A perfect storm building up from Brussels

You can easily say that, never before has so many EU-initiatives that concerns the packaging industry been active as right now.
Right now, we are looking at an intense mix of newly launched directives and updating of old ones, all with a direct impact on the packaging industry. Thereby also on the manufacturing industry in general and the food & beverage industry in particular.

You can speculate in why these initiatives are stacked so high at this moment, but it is right in time. Recycling, reusing and reducing packaging waste are the new normal and will not change in any other direction than, even more.  

What we now see is an EU Commission pressing all buttons to quickly change the present situation and reach the rather ambitious goals. Goals that yesterday was increased to a 55% reduction of GHG by 2030. That is compared to the previous goal of 50%.

You could argue that 50-55% are within the margin of error but this demands a huge effort of the entire society of which the packaging industry is a part.

It is also this ambition that in the end, by 2050, to become a completely climate neutral continent that is the reason for the storm of initiatives initiated that involves the packaging industry. And their customers, the brand owners and fillers.

The European Green Deal” is a major flag ship project launched last year. It contains a very ambitious set of policy initiatives regarding clean energy, toxic free environment and much more. In this bundle are two components that will have a significant impact on packaging.

Part of this initiative is “The Farm to Fork Strategy” which is much about food and beverages but contains parts that will affect packaging. You could summarise the goal to be “Sustainable food in sustainable packaging”.

The “Circular Economy Action Plan” is also a part of this huge initiative. A part where packaging is specifically named as a focus area. Key words are sustainability, reduced packaging and circularity.

These are new and you can say that about “The Single Use Plastic Directive” as well. This directive has from the introduction last year been hurried through the system and will be a reality next year. This with huge consequences for all involved when the use of plastic is limited and phased out with rules and fees.

Those were the new ones, then we have a few very well-established building blocks that are considered to need an update.

The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive” was introduced quite some time ago and has been updated every 10 years. Now it is time again, after only 5 years… This is an important part of the free movement of goods within the union and is much about promoting reuse and recovery.

Finally, it is time for a refreshing of “The Waste Framework Directive” which has been with us for a long time but is now due for an update. This is basically about the Extended Producer Responsibility and the Packaging Fees to finance the collection and processing of packaging waste.

This is together quite a lot and something of a perfect storm where separate forces are pulling in the same direction which promises real results. This is happening right here, right now and will have consequences within a period of 2-5 years. The result can be influenced but only now, before the train leaves the station.

It is now we have the chance to let the decision makers hear our voice in this. The Commission is welcoming input that we as an industry probably most efficiently can give them through our organisations. It is so important that we do this, a number of very important decisions are going to be made within short and it is crucial that these decisions are made on the basis of facts and science rather than on intuition and short-term gains. So, let them hear how things are, actually.

We want less plastic! And more of… what?


Yes, what do we want instead? We can’t always replace plastic with a renewable material. Then what about recycled plastic, more sustainable plastic that is efficiently recovered and that comes from an organised collection system? Does that sound a bit better?

Coca-Cola is in the news with their new line of bottles entirely made from recycled PET. Fantastic! Coca-Cola Sweden is during 2020 switching to only use PET bottles with 100% recycled material for their leading brands, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite and Bonaqua, 40 SKUs.

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This is not a small thing as using recycled material in food contact is a complex mission surrounded by of rules and regulations. The Swedish deposit system really helps here as it makes the recycling stream of PET bottles relatively pure.
Beverage bottles, and cans, are here collected and recycled separately and can in theory be turned back into new cans and bottles. Today around 85% of the distributed bottles are returned and recycled. Normally recycled PET tends to be cloudy due to unintended mixes and potentially tainted by other random plastic in the recycle process. This is avoided in a controlled stream like this.

In a recent report from McKinsey, “The drive toward sustainability in packaging—beyond the quick wins”, this is discussed, among other things. The report concludes that to successfully address the recyclability and waste challenges more collaboration is needed along the value chain. To manage increased recycling new infrastructure needs to be built and more closed system must be employed.

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A closed and dedicated deposit system clearly makes recycling more efficient as it is separate and, closed. The Swedish deposit system is managed by Returpack, an organisation owned jointly by retailers and fillers together. When the deposit system was created also packaging converters were involved which makes it a good example of an efficient recycling structure.

Another brand owner who is blazing new trails in this field is Nestlé. The company is seriously investing in the development of new packaging concepts in their effort to have 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. The newly inaugurated Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences is unique and aims to support the process. The Institute is going to do its bit of development of functional and environmentally friendly packaging solutions and to address plastic packaging waste.

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Nestlé is now investing a staggering €2 billion to explore the possibilities to widen the market for food-grade recycled plastics. The Institute will be involved but the main investment will be in driving the market for food-grade recycled plastics by boosting demand and by being ready to pay a premium.
They are now demanding 2 million tons over a period of time and are willing to pay for it, to create a market. Brilliant!

Plastic is at present needed, especially in the food industry to minimise food waste, and it is possible to create a circular economy also for plastics. To get there a system for collecting and recycling plastic must be in place. But there needs to be a corresponding demand as well. Today it is more expensive to use recycled materials than virgin. But with a higher demand and larger volumes the price should go down and thereby generate more demand.
Hopefully a process that creates a virtuous cycle spinning us towards a circular and healthy economy.

These are great examples of steps in the right direction to increase demand for recycled plastic materials. This will also drive the development of efficient systems for processing.
But, in the end, the consumers are going to do a big part of the job. We must not forget to inform and motivate to sort and return the empty packaging through this efficient system.