Unpacking the Packaging Waste Regulation

The European Commission is proposing some major changes to the way we handle packaging waste. The new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, a revision of an earlier directive, will set targets for reducing and recycling packaging, and requiring certain levels of recyclability and recycled materials in new packaging.

In a new position paper from Eurocities, cities applaud these revised rules, including the drive to value waste as a resource and boost the demand for secondary raw materials. Nonetheless, Europe’s cities do flag some issues with the new rules that could cause substantial issues for waste reduction and recycling.

It is overwhelmingly local governments that are responsible for waste collection, so understanding their position is paramount to getting a system that works well in place.

Is it compostable?

Whether plastic bags can be labelled as ‘compostable’ is a simple question that could cause major headaches for cities. The new proposal mandates for very lightweight plastic bags, like those you use to gather your fruit in shops, to be compostable in industrially controlled conditions in bio-waste treatment facilities. Also Member States would be empowered to require that lightweight plastic carrier bags be manufactured from biodegradable plastic polymers that are compostable in industrially controlled conditions.

However, compost that contains such plastics is no longer suitable for uses like fertilising fields or feeding to animals. To get to that stage, it needs to be treated with special technology that a large majority of cities do not have. This creates a huge risk of contaminated compost which, if it reaches farmers, could ruin the trust that cities across Europe have built up as suppliers to the agricultural sector.

At the same time, it is very likely that compostable and biodegradable bags will end up in normal recycling streams, put there by confused consumers. When this happens, such plastics will contaminate normal recycling waste – resulting in less effective recycling, not more. Therefore, cities should not be forced to treat compostable or bio-degradable plastics if the current waste streams are not prepared to do so.

Whose waste?

While it is the Waste Framework Directive, rather than the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive that mandates ‘extended producer responsibility’ (the principle that the company that creates the waste should have to pay for cleaning it up), this principle will be very important in the field of packaging.

Eurocities new policy paper maintains that extended producer responsibility must cover the costs of managing packaging waste, cleaning up litter, and operational costs for cities. Among other benefits, this will encourage producers to create durable and easily recyclable products, an important step towards a more circular economy.

Return for deposit

Countries in Northern Europe have successfully implemented deposit and return schemes. This is when you can bring your glass bottles or other products back to the retailer that you purchased them from for a small reimbursement.

However, some member states and cities have some concerns about putting such schemes in place and Eurocities’ new policy paper advocates that these need to be addressed.

Pharmaceutical waste

Pharmaceutical packaging and medical devices have a five-year extension on the obligation to be fully recyclable. While cities endorse the need to ensure that waste reduction isn’t managed at the expense of people’s wellbeing, there is a concern about the high proportion of such waste that is made up of single-use plastics.

Cities therefore make the case for pharmaceutical and medical companies to collaborate with them towards a stronger push for waste reduction,  despite the extended deadline that they will be provided with.

Packaging passport possibilities

The EU wants to harmonise waste labels across Europe, and in the future these labels could include QR codes allowing access to more information about the product. These QR codes were developed in another piece of legislation for supply chain management and consumer information.

However, cities argue that it would make a lot of sense to use the QR codes throughout the products’ lifecycle, including when it ends up as waste. The codes could also be loaded with information that would be useful for waste management, both for the people throwing them away, and the waste plant that they end up in.

According to the evaluation of European cities through Eurocities, the new revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive is a great package, but it would be a waste not to grab the opportunity to improve it.

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