EU’s next ‘digital product passport’ will include packaging, says official – EURACTIV.com
Although packaging as such is not regulated as a separate product category under the EU’s proposed eco-design rules for everyday consumer goods, it will be included in the overall assessment of their environmental footprint, an EU official said.
The overconsumption of products ranging from smartphones to textiles puts great pressure on natural resources and must be brought under control, according to the European Commission.
Up to 80% of a product’s lifecycle environmental impact is determined at the design stage, according to the EU executive, which on March 30 tabled a Regulation on Ecodesign for Sustainable Products (ESPR ) to try to reduce it.
The idea is also to make consumer products more durable as well as easier to repair and recycle.
And to achieve this, the Commission plans to introduce “digital product passports” to track the origin of components and raw materials used in all kinds of consumer goods.
“All regulated products will have digital product passports,” the Commission explained, saying this will “ensure that consumers know the environmental impacts of their purchases.”
With digital passports, “everyone knows exactly what the characteristics of the products are and how they were made,” said Gwenole Cozigou, director at the European Commission’s internal market department.
Digital product passports could be “a game-changer for our single market” by allowing more information to be passed along the supply chain and making it easier to repair and recycle products, he said.
Yet packaging was largely excluded from the Commission’s March proposal, as it is already addressed in the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), which is due for review on November 30.
“Packaging as an independent product will not be included in this ESPR work plan,” said Cozigou, who spoke at an event in Brussels on June 29.
This means industry ‘shouldn’t expect a delegated act on packaging’, he added, referring to product-specific rules the Commission is preparing as part of its new product plan. greens.
“Rather, we approach packaging as a component of a product brought to market,” he said.
Recyclability and renewal
The announcement will likely come as a relief to the paper-based packaging industry, which has warned policymakers against overregulating the sector.
“We believe there is no need to have a dedicated delegated act for packaging under the ESPR,” says Eleni Despotou, Managing Director of FEFCO, the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers.
According to her, the ongoing revision process of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive “offers the opportunity to establish eco-design rules for sustainable packaging as a product and the sustainable management of waste. of packaging” without the need for additional rules.
The paper-based packaging industry believes it has a strong case to make and points to its track record as proof of its environmental performance.
According to EU figures, fibre-based packaging already has the highest recycling rate by volume (82%) – higher than metal (80%), glass (75%) or plastic ( 42%). And the industry has pledged to achieve a 90% recycling rate by 2030 by focusing on higher collection and better recyclability.
“It’s really important to remember when we’re considering new legislation – that we’re not fixing something that works. Because then it’s like shooting yourself in the foot,” said Mats Nordlander, chairman of SCA, a Swedish company involved in the forestry and pulp industry.
Paper also stands out from other packaging materials because it is the only one that is based on a renewable resource, forest fibers.
“If we really want to keep the carbon in the ground, we have to integrate this aspect of renewal into the [revised PPWD] directive,” Nordlander said at the June event in Brussels.
Still, there is an appetite for more regulation among EU policymakers and environmentalists.
Piotr Barczak of the European Environment Bureau (EEB), an environmental lobby group, highlighted how regulations can help the switch to more sustainable packaging, citing European Commission plans to vary fees paid by manufacturers of packaging according to their environmental footprint.
“Every producer wants to pay lower EPR fees,” he noted, referring to extended producer responsibility (EPR) fees paid by packaging manufacturers as a contribution to waste collection and recycling programs. waste implemented at the local level.
According to the Commission’s plans, these fees could be differentiated according to whether the packaging is reusable and recyclable or not.
Life cycle analyzes
But manufacturers are worried about the criteria that EU regulators will use to determine the environmental impact of different packaging formats. According to them, the main difficulty lies in defining the ecological attributes of packaging materials based on a full life cycle analysis (LCA).
For the paper-based packaging industry, a key lobbying battle is to have the renewability of forest fibers recognized.
“I think renewability is a fundamental issue. If we really want to keep the fossils in the ground, renewal is a fundamental issue,” Nordlander said.
“Eco-modulation is indeed a way to encourage easy-to-recycle packaging formats and penalize more difficult packaging formats,” added Mike Turner, chief executive of ECMA, the European association cardboard manufacturers.
“I think this will naturally move the industry towards easier to recycle and more renewable types of packaging,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.
Environmental groups do not dispute this. “I would give points for renewal when it comes to EPR modulation,” Barczak said. “However, higher points should be given for durability, non-toxic content and recyclability. Because even products from renewable sources can be non-recyclable,” he added.
According to Barczak, the top priority should be reducing waste in the first place by encouraging reusable packaging like glass jars or refillable bottles.
This, however, would be the least desirable outcome for the paper-based packaging industry.
“We recognize that reuse has its place,” Turner said. “But instead of introducing mandatory ratios for reusable packaging, we are asking the Commission to use a life cycle analysis on a case-by-case basis before deciding whether single-use or reusable packaging is the best option,” did he declare.
“In many cases, single-use may be a better option,” Turner pointed out, citing a recent industry-backed LCA study, which highlighted the higher environmental performance of single-use paper tableware. compared to reusable alternatives in quick service restaurants. .
“Life cycle analysis has demonstrated that it has a lower environmental footprint as well as significantly reduced water consumption compared to reusable packaging, which must be collected, washed and put back on the market”, a- he explained.
Other recent LCA analyzes have shown that corrugated cardboard packaging boxes outperform reusable plastic crates when transporting food across Europe.
Mr Cozigou from the Commission acknowledged that many aspects will need to be taken into account when assessing the environmental footprint of packaging.
But he also took the industry’s LCA studies with a pinch of salt, recalling how different groups in the packaging industry – fiber, glass and plastic-based – had lobbied in the past when the Commission was drafting its landmark REACH regulation on chemicals.
“All of them had developed their own life cycle analysis. And guess what? The conclusion of each of these LCAs was essentially that the material concerned was by definition the best from an environmental point of view,” he quips.
“So I think we come out of this competition in terms of methodologies.”
Regarding product passports, Cozigou said the Commission will approach packaging “as a component of a product placed on the market” – not as a specific type of product.
“When analyzing the most relevant environmental circularity characteristics of a product, we of course also consider the role played by the packaging for the relevant product group,” explained the manager.
And it does not rule out the adoption of specific eco-design rules in the future for the packaging sector.
“If it becomes clear that relevant environmental benefits are achievable through specific eco-design requirements, then these requirements could be included in a product-related ESPR,” he pointed out.
“However, this will only happen if we are convinced that the same benefits cannot be better achieved through existing sectoral legislation, such as the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. So there is still work ahead of us collectively within the Commission to see what the best options will be.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]