The EU aims to cut its waste by almost a fifth by 2030 through rules on recycling and reuse that will demand that lightweight plastic bags are composted and at least 80 per cent of coffee cups are refillable.
The 150-page proposal issued on Wednesday met fierce resistance from the packaging and plastics industries that claim the rules ignored the practical realities of waste management and failed to recognise the environmental consequences of making more reusable containers.
But environmental experts challenged the claims, saying the only way to cut waste was to reduce and reuse packaging. Several groups noted that it was due to industry pressure that the commission had watered down the reuse targets during the drafting process.
Packaging waste in the EU has increased about 20 per cent between 2009 and 2020 — a rate much faster than the bloc’s economic growth — to an average of 177kg per capita, despite an increase in recycling.
“Overpackaging is a nuisance to us and increasingly damaging to our environment,” said Frans Timmermans, European Commission vice-president for green policy. “We cannot recycle our way out of a growing stream of waste.”
The new rules aim to ensure that all packaging will be recyclable by 2030 and cut rubbish in the bloc by 5 per cent, compared with a 2018 baseline. This would equate to a 19 per cent reduction if the EU continued to produce waste at the current rate for the next eight years.
The commission said the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to the annual emissions of Croatia.
To reach the goal, Brussels has set specific targets for the reuse of packaging judged most susceptible to being sent for trash. Many member states were still missing recycling targets, it said, despite improvements in recycling technology.
Under the proposal, 80 per cent of takeaway drinks containers would need to be refillable by 2040, and 15 per cent of wine bottles would be reused. A list of five types of single-use plastics, including miniature toiletry bottles in hotels, and sauce sachets, would be banned.
Ian Ellington, president of UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe and senior vice-president of PepsiCo, said that although it was “far from intuitive”, reuse was “not always the best solution from an environmental point of view”.
“The amount of material used plus the impact of transport and washing of bottles will often result in a reused package having a larger carbon footprint than other circular systems, such as recycling.”
The reuse targets also elicited an angry response from Italy’s government, which has said it will hit new investments in recycling facilities.
“If a national model works (and this is the case with Italy’s packaging management system . . .) EU regulations should support it, and not replace it with another one whose efficacy is uncertain,” Rome’s ministry of the environment and energy security said in a statement.
The proposals come at a challenging time for EU manufacturers who face punishingly high energy bills, forcing many to cut production. Companies argue they are already making attempts to cut waste and more regulation under the EU’s flagship Green Deal climate law will undermine their global competitiveness.
But environmental groups say that despite public statements, packaging manufacturers are making little effort to minimise waste.
Larissa Copello, consumption and production campaigner at Zero Waste Europe, said that companies had been given a “free ride” to pollute the planet with single-use plastics.
“We urgently need to move away from the ‘status quo’ with business-as-usual built on disposability.”
The commission on Wednesday also announced an initial framework to regulate and certify carbon removals and to define bio-based plastics — both part of a wider effort to create a more circular economy in line with the bloc’s climate goals. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.
Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Find out more about our science-based targets here