The European Commission has started gathering views from EU member states, the packaging industry and online retailers ahead of a comprehensive review of EU rules on packaging waste, part of efforts to boost reuse and recycling rates by 2030.
With end-of-year festivities approaching, packaging waste is set to reach a seasonal peak in Europe.
And the continuous growth of online shopping is making the problem worse. E-commerce is currently responsible for 10% of all retail sales, a figure that is expected to reach nearly 15% by 2020, according to industry data.
Packaging is “on the increase,” said Sarah Nelen, a senior official in charge of waste policy at the European Commission’s environment directorate. Europeans generated 85 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2015, an increase of 6% since 2013, she told participants at a EURACTIV event, held on Tuesday (20 November). That represents about 3.4% of all waste generated in Europe, she pointed out.
“The good news is that the recycling of packaging is also increasing,” she added, saying 66% of packaging on average is now recycled in Europe, despite big differences between EU countries and shortcomings with specific materials like plastics.
However, environmental considerations are not the chief concern of online sellers. “Roughly four out of five webshops believe that the protection of the product is the most important criteria for using parcels,” said Maurits Bruggink, Secretary General of EMOTA, the European eCommerce association.
Parcels come in standard sizes to fit the requirements of transporters, he said, which often leaves large amounts of empty space inside the package that are filled with bubble wrap, plastic pellets or… even more packaging.
“Half of the boxes are empty – why is that?” asked Isabel Rocher, head of e-commerce at DS Smith, a British manufacturer of paper and packaging products. According to her, the reason is simple: For decades, there has been “no innovation” to deal with the growing demand for packaging.
“As an industry, we need to look at how we can make this more efficient,” Rocher argued, saying unnecessary shipment of “air” around the globe represented 61 million empty containers per year, or the equivalent of the annual emissions of a country like Belgium (122mt of CO2).
Things could be about to change. According to Rocher, the new generation of millennials, who are heavy users of online shopping, give greater attention to environmental issues, and are open to innovative approaches to packaging. And the world’s largest eCommerce company, Amazon, is looking at ways of tackling the issue of over-packaging, she said.
“But they need help from all the industry, they need regulations,” Rocher told participants at the event, supported by FEFCO, the European federation of corrugated board manufacturers.
‘Essential requirements’ of packaging
As a matter of fact, regulations are about to change. The revised EU waste directive, adopted earlier this year, includes targets for packaging. “By 2030, 70% of packaging should be recyclable,” Nelen said.
“But more important is to look at material-specific targets,” the EU official added, pointing out that plastic packaging is “more problematic” to recover and recycle than cardboard boxes that are used by online shops.
This is where the EU plastic strategy comes in. Earlier this year, the European Commission made a political commitment that “all plastic must be re-usable and recyclable by 2030,” Nelen said. And those targets include plastics used in packaging as well, she remarked.
This “entails a revision of the packaging directive – again,” Nelen pointed out, saying the revision will focus on the so-called “essential requirements” of the directive which lists the characteristics that packaging must have in order to be allowed on the EU market.
This is a “substantial review,” she stressed, adding that the legislative proposal to revise the directive will come out “under the next Commission” in 2020 to ensure that all packaging becomes “more re-usable and more recyclable”.
Eco-modulation of EPR fees
One key aspect of the upcoming EU law relates to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, which oblige manufacturers to pay a fee covering the cost of collection, transport and management of waste.
As part of the review, Nelen said the European Commission was looking at ways of modulating EPR fees according to the environmental performance of packaging – rewarding eco-friendly packaging with lower fees and penalising others with higher charges.
“And over-packaging is one element to be taken into account” when modulating the fees, Nelen indicated, saying the Commission will issue a “guidance document” on how to do that next year, in order to help EU member states reward eco-friendly packaging.
Besides over-packaging, “recyclability and re-usability are obviously elements to take into account for a higher or lower fee to be paid by producers,” Nelen said.
The Commission initiative will draw on experience gained across EU countries when it comes to enforcing existing EU rules on packaging waste, especially with eCommerce retailers located outside of Europe, where enforcement is more difficult.
“We recognise that there is a challenge in avoiding free-riders” – online sellers who do not pay the EPR fees, Nelen said. “That is a specific challenge we have been asked to look into and we will come out next year with guidance to help enforcement” at the national level, she indicated.
Despite difficulties encountered by national authorities, enforcing the rules is not impossible, Nelen remarked, citing successful efforts in France to make Chinese online retailer Ali Baba “pay and take their responsibility”. The introduction of a national contact point in each EU country to centralise the registration of online sellers will “help a lot” in this regard, the official observed.
On the packaging industry side, DS Smith appears ready to make some bold commitments. “100% recyclability – yes,” Isabel Rocher said in response to a question from EURACTIV about the feasibility of reaching fully recyclable packaging in the future.
“It’s not even a question anymore. We need to do it because this is what we give to our future generation,” Rocher said. “It will take some time but we should start now.”