EU set to adopt mandatory recycled content targets in new packaging law –

The European Commission wants to reduce the environmental impact of packaging by requiring producers to use a minimum amount of recycled plastic in new packaging placed on the market.

According to industry group Plastics Europe, only 5% of plastic in packaging came from recycled sources in 2019. And recyclers face an uphill battle to sell secondary materials in a market dominated by cheaper, higher-quality virgin supplies.

To address this, Brussels should stimulate demand for recycled plastic by extending recycled content targets from plastic bottles to all plastic packaging.

A proposal to this effect will be presented as part of the revision of the European directive on packaging and packaging waste, which is expected on 30 November.

A leaked draft proposal, seen by EURACTIV, requires all plastic packaging placed on the EU market to “contain a certain minimum amount of recycled content recovered from post-consumer plastic waste” from January 2030.

The 2030 targets, which are tentative and could still change before the proposal is released, would increase again by 2040 as follows:

  • 25% for contact-sensitive plastic packaging such as food packaging (50% from 2040)
  • 50% for single-use plastic beverage bottles (65% from 2040)
  • 45% for other plastic packaging (65% from 2040)

Whatever the objectives finally adopted, the intention is clear: Brussels wants to boost the market for recycled plastics by imposing a minimum quantity of recycled materials in new packaging.

The move should also increase collection rates and incentivize companies to design products that comply with the recycling process, as it becomes in their interest to do so, according to the recycling industry association, EuRIC.

“If you want to have recycled content, you have to have eco-design,” said EuRIC Secretary General Emmanuel Katrakis. “You have to have a proper collection. You must have recycling. You have to have industries that are going to buy recycled materials. Then it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure it works,” he told EURACTIV.

Recycled content targets already exist for plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) under the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive, which states that 25% of bottles must come from recycled plastic by 2025, and increase to 30% by 2030.

These recycled content goals have resulted in a system change in the production and recycling of plastic bottles, according to Katrakis. Recycling PET saves over 70% energy and CO2 emissions and this is now better reflected in the price, he explained.

EU plastics producers have already claimed a bond European recycled content target of 30% by 2030.

But beverage carton makers say the target should be no more than 30%. Otherwise it will create gaps with the single-use plastic directive, warns Annick Carpentier from the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE).

Beverage cartons pose a challenge to recyclers because they contain a layer of plastic inside the packaging. These are added to ensure the contents are protected from moisture and air, as well as to ensure a longer shelf life of drinks, soups and sauces.

While techniques exist to separate plastics from fiber, they have not yet been deployed on a large scale. A potential solution would be to adapt the packaging design to facilitate the separation of the different layers of plastic and paper and to improve recyclability.

“Eco-design is indeed another very important factor in increasing recycling rates for things like multi-layer packaging,” said Mike Turner, chief executive of the European Cardboard Manufacturers Association (ECMA). “And that means designing recyclability into the packaging item,” he told EURACTIV in a recent interview.

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Manufacturers of cardboard, corrugated cardboard and other packaging made from wood fibers are campaigning for the renewable and recyclable character of their product to be recognized by European legislation. They also warn against EU plans to introduce mandatory recycled content targets for new products, saying it could “disrupt a system that is already working very effectively”.

Materials in contact with food

Another challenge with using recycled plastic is ensuring it can be used safely in food packaging.

In order to enable safe recycled content in food materials, there needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of food contact materials regulations to eliminate hazardous chemicals in virgin materials and therefore ensure that secondary raw materials do not contain toxins, said Dorota Napierska, an activist at Zero Waste Europe.

According to her, policymakers should focus more on reuse rather than recycling, because otherwise “it could justify the massive use of single-use solutions as long as they are recycled”.

ACE says it’s not opposed to recycled content targets for plastic as long as it’s safe for consumers. However, the amount of recycled plastic legally allowed to be used in food contact materials is limited, Carpentier told EURACTIV. Therefore, for safety reasons, it may not be the best option to mandate recycled content for contact-sensitive applications, she argued.

In 2019, an estimated 41% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in the EUwhich makes the case for recycled content targets to stimulate recycling.

But EuRIC wants the European Commission to go beyond the recycled content targets for plastic and apply them to other types of materials.

“It’s not just about fairness, it’s because the same benefits will occur no matter what material you’re going to recycle,” Katrakis explained.

The director of Zero Waste Europe agrees. Recycled content targets have proven to be the most effective driver for packaging legislation and are a tool that should be explored for other materials, Joan Marc Simon told EURACTIV.

“Having recycled content targets for other materials would also be very helpful in ensuring that closed-loop recycling actually happens. Aluminum cans, for example, are highly recyclable, but there are no can-to-can recycling systems in countries like France. A recycled content target could unlock situations like these,” he explained.

But Carpentier is against recycled content targets for materials like paper, which already achieve high levels of recycling.

“Recycled fibers are finding their way into new products and we don’t think it would make sense, both economically and environmentally, to direct these fibers in a closed loop to the same products,” he said. she told EURACTIV.

The “waste nirvana” of closed-loop recycling

What everyone agrees on is to improve waste collection, as this will be essential to ensure that enough materials are available to be recycled into new products.

Reloop, a coalition of industrial and environmental NGOs, called for 90% separate collection for recycling target by 2029 for all beverage packaging, whether metal, glass or plastic.

It also calls for the adoption of deposit-refund systems (DRS) in Member States whose collection performance fails to meet the intermediate steps necessary to reach the 90% target.

“A separate collection target of 90% will ensure higher recycling rates and recycled content in packaging” when provisions are included to divert containers into a bottle-to-bottle and can-to-can closed-loop recycling system, says Coalition.

Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and Lithuania are already meeting the 90% Reloop target, while 18 EU countries, covering 45% of the EU population, will have implemented deposit return systems (DRS) by 2026, according to the group.

And after a few firsts oppositionmajor players in the industry are now openly proof DRS, Reloop points out, saying the 90% target would “produce huge climate savings and push the beverage industry into a ‘waste nirvana’ of closed-loop recycling.”

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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