Late November, the European Parliament adopted its position on the new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). Despite more than 100 EU and national associations, representing Europe’s packaging industry, writing to EU Member States, urging them to uphold the Single Market or face huge supply chain disruptions when adopting their General Approach on the PPWR, one week before Christmas, the European Council reached an agreement on the new PPWR, regardless of the critics and worries brought during the debates by many MEPs as well as civil society organizations, national and European associations and representatives of packaging manufacturers hat labelled the new regulation as a missed opportunity.

The act initially meant to address and resolve the poor and non-unitary transposition into national legislations of the ambitious dispositions found in the older Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and the Single-use Plastics Directive (SUP), ended, according to media and specialists, as a disappointing and controversial text that disrupts what has been accomplished so far in the sector of eco-friendly packaging.

The European Commission and the European Parliament, by their initiative and amendments to PPWR, marked progress in packaging circularity through the introduction of the certification of recycled content and by banning intentionally added chemicals in food contact packaging. But restricting targets focused on reusable packaging would create an immeasurable long-term damage to the recycling objective assumed in the EC’s Green Deal and would also considerably limit the flexibility of economic operators to further invest in ecological packaging alternatives, 100% compostable and biodegradable, jeopardizing the investments made so far in this direction.

While the reasons for a new Act can be understood (given that between 2009 and 2020, the total mass of packaging waste generated in the EU rose by 20%), fixing something that went wrong with other not enough thought through solution is not the way forward into Europe’s green future and circular economy. It is in this context that many international specialized media describe the recent votes on the PPWR as “a position for the wrong century”, with PPWR being portrayed as “behind the times on the circular economy”, or even labelling the changes as “going back to plastic” by “watering-down” the text.

Diving more into the issues arisen by this new Regulation, a couple of drawbacks have also been addressed in a recent study carried out by CEPI (European association representing the paper industry) and other associations such as ECMA, EPPA, FEFCO or Pro Carton. The report analyses the impact that the alternatives proposed by PPWR will have in 2030 against the packaging used today in each industry, with the overall conclusions pointing to 4 worrying findings:

  • Reusable solutions produce higher CO2 emissions
  • The new solutions proposed imply a higher cost for the manufacturer and, therefore, for the consumer
  • Transportation is the main cause of emissions and increased costs
  • The reusable options are made from fossil fuels

PPWR penalizes food packaging made from natural materials and strictly favours recycling. Already the PPWR can be seen becoming a battleground between those who want to reuse and those who argue that recycling can sometimes be more beneficial to the environment. The removed packaging formats include disposable plates and cups, single-use packaging for fruit and vegetables, and single-use sauce and sugar tubs and sachets. EU seems to favour and promote the reuse of packaging in all uses, although there is also a need for recycled products, with numerous studies showing that reuse is not always the best solution for the environment, consumer safety, hygiene, and food safety.

The new changes are creating legal and business strategy uncertainties for companies, leading to reduced investment in innovative more environmentally friendly packaging and new circular business models. A too narrow scope (focusing only on reusable packaging) would considerably limit the flexibility of economic operators to invest in the most relevant solutions of eco-friendly packaging in each country and each distribution channel. It would also direct all investment to a single system: traditional returnable and reusable packaging, which is not always the best solution from an environmental impact perspective, leading to embrace again the plastic petrol-based containers.

With the Council of the European Union reaching an agreement on the proposal for a Regulation on packaging and packaging waste, on December 18, 2023, it serves as a mandate for further negotiations with the European Parliament on the final form of the Act. The outcome of the negotiations (set to unfold till March 2024) will have to be formally adopted by the Council and the Parliament. The very same national and European associations and representatives of packaging manufacturers put their trust in national leaders to understand and better address the issues at stake.

In spite of the call of EU and national associations from the packaging value chain – whose effort will continue – to deliver a workable packaging legislation, the Parliament and Council texts worryingly converge on: fragmenting the internal market for plastic packaging leaving Member States much room to diverge from the scope of the text. To arbitrarily target plastics and impose reuse of any type of packaging does more harm than good, as this will jeopardize investments in sustainable, more environmentally friendly packaging solutions and not solve the issue of single-use packaging.