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Will EU packaging regulations be the main driver for reducing plastic waste?

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The European Union is reviewing its waste packaging regulations – again. She says the legislation needs to change to align with her broader goal of creating a circular, low-carbon economy.

Despite several previous attempts to take a tougher line, the reality is that until 2023 EU packaging regulations were relatively light.

Its latest packaging initiative for packaging waste is set to be a game-changer. If a version of this regulation comes into force that is very similar to what is proposed, it will be a pivotal moment for the packaging industry. The effect will not be insignificant this time.

However, politics can get in the way. European Parliament elections will take place in June 2024. Regulations on waste packaging must be approved by then, otherwise the process will have to restart with a new round of MEPs. It’s a very tight schedule.

What effect could this regulation have?

Waste packaging regulations have several critical aspects. Perhaps the most important five aspects are:

  • All packaging must be “recyclable” by 2030 and recycled “at large scale” by 2035.
  • Recycled materials must be used in new plastic packaging by 2030 and 2040.
  • A portion of certain types of packaging must be reused by 2030 and 2040.
  • Certain types of packaging will be prohibited.
  • Packaging waste must be reduced by 15% per capita by 2040 (compared to the 2018 baseline).

How will the measures in this regulation reduce packaging waste?

Banning certain products will achieve part of the reduction. The regulations also state that the weight and size of the packaging must be reduced to a minimum (without compromising functionality). This will also help reduce waste.

Reuse regulations will play the most important role. Their exact impact will depend on the level of targets, how often each packaging is reused, the weight of the reusable packaging compared to current single-use packaging, and whether or not plastic is to be replaced.

The package of measures is expected to reduce packaging waste in the EU by 15% per person by 2040, compared to 2018 levels. This may not sound like much, but according to an impact assessment according to the Commission, if we compare it to the EU in 2040 without this regulation, Waste levels per capita will be 40% lower. it is big.

Recycled plastic will replace virgin plastic

In addition to reducing packaging waste, the regulation also expects plastic packaging in the EU to be made with less and less fossil fuel plastic. Recycled plastic will replace some of the demand.

By 2030, plastic packaging in the European Union must contain 10-35% recycled content, depending on the application. In 2040, these numbers will reach 50 to 65%. In other words, by 2040, plastic packaging in the European Union must consist of more recycled plastic than virgin plastic.

Where does all this recycled material come from? The fact that all packaging must be designed to be recyclable by 2030 and that it must be recycled “at large scale” by 2035 is a determining factor.

If ambition is apparent, the devil is in the details. Getting a fully functional recycling system in is much easier said than done.

Will all of these measures come true?

The uncertainty is great. All of the above reflects what the European Commission proposed in November 2022. The EU’s legislative bodies – the Parliament and the Council – are in the process of reviewing and amending the Commission’s proposal.

Opinions in Parliament are more polarized than usual, making it difficult to reach agreement. Although strikes are rare, there are concerns that they may occur, as in the Nature Restoration Act. The presidency of the council has also just been transferred to Spain, just as national elections are about to take place.

In addition, regulations on waste packaging must be adopted before the European Parliament elections in June 2024, otherwise the legislative process will be relaunched with a new group of MEPs. The latter may find it difficult to adopt regulations.

However, this adoption is based on tremendous political will. That might be enough to make him cross the finish line.

What does all this mean for the packaging industry?

With this degree of organizational uncertainty, decisions are either delayed or taken at greater risk. Should recyclers ramp up production now, given all the extra material they may have to process? How should packaging producers change their product mix and R&D spending? How much virgin polymer should producers allocate to packaging customers in their forecasts?

The European packaging industry is basically waiting for the horizon to clear up. The success or failure of this regulation can also affect legislation in other areas. The world is watching. It could serve as a model for other countries, but its failure could reduce legislative ambitions outside the EU.

Translated article from the American magazine Forbes – Author: David Buckby

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