Experts: circular economy spurs packaging choices, infrastructure improvement urgent 

Regulations drive sustainability, but experts stress that robust government infrastructure is vital for achieving the EU's 2020 Green Deal circular economy goals. By Liz Newmark.

Adequate infrastructure will play a crucial role in accelerating the transition to a circular economy. Credit: 3rdtimeluckystudio via Shutterstock

Packaging companies worldwide are increasingly choosing more environmentally friendly packaging, driven by tough laws, such as the European Union’s (EU) proposed packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR).  

This is moving through the EU’s legislative decision-making system, ready for approval in 2024, with the European Parliament adopted its first reading report on November 22 – coordinated by French liberal MEP Frédérique Ries.  

But experts say governments should not just force circularity on the packaging sector and its clients, but also invest in better infrastructure to help achieve sustainability goals promoted in the EU by its2020 European Green Deal strategy.  

“The circular economy is based on three principles: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest possible value) and regenerate nature,” Dilyana Mihaylova, programme manager, plastics initiative, at the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an international charity whose raison d’être is to develop and promote the circular economy, told Packaging Gateway: “It is a resilient system that is good for business, people and the environment.”  

Ms Mihaylova said the Foundation’s 2022 global commitment to tackle plastic pollution and waste has encouraged some 500 business signatories, including Danone, Nestlé and Unilever, to rethink their materials choices for packaging.  

“They are working toward eliminating problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, taking action to move from single-use towards reuse models, ensuring 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable and increasing the share of post-consumer recycled content while decreasing the use of virgin plastic,” she said.  

Regulatory landscape: shaping packaging practices with incentives 

This trend is spearheaded by tougher environmental rules: “The incoming revised PPWR will set reuse targets [from 2030], require [all] packaging to be recyclable [by 2030] and promote lightweighting among many other elements,” said Vanessa Chesnot, head of public affairs and product policy at the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE).   

Such rules, building on the original 1994/62 EU packaging and packaging waste directive and the UK’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations, mean “those placing material on to the market will have to pay the full net cost of its collection, reprocessing and/or disposal, with higher costs for materials not collected or recycled,” Adam Herriott, senior specialist at the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), told Packaging Gateway.  

“This incentivises brands/retailers/manufacturers to change their packaging portfolio to align with industry recyclability guidelines.”  

And within the EU, national rules can make these requirements tougher still, for example Austria’s November 2020 waste management act, which says every shop larger than 200m2 must offer 15% of beer and water and 10% of soft drinks and milk in reusable packaging.  

In France, following the 2020 adoption of its circular economy law, a trial is ongoing to ensure a minimum 10% reuse rate for glass packaging by 2027.  

The UK has set a GBP210.82 (USD266)/tonne tax [from April 2023, up from the initial 2022 GBP200/tonne level] on any plastic packaging without at least 30% recycled content, Mr Herriott noted: “This incentivises companies to use recycled materials and creates a strong market which should indirectly help with collection of material post-use.”  

But a balance is needed as this tax could result in companies using a less suitable alternative if there is no technical way of getting recycled plastic into the packaging (for example due to food contact regulations), said Mr Herriott, particularly as there is no similar tax for other materials.  

Material choices in circular economy: advancing recycling initiatives 

If waste prevention goals do not consider material-specific characteristics, companies may switch from heavier, but fully recyclable, materials [such as glass or metals] to lighter but difficult to recycle ones [like plastics or paper], Ms Chesnot added.  

Plastics is the main bugbear as far as the circular economy is concerned, with today’s consumers increasingly concerned about marine litter or micro-plastics pollution. Plastics and paper get most attention as “the areas where greater improvements can be made,” Mr Herriott explained, citing the WRAP-led UK Plastics Pact, where plastics value chain companies work together to prevent the negative impacts of plastics if incorrectly used.  

Meanwhile The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) - a European body - is aiming to boost the industry’s 50% recycling rate to 70% by 2030, as part of the sector’s circular economy goals.  

“Tetra Pak is ramping up efforts to minimise dependency on fossil-based resources; to responsibly source raw materials; design packages for enhanced recycling and reduced litter; and, to collaborate and co-invest to strengthen collection and recycling of beverage cartons,” vice president collection and recycling Christine Levêque told Packaging Gateway.  

“In 2022, Tetra Pak allocated nearly EUR30 million into recycling projects worldwide and EUR100 million to further enhance the environmental profile of food cartons, including R&D of packaging made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content,” said Levêque.  

This investment enabled trials of 25 million aseptic cartons with a paper-based barrier in Europe, “an industry first.”  

Collaboration vital for effective recycling, say experts 

Packaging experts agree effective recycling relies not only on materials’ properties and the design of packaging solutions, but also on the effectiveness of their collection at the end-of-life: “Implementing well-functioning EPR systems requires collaboration among stakeholders, infrastructure development and clear regulatory frameworks,” said Ms Chesnot.  

“The principle is not so much what we do with packaging, but what we do in end of life,” stressed Dick Searle, CEO of UK trade association for packaging manufacturers, The Packaging Federation.  

With some 57 years’ packaging experience, Searle told Packaging Gateway he was disappointed England, unlike Wales and Europe, “recently decided to put all dry recyclables in the same bag,” instead of sorting paper and board from plastics, metals and beverage cartons, which would result in higher recycling rates. 

In general, far too much attention has been paid to the “damage” packaging causes, when food waste is a much bigger issue, he added, “causing 15 times the environmental impact of packaging”.  

But if everyone works together, real progress can be made, Ms Mihaylova said, citing the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s newest, November 22-released, study showing returnable plastic packaging could lower greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 35% to 70% compared with single-use plastics in the ‘most ambitious’ scenario.  

“Once ‘scaled-up’, reuse models can also compete with the economics of single-use packaging for certain products,” she said, especially with “further collaboration between the private, public and finance sectors to expand reuse through shared infrastructure, packaging standardisation, and higher return rates.”