Waste legislation under review

14 September 2003 (Last Updated September 14th, 2003 18:30)

The European Union Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste raises many questions, not least the need for a more innovative approach towards waste management.

Waste legislation under review

Dr Alexis Stassinopoulos, World Packaging Organisation

Everyone in Europe involved in packaging and distribution will be familiar with the EU Directive 94/62 on Packaging and Packaging Waste. The directive was an effort to harmonise the national legislations of the EU member states, but the actual model imposed was the German Ordinance of 1991 known as Toepfer Decree (Klaus Toepfer was the German Minister of Environment at that time).

In response to this Ordinance, the German industry had established the ‘Dual’ System (DSD) to manage the domestic use packaging by selective collection schemes. It was the time when Green Dot was born.

Right after the adoption of Directive 94/62, several committees were assigned the job of specifying the practical measures and requirements set by the directive. We must bear in mind that it was just a political framework text, recognised by the creators themselves who had added at the end of the introduction that ‘…it is necessary to provide specific measures to be taken to deal with any difficulties encountered in the implementation of this Directive…’

The three basic tasks were:

  • The numbering and abbreviations for the identification of materials {Article 8 (2)}
  • The markings regarding the recyclability {Article 8 (3)}
  • The database system which would provide reliable data on the packaging waste stream

There were many other things to be taken care of, such as those specified in Article 10. That is, creating European standards for life-cycle analysis of packaging, minimum content of recycled material in packagings and criteria for recycling and composting.

The Brno Conference

The Central and Eastern European Conference on Packaging held in Brno, Czech Republic, in May 2003 discussed the measures that central and eastern European countries have taken to adjust their packaging waste policies to the requirements of the EU directive.

I was impressed with the speed with which the countries had adopted the directive and the measures they have taken to apply it. For example, almost every country has a contract agreement with Green Dot. I was equally impressed by the apostolic faith of the countries’ officials in the infallibility of the directive.

Governments were eager to apply as soon as possible the bureaucratic requirements of the directive, and in some cases to ‘improve’ them by making them more complicated and more impractical to apply. And all this without any clear estimation of the cost involved and the environmental and social benefits achievable in return.

On the other hand, most governments look at waste management legislation just as a soft way of imposing one more tax, without any reciprocal environmental improvements. An extreme case is the recent decision of the Romanian Government to impose a 3 per cent environmental tax on sales (not on profits) of all packaging materials. For many packaging producers, this new tax could be more than the tax on profits.

I think that what is missing from many state officials is a critical appraisal of the directive and an open dialogue with industrial and economic enterprises and technological and financial institutions. From that point, I consider the Brno Conference a useful step forward — and it gave me the chance to identify several impractical, expensive and useless aspects of the directive.

Numbering and abbreviations

I shall start with the numbering system because it was the first measure where a final decision was reached: Commission Decision 97/129/EC. Here are some examples of the limited practicality of numbering and the adverse effects it will create.

First, the final text of the Decision has been improved over the original working document, as there are now only 31 numbered categories over the 48 proposed originally. But even so, this numbering will increase the existing confusion to the consumer when added to all other numbers and signs on product labels. Would, for example, the consumer be able to assess if material No 1 is more ‘environmental’ than material No 4? Or No 71 is a better material than No 72? There is also some confusion created by the addition of food additives’ numbering on the labels. Many people consider any ‘E’ numbered additive as diabolic. For example, Vitamin C is good, but additive E300 (the E number for Vitamin C) might be dangerous to our health.

Second, in most countries all packaging materials recovered by the selective collective systems go into one bin. Or in some cases in a few bins: paper, metal, glass, plastic. This means that even if the consumer is educated enough to know that No 1 is PET, No 2 is HDPE or No 5 is PP, he or she will have no other choice but to put the empty plastic packaging in the same bin. The situation becomes even more confusing in the case of composites.

Third, paper/carton/corrugated carton is a category where non-packaging waste (newsprint and so on) contributes more than packaging. Will the newspapers be asked to be numbered (No 22) so that we know they are made of paper? Similar examples can be found in all other waste streams. The film wrapping of a CD (less than a gram weight) is considered the packaging. What the consumer sees is a product marked ‘5 PP’. However, the PS box (20g) is not considered as packaging and does not require any marking.

Fourth, it is claimed that the main purpose of numbering is to facilitate recovery operations, including recycling. In the case of ‘feed stock’ recycling or the production of refuse derived fuel (RDF), which start from mixtures of organic materials, I do not see any usefulness in numbering. In the case of metals, the magnetic separation is doing the job without needing to read the numbers.

Finally, if someone has observed hand-separation operations, he or she can easily understand that numbering is of no help for the separation workers. The numbering would make the job of the supervisors a little easier in such operations. But is this enough reason for establishing and enforcing this complicated numbering system?

Decisions on marking

In the last 20 years, I have seen product labels decorated with all sorts of signs through which the producers are claiming environmental friendliness or superiority. Most of them have no objective reason to support such claims and others were working just as tools for the commercial promotion of the product or the country of origin.

