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Sustainable packaging targets under threat without urgent EU investment

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Laura Degallaix, Director Environmental Sustainability at FoodDrinkEurope

Packaging waste is one of the major environmental challenges we face today. In 2017, the average person in Europe wasted a record 173kg of packaging – much of it plastic – wasting resources and putting additional strain on our already fragile environment.

Given much of this waste comes from food and drink packs, our industry takes the issue seriously. That’s why we fully support the European Commission’s Circular Economy ambitions and the EU’s objective to ensure all packaging becomes reusable or recyclable by 2030.

We are also working with value-chain partners, as part of the Circular Plastics Alliance, to ensure 10 million tonnes of recycled plastic makes its way into new products by 2025 – another target put forward as part of the 2018 EU Plastics Strategy.

But we are concerned that the EU’s targets are being undermined by a serious lack of investment in waste management infrastructure and recycling technologies.

That’s why today we have joined more than 40 actors across the packaging supply chain to write a letter to key EU stakeholders setting out the need for investment, along with our concerns around introducing further fiscal measures on packaging, such as a new plastic tax.

To play our full part in the circular economy, food and drink manufacturers need access to a secure supply of safe and affordable recycled packaging materials for our products. But less than half of all plastic packaging waste is currently recycled, with most of it going to landfill or incineration. 

Recycling rates in EU Member States (2017)


To save resources, keep materials in use for longer and support our companies’ contribution to the circular economy, the EU must invest significantly, and urgently, to support improvements in collection, sorting and recycling capacity across the EU, as well as the development of new recycling technologies for a broader range of packaging materials.

Plastic tax is not the answer

This week, on July 17 and 18, EU leaders will meet in Brussels where they will move towards an agreement on the EU budget for the period 2021-2027. Part of the budget includes a proposal to introduce a plastic tax.

We have a number of major concerns about the levy:

-      Any money raised from the plastic tax will go into Europe’s general Covid-19 economic recovery pot, rather than create an important revenue stream for critical waste management infrastructure and recycling technologies.

-      If the levy translates into a new tax on non-recycled plastics at national level, it would provide a double hit to companies that already pay towards the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for the end of life of packaging. These costs are already set to increase substantially under new EU waste legal requirements to boost packaging recyclability.

-      An increased tax burden will inevitably impact companies’ ability to invest in the innovations needed to find more sustainable solutions for packaging. In addition, costs could be passed onto consumers.

-      The plastic tax has not undergone a thorough impact assessment, in particular regarding potential environmental, economic and food safety impacts. For example, a plastics levy could lead to the use of other materials which may impact packaging functionality in terms of food safety, food quality and resource-efficiency.

To reach circular economy and climate ambitions in the food and drink sector, we need to focus our efforts and investment to increase packaging waste collection, sorting and recycling at the national and EU level. In addition, we need improved rules for the safe treatment of waste plastic materials other than PET into food contact materials.

But of course, a plastic tax is politically attractive. If it does gain support from EU leaders, we urge the Commission to ring-fence investment equivalent to the plastic levy revenue – estimated to be around €6.6 billion annually – for waste management infrastructure and recycling technologies to create a true circular economy for plastics in Europe.

For our part, food and drink manufacturers are investing and innovating to limit the quantity of packaging we use, and to find sustainable alternatives, while maintaining the highest level of safety of our products.

But without investment of public funds, now, Europe’s transformative ambition for a resource efficient, circular economy will take a significant hit.