Industry committee attempt to undermine new EU packaging law

Three votes in Parliament this week on Europe’s new packaging law aim to favour the throwaway packaging industry and undermine measures to curtail record levels of waste.

Brussels – 19 July 2023

The European Parliament’s Committees on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) and Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) Committees all vote on their respective reports on the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation this week, reacting to the proposal tabled by the European Commission in November 2022. 

Although leadership of the file remains with the Environment Committee who will not vote until September, the three reports set a worrying tone for the landmark waste file. 

Today, ITRE Committee voted with 58 in favour, 11 against and 3 abstentions on the report,  led by Italian Socialist MEP Patrizia Toia which was voted as a single compromise.

Mirroring the requests of the laggards in the packaging industry, the report decimated ambitions on reuse and waste prevention, deleting all reuse targets for the HORECA sector as well as all 2040 reuse targets across sectors. Further key provisions were also removed in the report such as mandatory deposit return systems for beverages and most of the measures to tackle unnecessary packaging. The industry committee also moved the definition of recyclability from the Commission-led delegated acts to the European standardisation body CEN, an opaque industry led body unlikely to help remove all non-recyclable packaging from the market by 2030. 

Due to its shared competency with the environment committee on aspects such as reuse and refill targets, the result in ITRE could endanger key provisions until the plenary vote expected in autumn 2023. Campaigners had already warned that too much flexibility in the new packaging law risked repeating the mistakes of the existing directive by permitting a business as usual approach from packaging producers. Similarly, the removal of waste prevention measures will make it impossible for Member States to deliver on waste prevention targets also included in the proposal. Continuing to offer derogations, loopholes and no legal certainty to the packaging market will maintain the current trajectory to ever growing levels of packaging waste and clearly undermines the objective to make all packaging reusable and recyclable by 2030. 

“Today’s vote by the Industry committee undermines the objectives of the regulation without offering any credible solutions to reduce packaging waste. The environment committee and the whole Parliament must reject this irresponsible attempt to defend wasteful practices which have led to record levels of packaging waste and pollution. Decision-makers should resist vested interest and seize this opportunity to promote more sustainable packaging practices.” Marco Musso, Senior Policy Officer – European Environmental Bureau

A vote in the IMCO Committee, also concluded yesterday, saw the draft report prepared by France’s right wing MEP Virginie Joron (ID) overturned by an alternative compromise text tabled by a conservative, socialist, liberal and green coalition. The outcome of the vote offered a glimmer of hope for the regulation. The alternative amendments included some improved provisions such as stronger requirements on online marketplaces to ensure compliance with extended producer responsibility fees. 

Discussions in the AGRI Committee are ongoing with a vote on their report, led by conservative MEP Salvatore De Meo, expected this afternoon. The report focuses on maximising flexibility on any provisions related to the food sector, including a raft of exemptions to reuse and waste prevention measures. The report also aims to delete reuse targets for 2040. 

Previously campaign groups warned Agricultural ministers not to be led astray by misinformation on the links between food safety  and single use packaging. Growing evidence also proves that record levels of packaging have not had a real impact on food waste.

“The outcome of today’s vote contradicts the Parliament’s commitments on the Circular Economy and the Green Deal. Up to now, EU policies have been focusing on managing waste rather than preventing it, and that led us to a packaging waste growth of 20% in 10 years. The need for ambitious waste prevention and reuse targets is unquestionable. It is very unfortunate that some industry players and MEPs are not seeing the opportunity behind the reuse targets, which has amazing potential for producers to achieve both resource and cost efficiency for their packaging. We hope the ENVI committee will correct the course and adopt a text that seizes the opportunity of reuse and waste prevention” Larissa Copello, Packaging & Reuse Policy Officer at Zero Waste Europe.

NGOs to EU Commission: too much space for ‘cooking the books’ in current proposal for the method to count recycled plastic content

ECOS and Rethink Plastic alliance campaigners send a letter to European Commission and consultancy firm Eunomia asking for limits to ‘artificial’ mass balance accounting method to be used to count recycled plastic content in beverage bottles.

New requirements for minimum recycled content rates in plastic products will enter into force in the coming years as part of the EU Single Use Plastic (SUP) Directive 2019/904.

PET bottles, for example, will have recycled content thresholds. As of 2025, all PET beverage bottles allowed on the EU market will need to have a minimum amount of 25% recycled content. By 2030, the bar will rise to 30%.

However, the devil is in the detail, and that will determine whether such requirements will result in a true breakthrough. Methods to calculate the rate of recycled content will be essential for that. In fact, the European Commission has been looking into ways of calculating, verifying and reporting recycled content from beverage bottles for over 20 years now.

In support of the Commission, the consulting firm Eunomia has been undertaking the technical preparatory work supporting the requirements set in the SUP Directive.

The latest proposal by Eunomia has raised important concerns. At a workshop held on 12 October, consultants suggested that companies would be free to allocate their recycled plastic content inputs to any production outputs from chemical recycling processes, such as bottles. Only fuels are left out of this system.

The ‘mass balance’ approach is an accounting method that would allow companies to claim artificially swollen rates of recycled content to products of their choosing – especially those for which the EU will require minimum levels of recycled content.

On 26 October, ECOS and the Rethink Plastic alliance sent a letter to European Commission’s DG ENV, the Joint Research Centre, and consultancy firm Eunomia, expressing their concerns about the dangers of an unlimited use of the ‘mass balance’ approach.

Campaigners point out that recycled plastic calculation and associated claims should be based on proportional allocations, should discount process efficiency losses and consider only recycled materials that have passed through the hands of consumers (technically called ‘post-consumer plastic waste’).

The full letter can be read here.

Notes to editors:

How does the ‘mass balance’ method work?

The ‘mass balance’ method can be explained through an analogy with a cookie factory. A producer mixes a large volume of regular sugar with a small amount of ‘sustainably produced sugar’ to make a number of different products: cakes, cookies, bread, croissants… In truth, only around 5% of the sugar used in the cookies is ‘sustainable’. However, using this methodology, the producer can then artificially claim all the sugar is in the cookies is of the ‘good’ type – selling them as containing ‘100% sustainable sugar’!

A second major problem comes from the inclusion of pre-consumer plastic waste in the accounting method for recycled content. This has a perverse effect as it gives incentives to wasteful and inefficient production processes, since waste plastics can then be considered as recycled even if they never reached consumers. Instead, the EU methodology should target recyclates from post-consumer plastic waste only, in line with the EU circular economy policies.

Setting this methodology right today is all the more important since the European Commission will use it as a base for setting new European recycled content requirements in other sectors, such as packaging, construction products, vehicles and batteries.

For more information, please access our recent report for further details and recommendations: ‘Determining recycled content with the ‘mass balance approach’”.

A set of infographics summarising our recommendations for the accounting of recycled plastic content can be seen here.

Fanny Rateau, Programme Manager at ECOS – Environmental Coalition on Standards

‘The EU stood up for the environment when introducing requirements for minimum plastic content in the Single Use Plastics Directive. It would be a pity if it resulted in a greenwashing exercise, with companies being allowed to cook their books thanks to a clear loophole in the small print of an implementing act. Fighting the environmental crisis will require real action – creative accounting will not help’.

Press contacts:

Fanny Rateau, Programme Manager at ECOS – [email protected] [KK1] 

Ivo Cabral, Press & Communications Manager at ECOS – [email protected]