The European Union (EU) leads the world in accelerating the transition to a circular economy—in both policy and practice—through the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 and the European Green Deal, which aims to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050. As its legislative landscape continues to evolve, packaging remains a key focus for the EU. In that context, a number of recent and upcoming changes have occurred in several European Directives aimed at eliminating waste and ensuring that resources are recirculated through the economy for as long as possible.
In 2018, the Waste Framework and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directives were amended to include higher recycling targets, increased producer responsibility, product bans, and more accurate methods for calculating recycling rates. A year later, in 2019, the EU raised the bar even higher with the passing of its Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), which introduced measures to reduce the consumption and use of single-use plastics at EU level; including more product bans, a recycled content target for drinks bottles (25% in PET bottles from 2025, and 30% in all bottles by 2030), and even higher collection for recycling targets for plastic drinks bottles (77% by 2025, increasing to 90% by 2029).
Reloop’s newly released Target 90 report (see Target90.org) calls on the Commission to extend rules requiring 90% separate collection of plastic bottles to all other recyclable drinks packaging, mostly glass and metal. In addition, calls for deposits applied to all metal, glass and plastic drinks containers to boost recovery. Without such Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) rooted in EU law, supplies of used PET plastic will not meet demand and, by 2030, the average new bottle will contain just 15% recycled plastic, half the amount required by EU law. Shortages would also threaten environmental pledges for multiple sectors.
Despite the EU having some of the world’s best waste rules, an estimated third of drinks containers will be lost in 2022, amounting to 830,000 tonnes of plastic, 140,000 tonnes of aluminium and 9 million tonnes of glass, materials worth nearly €900 million.
Hitting the 90% target in all 27 member states will cut consumption of 1.6 million tonnes of virgin PET, almost 400 thousand tonnes of virgin aluminium and 10.5 million tonnes of virgin glass. That would offset 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030. The 2030 offset of 2.7 million CO2e, is equivalent to 1.4% of the EU’s 2030 target, with the savings realised globally. DRS would take time to ramp up, but will avoid an estimated 170 billion wasted drinks containers by 2030, while also cutting vast amounts of litter, boosting closed-loop recycling and greatly enhancing the quality of recycling streams. Once DRS and closed-loop recycling are the norm, the benefits are significantly higher. The European Commission has a mandate to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030 and is expected to propose rule changes towards the end of the year. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Lithuania already meet Reloop’s 90% target, while 18 EU states, covering 45% of the EU population, will have DRS in place by 2026.
As demand for recycled materials grows, a paradox is created in which there isn’t enough high-quality material being collected and recycled to meet that demand. Deposit return systems offer a solution to this paradox by ensuring a clean stream of materials fit for closed-loop recycling, by collecting and managing materials in a way that minimises contamination and ensures high-quality outputs.
This is why more and more drinks companies (including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé) and industry associations have begun to throw their support behind such schemes.
After years of opposing DRS, the drinks industry has begun to realise that DRS is the only realistic way to increase the recycled content of their bottles and cans to reach a higher material efficiency and meet their corporate sustainability targets. In an open letter to the European Commission in September 2020, the European Federation of Bottled Waters (EFBW)—representing natural mineral and spring waters, and UNESDA—representing soft drinks producers—called for the widespread adoption of DRS in European countries to meet the separate collection and rPET targets set in the EU’s SUPD.
In October 2021, Natural Mineral Waters Europe (NMWE) and UNESDA (in association with Zero Waste Europe) urged the EU to acknowledge the role of DRSs in achieving a circular economy for beverage packaging in Europe, and to support the establishment of minimum requirements for new DRSs in the revision of the PPWD.
In their joint statement to the European Commission, they stated that: “DRS have not only delivered high collection rates for beverage packaging in countries where they are in place, but they also have the benefit of providing high-quality, food-grade recycled material in a clean stream.”
Most recently, on the 24th of October, a broad coalition representing European beverage producers, material and technology suppliers, recyclers, NGOs and public entities called for ambitious action to enable full circularity of beverage packaging in the anticipated draft amendment of the PPWD. The coalition highlighted the importance of setting a 90% separate collection for recycling target by 2029 for beverage packaging; and supports the adoption of well-designed deposit return systems (DRS) in Member States whose collection performance fails to meet interim milestones needed to attain the 90% target. This is a fundamental condition to promote closed-loop recycling and deliver circular beverage packaging.
Mandatory deposit return systems, together with a 90% separate collection for recycling target—what Reloop calls a ¨dual-action proposal¨—are proven solutions that are good for the climate and enhance Europe’s resilience in terms of securing access to resources (i.e. material and energy).
This opportunity is most timely given the current geo-political context in Europe, where security of energy supply and access to resources has become increasingly critical.
When it comes to real action on waste and climate, we do not have the luxury of waiting any longer. We do not have the time to turn down solutions that are proven to work, and that help us meet both our climate mitigation and waste prevention objectives.