Overambitious reuse targets need not be the enemy of beverage packaging recycling – EURACTIV.com

Beverage sectors fear that the European Commission’s new proposal on packaging legislation is misguided by focusing their sectors almost exclusively on reusable packaging at the expense of recycling systems, rather than adopting a holistic approach combining the two .

Pierre-Olivier Bergeron is the general secretary of Brasseurs d’Europe. Milica Jevtic is the General Secretary of the European Association of Cider and Fruit Wines (AICV). Wouter Lox is the Secretary General of the European Fruit Juice Association (AIJN). Patricia Fosselard, General Secretary of Natural Mineral Waters Europe. Nicholas Hodac is the Managing Director of UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe.

Our sectors (beers, ciders, fruit juices, natural mineral waters and soft drinks) have been pioneers in the progress towards environmental sustainability. We are strongly committed to creating a circular economy for our beverage packaging, by reducing, recycling and reusing it. This is a complex task for almost every business.

We support ambitions to increase reuse. It should be part of the EU’s strategy to reduce packaging waste, but it should complement the efforts already made – and still to be continued – to reduce and recycle packaging, and it should make it possible to adapt to changing local contexts and emerging evidence.

We are therefore deeply concerned that the European Commission’s proposed revision of the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) could open a dramatic and discriminatory new path for our beverages, singling out our sectors and defining reusable packaging as essentially our only path to packaging.

Unintended consequences for recycling

This approach will be disastrous not only for companies in our sectors, but also for all existing recycling systems that work well. The huge investments made in recent years will have to be reduced or reversed to achieve circularity in our packaging. Ultimately, it will make our journey towards greater environmental sustainability longer and more complex, with no guarantee of success.

Recycling and reusing are different routes to the same goal. Both can contribute to the circularity of packaging, reduced use of virgin materials and a lower environmental footprint compared to the status quo. We should not, a priori, favor reuse over recycling, especially when the relative environmental impact varies depending on multiple factors. Although there are situations and conditions where reuse is preferable and already works well, it is not necessarily better than recycling. Impact assessments have not established that high reuse targets at all levels will have a positive impact on the environment in all cases and for all packaging. Context is key.

When assessing the environmental impact of reusable beverage packaging, many factors come into play, such as the resources needed to produce reusable packaging, the extent to which consumer behavior will change to ensure that the containers are actually reused, the carbon footprint related to the transport of returnable bottles and crates, and the energy required to wash the packaging before reusing it. Impacts will differ between categories – for example, legislation requires natural mineral water to be bottled at source, which limits flexibility in production and logistics.

Let’s ensure a level playing field for our drinks

If the European Commission’s proposals only proposed reuse targets within the beverage industry, this would also be discriminatory and show a complete disregard for all the pioneering circularity efforts that our sectors are already relying on.

When it comes to setting reuse targets and obligations for beverages, it would also be incomprehensible and unacceptable to the beer and cider sectors if exemptions were a priori granted for the other sectors of alcoholic beverages.

Prevent the use of more virgin materials

Overambitious reuse targets can also, in some cases, increase the amount of virgin material on the market, especially in the transition phase. Much heavier, reusable beverage containers, durable enough to survive multiple trips along the reuse chain, will be needed to store the sector.

Reuse systems can also lead to logistical bottlenecks because they depend on the efficient return of packaging by consumers and retailers. As producers wait for the containers to return, more packaging is needed to fill the gap, necessarily requiring more raw materials for their production.

As for metal cans, the preferred packaging for many small producers and nomadic consumers, they are infinitely recyclable but do not currently exist in a reusable form. Other materials would be needed to replace them if too high reuse targets were to be met for all types of beverage packaging.

A heavy economic blow for thousands of businesses

Policy makers should recognize that overambitious reuse targets could be economically ruinous for thousands of businesses in our sectors. Achieving new reuse targets is not a minor adjustment, but a complete change in business model and production processes for many producers, especially SMEs. For example, a PwC report commissioned by UNESDA found that moving towards a 20% market share of reusable PET bottles by 2030 would cost EU soft drink manufacturers €19 billion. euros.

SMEs, already squeezed by inflation and high energy costs, simply do not have the resources to commit to such massive investments in such a short time. There are thousands of SMEs in our supply chains that sell locally, often in rural areas, with a single packaging line. Thousands of jobs in local communities are at stake.

This discriminatory, disproportionate and misplaced targeting of our channels would be a bitter pill to swallow even if it were the only path to sustainable packaging. But it’s not. The Commission’s draft plan is currently to require our sectors to get involved in a single policy measure while ignoring the progress made in recycling and the effectiveness of many systems already in place to collect and recycle our packaging. It does not mean anything.

Necessary ambition but the right ambition

We do not advocate the absence of ambition. In fact, the opposite is true. We are leaders in sustainability packaging and advocating for the core vision of the EU Green Deal to be delivered: ambitious, evidence-based policy measures that support sustainable, meaningful growth and jobs for our environment.

We know that a combined approach including reduce, reuse and recycle works. Reusable drink wrappers aren’t the only way.

There is a better way, based on the combination of all available solutions, which is already leading to the circularity of our beverage packaging. It must not be mined. We therefore look forward to a favorable and reasonable proposal from the European Commission.

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