This is one more expression of environmental marketing — promotional techniques aimed at the vague environmental sensitivity of the consumers.

The intention of the EU was to give some order to this confusing situation. Several marking suggestions have been made through working papers and drafts (recyclable, recoverable, reusable, made of recycled material and so on). However, the issuing of a Commission Decision on marking has been rejected by the European Parliament. This was a wise decision and its reasoning for not supporting the proposed directive included the following:

Consumers are already confused with the multitude of existing symbols and marks on labels. Introducing two new symbols would increase the confusion.
The use of markings is irrelevant if there are inadequate facilities for recycling and reuse.
The sale of European exports would suffer if a different symbol was adopted than that chosen by the rest of the world.

The European Parliament suggests the adoption of the symbol of the corresponding ISO standard, the Möbius loop. Unlike the rejected EC proposal, the ISO symbol is intended for all recoverable products, not just packaging materials.

All eastern and central European countries have adopted the markings proposed in the
draft of the European Commission which was finally rejected by the European Parliament. Moreover, in many national legislations marking is compulsory, although in the Commission’s proposition it was only voluntary.

Statistical data

According to Directive 94/62, each member state must keep records on packaging materials movements and packaging waste. It is also suggested that the database structure should be revised to improve record-keeping. There was a working paper with a view to it becoming a Commission Decision, but the draft did not bring anything new to the system and was wisely abandoned.

However, the database system enforced by 94/64 is not only complicated, but also confusing and misleading. It is admitted by most involved that the data produced under this system will not be reliable, and it would not be wise to base the coming revision of the directive on these data.

Revision of 94/62

Another requirement set by 94/62 was the reviewing of the targets set and the revision of these targets {Article 6 (3a)}. This revision would be based on the experience, and the reliable data collected, after several years of application of the directive. But I do not believe that there is such a thing as reliable data. In any case, the revision procedure has already reached a final stage (COM (2001)729 Final). I would like to comment on just one important improvement.

It is the adoption of incineration with energy recovery as an alternative to material recovery: ‘Member states shall, where appropriate, encourage energy recovery, where it is preferable to material recycling for environmental and cost-benefit reasons.’ In the Annex I incorporated in the revision, there has been an effort to clarify what is packaging and what is not by giving specific examples:

Packaging is: Sweet boxes, film overwrap around CD case, plastic or paper carrier bags, disposable plates and caps, cling film, sandwich bags, aluminum foil, labels hung or attached to a product.

Non-packaging is: Flower pots, tea bags, sausage skins, disposable stirrer and cutlery, wax layer around cheese.

All this is just small talk. We are missing the point trying to define if the wax layer around cheese is packaging or not, instead of concentrating our waste management efforts on the basic polluting waste streams.

On the other hand, we must be aware that the solid waste management legislative activity is not limited to packaging. All other consumer and commercial waste is or soon will be covered by similar legislation. Producers of certain products are lobbying so that their products are classified as ‘non-packagings’. In this way they believe they will avoid collection fees related to the application of the Packaging Directive.

However, sooner or later their products will be classified under another controlled waste management category. The problem here is that there are no direct links and coordination between various waste categories. Compact disks are an example: after a long discussion and pressure from the CD producers, it was decided that packaging is only the outside polypropylene film weighing a few milligrams. CDs are marked ‘PP 05’ with the Green Dot sign.

However, the polystyrene box and the polycarbonate CD itself will soon be included in some other waste management system such as electronic waste with more signs to be added and more fees to be paid to some other system. It would be much simpler if a CD were handled as a whole entity.

Waste management approach

The packaging waste streams, statistical data and waste management options (as seen by 94/62 and the derivative legislation) are based on classes of raw materials (glass, plastics, ferrous or non-ferrous metals, paper/board). This is a basic mistake because we put in the same category waste items which require a completely different management approach.

For example, we consider the CD overwrap, the milk bottle, the toothpaste tube, the motor oil 25 litre container or the water bottle as belonging to the same waste stream and requiring the same approach. I strongly support a radically new classification of waste streams.

We should base our statistics and our waste management policy on product categories (beer, milk, water, soft drinks, vegetable oil, motor oil), rather than material categories.
The next step would be to concentrate our efforts on the product categories which produce the largest amount of waste and study the optimisation of packaging waste in each category.

I have roughly estimated that only 5 per cent of product categories create more than 80 per cent of the total packaging waste. This approach will lead to a more rational approach and optimisation of the ratio of social, economic and safety costs to environmental benefits. We should also not look at packaging waste as isolated from other recoverable waste streams.

The recoverable waste management policies should be looked on as a unified global system. Social and economic costs are parameters that we should monitor very carefully. A very interesting global approach to waste management is the Integrated Resource and Waste Management (IRWM), and a good starting point for this approach is ‘Integrated Solid Waste Management: A Lifecycle Inventory’ by White, Franke and Hindle.

