Packaging waste in the EU has hit a new high, with each European reportedly generating more than 188kg of packaging waste on average in 2021. The surge is attributed to the rise in online shopping and on-the-go consumption.
Shockingly, one-third of municipal solid waste is now attributed to packaging.
EU countries collectively produced a staggering 84 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2021, a 24% increase from 2010. If unchecked, this figure could spike by another 19% by 2030.
The widening gap between waste and recycling rates
Despite a 23% increase in recycling rates since 2010, the growth in packaging waste outpaces recycling efforts.
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A recent European Commission report reveals that many member states struggle to meet EU recycling targets due to unrecyclable packaging.
This type of packaging hampers efficient collection and sorting processes, contributing to the alarming packaging waste crisis.
Environmental impact of packaging
While packaging facilitates the transportation and protection of goods, its production and waste significantly impact the environment. Paper and cardboard, contributing 34 million tonnes in 2021, top the list of the most common packaging materials.
Notably, 50% of paper used in the EU is designated for packaging. The environmental toll includes pollution of land, soil, and oceans, with approximately half of marine litter consisting of packaging.
Moreover, total carbon dioxide emissions from packaging equate to those of a small to medium-sized EU country.
New EU rules to tackle packaging waste
Proposed legislation to transform packaging practices
In November 2022, the European Commission proposed revised EU legislation to address the packaging waste crisis. The legislation aims to reduce packaging waste, promote a circular economy, and harmonise rules across member states.
The proposal aligns with the goals of the European Green Deal and its circular economy action plan. If adopted, it would replace the 1994 packaging and packaging waste directive, becoming directly applicable across all EU member states.
Targets and strategies for a cleaner future
The proposed rules set ambitious targets for reducing packaging waste by 5% by 2030, 10% by 2035, and 15% by 2040.
To achieve these targets, the legislation includes measures such as banning certain single-use packaging, minimising packaging material, and promoting reuse, refill, and return practices.
Recycling targets and consumer-friendly measures
The legislation outlines recycling targets for 2025 and 2030, covering all packaging materials. It emphasises the use of recycled plastic, clearer labels for sorting, and the collection of certain single-use containers.
The proposal also mandates that plastic packaging should contain a minimum amount of recycled plastic by 2030, while new labelling rules will make it easier for consumers to sort their packaging waste and identify compostable materials.
Changes await consumers: a greener approach to packaging
Visual transformations for consumers
If the proposal becomes EU law, consumers will witness visible changes in packaging design and waste management.
These changes include products carrying labels indicating the appropriate recycling bin, a list of materials used in packaging, and refillable containers for toiletries and takeaways.
Additionally, minimised packaging to reduce waste and the implementation of deposit and return systems for some single-use containers will contribute to a more sustainable and circular economy.
Promoting a circular economy
The proposed rules not only aim to cut down on packaging waste but also create new jobs and business opportunities.
The packaging sector, with a current turnover of €370bn ($399.47bn) in the EU, would play a pivotal role in transforming the region into a cleaner, more sustainable, and circular economy.
Negotiations between the European Council and European Parliament are underway to shape the final legislation, ensuring a greener future for packaging in the EU.