What do EU plastic and packaging reforms mean for the industry?

The European Commission (EC) is in the process of implementing a series of reforms to plastic and packaging legislation which will bring changes to several parts of the industry.

European CommissionThe reforms include moving towards reusable packaging options, decreasing the use of ‘unnecessary packaging’, limiting overpackaging, decreasing the use of ‘virgin materials’ and promoting the use of clear recycling labels.

The ‘European Green Deal: Putting an end to wasteful packaging, boosting reuse and recycling’ has three main objectives: to prevent the generation of packaging waste, to boost high-quality recycling, and to reduce the need and reliance on primary natural resources. These measures are intended to contribute to the European Union’s (EU) goal of climate neutrality by 2050.

The framework also aims to bring clarity to consumers and the wider industry on compostables, biodegradable plastics and biobased plastics. This will include guidance on their appropriate application, design, and disposal.

Each European is estimated to generate almost 180 kg of packaging waste per year and it is predicted that the EU could see a 19 per cent increase in all packaging waste by 2030, with a 46 per cent increase in plastic packaging alone.

Before the legislation is implemented, it needs to be approved by member states and the European parliament.

What do the plastic and packaging reforms mean for the industry?

The ‘headline target’ is to reduce 2018 rates of packaging waste by 15 per cent by 2040 per member state per capita. The reuse and recycling industries will in particular be targeted, as these are outlined as the primary modes through which the reduction targets will be reached.

The legislation will require companies to offer a percentage of products in reusable or refillable packaging which is yet to be determined, for example takeaway drinks and meals. Packaging may also need to be adjusted to reflect mandated formats and labelling to improve clarity for consumers and make it clear which bins packaging must be disposed of in.

There will also be further EC bans on single-use packaging for food and beverages consumed inside restaurants and cafes, packaging for fruit and vegetables, and miniature toiletry bottles used in hotels. Previous EU legislation, implemented in 2019, banned the use of other single-use plastics such as plastic cutlery, stirrers and straws.

Consumers will be mandated to include certain rates of recycled materials in new plastic packaging. This mandate has been in place for PET bottles under the Single-Use Plastics Directive since 2021, with a target of 30 per cent recycled material by 2030.

In meeting the legislation’s targets to make packaging fully recyclable by 2030, manufacturers can expect new design criteria for packaging. Alongside this the mandatory deposit return schemes (DRS) for plastic bottles and aluminium cans, and clearer rules around compostable packaging. The EU says ‘very limited types of packaging must be compostable so that consumers can throw these to biowaste’.

Compostables, biodegradable plastics and biobased plastics

As the use of compostables, biodegradable plastics and biobased plastics has steadily been increasing, a separate piece of proposed legislation sets a number of conditions these plastics must meet to mitigate environmental impact. The EC says otherwise they carry the chance of ‘exacerbating plastic pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss’ and that ‘since they are called ‘bio', consumers have the perception that they are necessarily good for the environment’ which is not necessarily true.

The new framework mandates that only sustainably sourced biomass – the foundation of biobased plastics – can be used. It must follow the ‘cascading use of biomass' principle which prioritises the use of organic waste and by-products over virgin materials. The EC says producers must label packaging with the exact and measurable amount of biobased plastic present in their products, rather than making generic claims like ‘biobased’ or ‘bioplastics’. Labels must also include the circumstances, environment and timeframe needed for packaging to biodegrade.

The framework says that ‘biodegradable plastics should by no means provide a licence to litter’ and that products which carry a high likelihood of being littered cannot claim to be or be labelled as biodegradable – for example, those covered by the Single-Use Plastics Directive.

Tea bags, filter coffee pods and pads, fruit and vegetable stickers, and very light plastic bags will be the only products permitted for industrial composting under the reformed legislation. The products must always specify that they are certified for industrial composting, in line with EU standards. These products must carry no negative effects on the quality of the compost.

Industry comment

Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, commented: “After tackling single-use plastics, we now take the next step on our way to a future without pollution. Our proposals reduce packaging waste, promote reuse and refill, increase the use of recycled plastics, and make it easier to recycle packaging.

“European citizens are eager to be rid of overpackaging and unnecessarily bulky packages, and businesses are ready to move forward with sustainable, innovative packaging solutions and systems.

“We also clear up confusing claims around biobased and biodegradable plastics, so that producers and consumers know under which conditions such plastics are truly environment-friendly and contribute to a green and circular economy.”

Jo Royle, Chief Executive and Founder of Common Seas, said: “We welcome these new proposals from the EU and in particular the introduction of targets for waste reduction and reuse for the first time, along with a new requirement for mandatory deposit return schemes for plastic bottles.

“However, we think the targets could be more ambitious in scale, and the deadlines should be earlier, to reflect the urgency of the situation.

“Plastic waste isn’t just polluting our seas and soils, but also our bodies. Common Seas research found microplastics in the blood of 77 per cent of those tested and we still don’t know the full effect this has on our health. This is an urgent health crisis that we can’t allow to keep worsening.

“The UK must follow the EU’s lead in radically cutting down plastic production and use.”