Recycling cannot meet 100% of demand for packaging, EU official cautions
While the European Commission aims to encourage the use of recycled materials in its upcoming packaging law, it also recognises that recycling has its limits and cannot meet all the demand.
The generation of waste from packaging has reached record levels in the past decade, with an average of 173 kg per capita in 2017, the highest level ever, according to the European Commission.
And this is expected to continue in the coming years as growing online sales and the trend for single-use and disposable packaging catches on in Europe and globally.
To reverse this trend, the European Commission is preparing an update of the EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive (PPWD), which is expected to introduce mandatory recycled content targets for specific packaging formats like plastic bottles.
A proposal to revise the directive is expected in the autumn, possibly in October. And speculation is rife about the content of the new law, which the Commission is expected to transform into a regulation so that it is enforced uniformly across all 27 EU member states.
But even though recycling can improve, it also has its limits, said Gwenole Cozigou, director at the European Commission’s internal market department.
While the EU executive aims to encourage the use of recycled content in new packaging, “we’re also conscious that recycling and secondary raw materials cannot actually match demand,” he said.
“We should not be under the illusion that recycling can actually provide 100% of the supplies needed,” Cozigou told a recent event hosted by the Fibre Packaging Europe Alliance, a group bringing together industries in the paper value chain.
Fibre-based industries are already considered to be “a real champion in recycling” with an 82% recycling rate for paper packaging, Cozigou said. “So basically, you already exceed the current 75% target for recycling set by the Commission in the packaging and packaging waste directive.”
This leaves an open question: can recycling rates be increased any further?
For paper industries, the answer is yes. Last year, a cross-value chain alliance called 4evergreen committed to reach a 90% recycling rate for fibre-based packaging by 2030.
But getting there will require setting up separate collection of paper from households all across Europe, it said. Another requirement is to improve the sorting of the recycled paper so that the recovered material meets state-of-the-art industry standards.
“For business in Europe, the consistency in the quality or grade of the material is really important,” said Skye Oudemans, sustainability manager Europe at Sonoco, a global packaging firm.
“For paper and card, one of the key elements is separate collection so that it’s not contaminated by waste but also it’s not lost in the sortation process and ends up in the wrong category,” she told participants at the event. That means also clearer information to consumers so they dispose of waste in the proper bin bag.
But even if 100% of paper was recycled, growing demand for packaging worldwide would still leave sustainability challenges to address, the industry says.
This is especially the case for the poorest countries of Asia or Africa, where large parts of the population do not have electricity or refrigerators and cannot store fresh food for more than a few days.
“When people earn an extra dollar, they spend it on packed food” because it allows them to store it, said Mats Nordlander, president of the containerboard business at SCA, a Swedish company involved in forestry, pulp, paper and biofuels production.
“Instead of waking up early to milk the goat for breakfast, they can get a pack of goat milk. And that has changed demand globally” for packed food, he said.
“It changes the lives of those families”.
Beyond recycling: waste reduction and re-use
With demand for packed food growing inexorably, some are pointing to solutions beyond recycling to reduce the sector’s impact on the environment.
Green campaigners say the highest priority should be to reduce waste and materials consumption upstream, before products hit supermarket shelves. This includes requirements to make packaging re-usable and use fewer resources in the first place.
“This is what we’re asking for every sector, not only for packaging,” said Piotr Barczak from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green group.
For Barczak, recycling can even be a distraction in the fight to reduce waste because it perpetuates the throw-away culture. “The amounts are growing because we focus only on recycling,” he said at the industry event.
According to him, the next priority after waste reduction is to encourage re-use, like refillable bottles. Echoing concerns expressed by the European Commission, he lamented a “massive drop” in the use of refillable containers like glass jars and bottles over the last 20 years.
“Why is this? Because recycling broke the re-use systems,” he pointed out. Likewise, he said “lighweighting might be detrimental to re-use and recycling”.
Nordlander rejected this claim, saying recycling can complement re-use. “It’s not either recycling or re-use – it’s both.”
For Nordlander, a long-term solution to address the environmental issues of packaging is to promote the use of renewable materials – like forest fibre.
Unlike metal or plastic, paper is made from a renewable resource, he remarked, saying this should be recognised in the EU’s packaging directive as one of the key drivers of sustainability.
“If we’re really serious about keeping the fossils in the ground, renewability is a fundamental issue,” he said.
Piotr Barczak agreed that renewability needs to be included among the range of attributes to consider when evaluating the sustainability of packaging.
“I would give points for renewability when it comes to EPR modulation,” Barczak said referring to Extended Producer Responsibility schemes that make packaging manufacturers pay for waste collection and recycling schemes.
“We want to break away from fossil fuels and fossil materials – absolutely. But the notion of sufficiency is also important,” he added, drawing parallels with biofuels and biomass, which can cause environmental problems related to pesticides use, land displacement, soil degradation, or biodiversity loss.
According to Barczak, sustainability points should also be given for other attributes of packaging, such as durability, non-toxic content, and recyclability. “Because even products coming from renewable sources can be non-recyclable,” he remarked.
In the European Commission too, officials recognise that renewability makes paper packaging stand out from the rest. But Cozigou said the sustainability assessment of packaging needs to consider many more factors, which makes life-cycle assessments particularly complex.
“It’s a difficult arbitration that has to be made between on the one hand the push for circularity, the fact that we want a lifecycle that is the cleanest possible, the fact that biomass needs to be encouraged versus fossil-based raw materials and also the fact that biodiversity policies must be conducted,” Cozigou said.
“We have to conduct all these policies in a coherent way, which is not always easy.”