EU legislators strike deal to tackle packaging waste

In a move to tackle the escalating problem of packaging waste within the European Union, an agreement was reached in Brussels between the Council presidency and the European Parliament’s representatives yesterday (4 March), to significantly reform the EU’s current packaging waste regulations.

As part of the agreement every piece of packaging in the EU needs to be recyclable by 2030. Further measures include takeaway vendors allowing customers to bring their own containers for drinks and prepared food.

Takeaway packagingOver the past decade, packaging waste is estimated to have increased by 25 per cent in the EU, and projected to increase by a further 19 per cent by 2030 without the new rules. Following the agreement, the European Union will now establish the basis for progressive targets to reduce packaging waste, aiming for a 5 per cent reduction by 2030 and 15 per cent by 2040 compared to 2018 levels.

The update to the rules includes imposing restrictions on single-use plastic packaging for specific items like fruits, vegetables, and food and beverages, particularly within the hospitality sector. Additionally, it targets packaging of small cosmetic and toiletry products, as well as very lightweight plastic bags.

By enforcing measures such as the ban on widely used but environmentally harmful items like plastic sauce packets and encouraging the adoption of bottle deposit schemes, the EU aims to promote a shift towards more sustainable consumption patterns.

Tougher regulations will be imposed on the use of potentially harmful chemicals in food packaging. Specifically, the new rules aim to limit the use of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), which are associated with health risks, in food contact materials if they exceed certain levels. To ensure these restrictions remain relevant and effective, the European Commission has been instructed to review and possibly update these measures within four years.

Additionally, the agreement reaffirms the commitment to increasing the use of recycled materials in plastic packaging by 2030 and 2040, with exceptions for compostable plastics and packaging with minimal plastic content. The Commission is tasked with reviewing progress towards these goals and evaluating the potential for future advancements, including setting standards for bio-based plastic packaging based on technological developments.

Furthermore, the legislation introduces measures to combat excess packaging, including a rule that limits the empty space in packaged products to a maximum of 50 per cent for certain types of packaging. It also mandates that packaging's weight and volume be minimised to reduce waste, applying to all but specially protected packaging designs.

Commenting on the changes to the packaging rules, Frédérique Ries, a Member of Parliament leading on the work said:  "This is clearly an historic agreement. We are asking all industrial sectors, as well as member states, to make an effort, but we also wanted the consumer to have a role to play in this fight against over-packaging."

Return, reuse and refill

The revision will establish specific re-use targets for various types of packaging, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, though excluding wine, aromatised wines, milk, and other highly perishable items.

Cardboard packaging is largely exempt from these new requirements, aspects of which the European Environment Bureau has criticised as ‘regrettable’ with reference to excluding cardboard used in transport from the reuse targets.

To provide flexibility and encourage member states to surpass their recycling ambitions, the agreement allows for a renewable five-year exemption from re-use targets under certain conditions. These include a member state exceeding its recycling goals by five per cent by 2025 and doing so against the EU’s 2030 recycling targets, as well as being on track with waste prevention targets and implementing effective corporate waste prevention and recycling plans.

In an effort to support small businesses in the food and drink industry, the regulation exempts micro-enterprises from these targets and allows for collaboration among up to five distributors to collectively meet the re-use objectives for beverages.

Furthermore, the agreement mandates take-away establishments to accommodate customers who wish to use their own containers for drinks and prepared foods without incurring additional charges. Furthermore, by 2030, these businesses are also expected to ensure that at least 10 per cent of their offerings are available in reusable packaging.

Additionally, the EU has introduced requirements for the establishment of deposit return systems (DRS) by 2029, aiming for a minimum annual collection rate of 90 per cent for single-use plastic bottles and metal beverage containers.


Response from environmental groups has been mixed. Marco Musso from the European Environmental Bureau recognised the importance of legislation to tackle the growing problem: "EU institutions have agreed on the urgent need to cut down packaging waste, reduce our dependence on disposable solutions and promote reuse systems. One of the most heavily lobbied files of this term survived the deceptive tactics of throwaway proponents. We will now have binding packaging waste reduction targets charting a clear path for the sector. Despite some regrettable setbacks and unjustified derogations, this compromise now gives the EU and its Member States a chance to stop the packaging waste crisis.”

However, not all feedback was wholly positive. Sergio Baffoni from the Environmental Paper Network critiqued the influence of corporate lobbying on the regulation's final form. Baffoni stated: “McDonalds’ and the paper packaging industry managed to distort and empty a regulation born to reduce single-use packaging, which now is promoting it, at the cost of the global forests and climate. Lobbyists are now celebrating, but consumers will continue to be flooded by increasing amounts of waste in their own homes – just this time made from paper.”

Valeria Botta of the Environmental Coalition on Standards called for more robust measures beyond recycling to address the root issues of packaging waste: “This is a step in the right direction, but a much larger leap is needed. The reality is that growing unnecessary packaging and overpackaging is a waste of resources – and recycling alone is just not enough. We need more support for reuse and refill options to use less material and prevent waste.”

Echoing the call for more comprehensive action, Dorota Napierska from Zero Waste Europe highlighted the health implications of hazardous chemicals in packaging materials: “We know that many of the chemicals commonly used in food packaging (both plastic and non-plastic) are harmful and can contribute to chronic diseases in our society. It is encouraging to witness a political will to ensure better consumer protection and eliminate the whole group of particularly problematic PFAS from food packaging – this action was indeed very urgently needed, and is very welcome by the coalition.”

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