The European Commission wants to reduce the environmental impact of packaging by mandating that producers use a minimum amount of recycled plastic in new packaging placed on the market.
Only 5% of plastic in packaging came from recycled sources in 2019, according to industry group Plastics Europe. And recyclers face an uphill battle to sell secondary materials in a market dominated by cheaper and higher-quality virgin supplies.
To tackle this, Brussels is expected to boost the demand for recycled plastic by broadening recycled content targets from plastic bottles to all plastic packaging.
A proposal in that direction will be put forward as part of the revision of the EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive, which is expected on 30 November.
A leaked draft of the proposal, seen by EURACTIV, requires all plastic packaging placed on the EU market to “contain certain minimum amount of recycled content recovered from post-consumer plastic waste” as of January 2030.
The 2030 targets, which are tentative and could still change before the proposal is published, would increase again by 2040 in the following way:
- 25% for contact sensitive plastic packaging like food wraps (50% as of 2040)
- 50% for single use plastic beverage bottles (65% as of 2040)
- 45% for other plastic packaging (65% as of 2040)
Whatever targets are eventually adopted, the intention is clear – Brussels wants to boost the market for recycled plastics by mandating a minimum amount of recycled material in new packaging.
The move is also expected to push up collection rates and drive companies to design products in line 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 must have eco-design,” said EuRIC secretary general Emmanuel Katrakis. “You must have proper collection. You must have recycling. You must have industries that are going to buy recycled materials. Then it’s the responsibility of everyone to make sure that it works,” he told EURACTIV.
Recycled content targets already exist for plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) under the EU’s single use plastics directive, which stipulates that 25% of bottles should come from recycled plastic by 2025, increasing to 30% by 2030.
These recycled content targets drove a system change in the production and recycling of plastic bottles, according to Katrakis. Recycling PET saves more than 70% of energy and CO2 emissions and this is now better reflected in the price, he explained.
EU plastics producers have already called for a mandatory EU recycled content target of 30% by 2030.
But makers of beverage cartons say the target should not go higher than 30%. Otherwise, this will create discrepancies with the single-use plastic directive, warns Annick Carpentier from the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE).
Beverage cartons pose a challenge for recyclers because they contain a layer of plastic on the inside of the package. These are added to ensure the contents are protected against damp and air, as well as ensuring drinks, soups and sauces have a longer shelf-life.
While techniques exist to separate plastics from the fibre, they haven’t been deployed yet on a large scale. A potential solution there would be to adapt packaging design in order to make it easier to separate the different layers of plastic and paper and improve recyclability.
“Eco-design is indeed another really important factor to increase recycling rates of things like multi-layered packaging,” said Mike Turner, the managing director the European Carton Makers Association (ECMA). “And that means designing recyclability into the package item,” he told EURACTIV in a recent interview.
Food contact materials
Another challenge in using recycled plastic is making sure it is safe to use in food packaging.
In order to allow safe recycled content in food materials, there needs to be a comprehensive revision of the food contact material regulation to eliminate hazardous chemicals in virgin materials and, therefore, ensure secondary raw materials do not contain toxins, said Dorota Napierska, a campaigner at Zero Waste Europe.
According to her, policymakers should focus more on reuse rather than recycling, as otherwise “this could justify massive use of single-use solutions as long as they are recycled”.
ACE says it is not opposed to recycled content targets for plastic as long as it is safe for consumers. However, the amount of recycled plastic legally allowed to be used in food contact materials is limited, Carpentier told EURACTIV. For safety reasons, therefore, 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 EU, making a strong case for recycled content targets in order to boost recycling.
But EuRIC wants the European Commission to go beyond recycled content targets for plastic and apply these to other types of material.
“It’s not only a matter of fairness, it’s because the same benefits will arise regardless of the material that you are going to recycle,” explained Katrakis.
The director of Zero Waste Europe agrees. Recycled content targets have proven to be the most successful driver when it comes to 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 useful to ensure that closed loop recycling actually happens. Aluminium cans, for instance, are very recyclable but there is no can-to-can recycling systems in countries such as France. A recycled content target could unblock situations like these,” he explained.
But Carpentier is against recycled content targets for materials like paper, which already achieve high levels of recycling.
“The recycled fibres find their way into new products and we don’t believe that it would make sense, both from an economic and environmental perspective, to direct those fibres in a closed loop manner into the same products,” she told EURACTIV.
‘Waste nirvana’ of closed-loop recycling
What everyone agrees on is to improve waste collection as this will be key to ensure enough material is available to be recycled into new products.
Reloop, a coalition of industry and environmental NGOs, has called for a separate 90% collection for recycling target by 2029 for all drinks packaging – whether metal, glass or plastic.
It also calls for the adoption of deposit return systems (DRS) in member states whose collection performance fails to meet interim milestones needed to attain the 90% target.
“A 90% separate collection target will ensure higher recycling rates and recycled content in packaging” when provisions are included to channel the containers back into a close loop bottle-to-bottle and can-to-can recycling system, the coalition says.
Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Lithuania already meet Reloop’s 90% target, while 18 EU countries, covering 45% of the EU population, will have deposit return schemes (DRS) in place by 2026, the group says.
And after some initial opposition, large industry players are now openly supporting DRS, Reloop points out, saying the 90% target would “deliver sizeable climate savings and push the drinks sector into a ‘waste nirvana’ of closed-loop recycling”.