The application of the present packaging waste management approach leads to irrationalities throughout Europe: In Austria about 95,000t of plastic packaging waste is collected. This is hand-sorted into mixed plastics (50,000t), LDPE films (28,000t), HDPE canisters ( 6,000t), PP/PS caps (2,000t), expanded PS (1000t) and PET bottles (7,000t).
The hand-sorting operation is very expensive, especially in a country with high labour costs. However, about 40,000t of those expensively sorted materials go into incinerators. It would have been much less expensive if they had been incinerated before sorting.
It is of great interest in this context to compare the irrational and extreme variation of collection fees charged for the same materials in different EU countries.

The table shows the fees charged for typical packaging materials in five European countries. These fees are hardly explainable by national differences in costs of recovery and recycling activities.

Recovered materials

‘We recognise that over the past years the expansion of selective schemes has generated an oversupply of recyclates. To date, demand for products made from recylates has not risen in the same proportion as the supply of recycling materials obtained by selective collection.

To a greater or lesser degree, this is true of virtually all packaging materials. The establishment of permanent selective collection and sorting facilities driven by environmental considerations (and not market requirements) has meant very high collection costs and resulted in recycling supply outstripping demand, and its overall reclaim value dropping to a point it generally does not cover the costs of selective collection and sorting. Especially with plastics there is often no economic justification
for recycling.’

Those comments are taken from an opinion statement of the Social Committee of European Parliament (Official Journal C 051, 23/02/2000). They represent my own opinions on that matter. The problem is more acute in countries like Germany, which have achieved record rates of selectively recovered packaging material. It happens that in the same countries the quality and safety standards are so high that they do not permit the use of all the quantities recovered.

One solution is the exportation of waste to some other country. This is a well-known practice — the exporting of PET bottles to China.

On the alert

When we are presented with new proposed environmental measures, we must be alert to see what is behind and who is behind them. We must try to identify and uncover the reasons behind each article in every new legislation proposed.

First, there may be political reasons to please the ‘green voters’ or steam off the pressure from environmental groups. In one European municipality, a leader in selective collection practices, a new line of collection bins is added before every election. Its citizens now have to choose from a total of 14 bins.

Second, there might be hidden taxation not corresponding to the equivalent environmental improvements. An example is the Romanian Government which, as mentioned earlier, recently put a 3 per cent environmental tax on all sales of packaging materials without providing any corresponding waste management solutions.

Third, many waste management companies are now offering their selective collection services to municipalities. The more complicated the recovery standards, the more sales and profit for them. Other lobbying is done by companies producing special equipment for waste management.

As time goes by, more and more sophisticated and equally expensive equipment is offered to cover requirements set by environmental legislation. An example is the recently promoted waste identification system based on near infrared spectroscopy. Legislators should first ask themselves if the alternative hand-picking operations are offering real environmental benefits.

Sustainable growth

The criticism contained in this article does not imply that the packaging industry is against or is trying to avoid measures aimed at creating a better environment or the prevention of needless wastage of natural resources.

On the contrary, the packaging industry is innovating into new energy and material-saving packaging technologies. An aluminium can or a milk bottle today are half the weight of their counterparts 20 years ago. Similar material savings are noted in packagings made of any material category such as glass, plastics, aluminium, steel or paper/board.

The driving force for these innovations is not only environmental but economic as well. It is the way for a competitive and healthy industry, securing jobs for millions of people all over the world. Moreover, the packaging industry is innovating in new technology which contributes to foodstuff preservation and spoilage prevention, savings in transportation and handling, and improvements in consumer protection and well-being.

Packaging should not be regarded as a waste problem, but as a medium created to provide benefits, and which at the end of its useful life must be disposed of in the most economically and environmentally suitable way. Of course, in several cases packaging is excessive and more than what is needed to protect the product and the consumer. These are cases of overspending and overconsumption, and to each overconsuming group another group is deprived of the basic packaging to prevent spoilage of its production.

The World Packaging Organisation’s mission is ‘Better quality of life through better packaging’. I would alter this to: ‘Better quality of life for more people through better packaging’.

World Packaging Organisation (WPO)

WPO is a not-for-profit, non-governmental, international federation of national packaging institutes, associations, regional packaging federations and other interested parties including individuals, corporations and trade associations.

Founded in September 1968 in Tokyo by visionary leaders from the global packaging community, the purposes of the organisation include to:

  • Promote innovation and encourage the development of packaging technology, science, access and engineering
  • Promote the commercial, ecological and social benefits of packaging
    Contribute to the development of international trade
    Stimulate education, training and distribution of knowledge in packaging

The primary activities of the organisation are:

  • Running the global packaging design awards programme, WorldStar, to acknowledge and promote packaging excellence
  • Facilitating contact and exchange among packaging organisations around the globe through meetings and seminars for global networking, its website (official site: www.packaging-technology.com with member sub-site: www.worldpackaging.org) and publications
  • Promote education through meetings and special activities such as sponsorship of education projects in developing countries (Kenya, November 2002 and Ghana, November 2003)