufacturers. Exemptions will be made available, it explains, but this will be down to individual Member States to decide – ‘leading to a patchwork of national regulations on food safety and allowable types of packaging for many perishable commodities’. As such, it posits that the rules will threaten the Single Market.

In light of the ‘enormous challenges’ it foresees for the fresh food sector, ASPF promotes evidence-based approaches to the Regulation that ‘do not compromise on food safety, food quality, food availability and public health, while minimizing single-use packaging waste’.

Max Teplitski, chief science officer at the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), commented: “Minimizing waste and finding alternatives to single-use plastic packaging is a goal we can all get behind. Without viable alternatives, bans on plastic and compostable packaging threaten food safety, undermine food quality, and increase food waste – all factors that are equally important to consumers and the environment.

“We are disappointed that the new packaging rules adopted by the European Parliament today do not prioritize consumer safety and access to nutritious food choices, nor do they consider the tangible impacts on trade and sustainability. With this outcome, IFPA will continue to advocate for sensible packaging regulations and investment in the innovations needed to find safe and sustainable alternatives to single-use packaging.”

These new measures follow a previous provisional agreement between the European Parliament and Council back in March. These rules included mandatory deposit return schemes, the exemption of compostable plastic packaging from minimum recycled content targets, and the possibility of consumers purchasing takeaway food and drinks in reusable packaging at no extra cost.

The industry’s response to this was varied. Some praised the EU’s stance against PFAS and intentions to review the role of biobased plastic content in the fight against packaging waste; on the other hand, the removal of reuse targets for takeaway food and lobbying for single-use paper solutions were criticized.

For a full rundown of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation’s progress so far, and the dialogue taking place in the packaging industry along the way, consult our guide compiling Packaging Europe’s coverage throughout 2023.

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