Six years ago, millions of viewers watched a mother albatross feed her newborn chicks a piece of plastic in a David Attenborough film. Blue Planet II. What followed was a wave of support for more sustainable packaging and less waste left in nature.
Unfortunately, promises of more sustainable packaging have made little difference. According to Eurostat, packaging still accounts for 36% of municipal solid waste and is growing (1). This constant increase, coupled with low levels of plastic reuse and inadequate recycling, makes achieving a low-carbon, circular economy a challenge.
The governing body closest to meaningful change is the European Union. In this respect, MPs are representatives of their constituents. A study commissioned by Smurfit Kappa revealed that 65% of those surveyed prefer paper packaging to plastic (2).
To help with this, the EU is proposing the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). This is a big step in the right direction and everyone supports the goal of reducing waste and CO2 emissions. Back in 2020, the EU Council already welcomed the intention to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030.
However, there are concerns about the proposal to require reuse rules for shipping packaging. As we wrote earlier this year, they will pull the rug out from under the world’s best recycling systems and double the amount of plastic produced as reusable packaging by 2040 (3). Regulations designed to prevent waste may contain loopholes that lead to mountains of waste.
In reality, only 9 percent of plastic is currently recycled (4). The remaining 91 percent ends up in landfills, incinerators, or in rivers, beaches, and oceans. Plastics also account for 10 to 13 percent of CO2 emissions that need to be eliminated by 2050. While encouraging reusable packaging is a good intention, there is no need to throw away recyclable materials. The two should work together.
Spain’s agri-food sector has also warned that reuse does not take into account the continued increase in CO2 emissions caused by the logistics, transport and cleaning systems required for reusable packaging (5 ).
And the Spanish Confederation of Economic Associations (CEOE), which represents 2 million companies and freelancers from all sectors, says: “Based on a sustainability analysis, only if it can be demonstrated that there are clear environmental benefits. It emphasizes the importance of setting realistic goals. and society” (6).
I’m not saying we should abolish plastic packaging. we have to be realistic. There are and will continue to be many uses for plastics. But if you can switch to a sustainable alternative, you should.
The EU faces several important decisions regarding PPWR. The first is a final vote in the EU Parliament tomorrow (November 21st). The Council of Environment Ministers will then decide on its position on the same regulation on December 18th.
The most important principles should be: The world’s best recycling system should not be replaced with an unproven reuse and return system to justify products that people want to use less of instead of more of.
In theory, if we reused all the plastic, there would be nothing left in the environment. However, this is a myth. Currently, reuse systems are considered successful with a 75% return rate. This equates to just four round trips for packaged goods from the producer to the consumer and back to the producer. This is far from the purpose of regulation.
Even as this regulation is intended, it will leave Europe with a large amount of oversized reusable packaging that actually makes only a few round trips and is not recyclable by the definition of the same regulation. There is a clear risk.
Reuse and return systems are laudable if the materials are fully recyclable and ideally biodegradable. This is very important because a completely closed reuse and return system will not exist in the near future. Thousands of different plastics each contain different chemical components and cannot be recycled together. This makes it impossible to process plastics efficiently, but the proposed regulations would require all reusable packaging to be recyclable at the point of disposal.
Fortunately, cardboard packaging is already 100% recyclable and biodegradable. One of its best features is that it can be customized to perfectly package almost any product. This saves space and increases important transport efficiencies while reducing CO2 emissions. At Smurfit Kappa, we work with a team of over 1,000 designers every day to develop bespoke packaging that fits the objectives of our 70,000 customers. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Sustainable packaging that is 100% renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable already exists.
As with many important moments in history, future European Parliament votes and Council decisions will depend on whether politicians do their best to choose between two possible futures. . One is the region where plastic production is dominant and continues to grow. Alternatively, a second and better option is if corrugated packaging, with much better existing and proven recycling systems across Europe, becomes the cornerstone of EU policy towards a truly circular economy. Will our political leaders commit to a green, circular Europe? Or will they continue to support fossil-based materials that will further expand Europe’s existing plastic packaging waste mountain?
Saverio Mayer is the CEO of Smurfit Kappa Europe.
(2) Census commissioned survey by Smurfit Kappa. Sampled 700 people from Spain, France, and Germany. The margin of error for each market is +/-3.7%.
(3) Fefco: https://www.politico.eu/sponsored content/plastic economy-the-unintended-consequence-of-reuse-targets/