Six years ago, millions of viewers watched a mother albatross feed her newborn chicks bits of plastic in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. What followed was a wave of support for more sustainable packaging and less waste ending up in the environment.
Unfortunately, pledges for more sustainable packaging are no different. According to Eurostat, packaging is still 36 percent of municipal solid waste and growing (1). This constant increase combined with low levels of reuse and poor plastic recycling makes a low-carbon, circular economy a difficult task.
The governing body closest to meaningful change is the European Union. In this, MEPs are representative of their voters: a study commissioned by Smurfit Kappa revealed that 65 percent of the people surveyed prefer paper packaging to plastic (2).
To help, the EU proposed the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). This is a big step in the right direction, and everyone supports its goals of reducing waste and CO2 emissions. Back in 2020, the Council of the EU already accepted the goal that all packaging be reusable or recycled by 2030.
However, proposals to impose mandatory reuse rules for transport packaging are concerning. As I wrote earlier this year, they will pull the rug out from under the world’s best recycling system and double the amount of plastic produced as reusable by 2040 (3). A regulation intended to prevent waste may end up including a hole that causes a mountain of it.
The truth is that only 9 percent of plastics are recycled today (4). The remaining 91 percent ends up in landfills and incinerators or in our rivers, beaches and oceans. Plastic also accounts for 10-13 percent of the CO2 emissions we need to eliminate by 2050. Encouraging reusable packaging is well-intentioned, but we don’t need to scrap materials that can be recycled: the two must go together.
The Spanish agri-food sector has also sounded the alarm that reuse does not take into account the ongoing increase in CO2 emissions due to the logistics, transport and washing systems required for reusable packaging ( 5).
And the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations (CEOE), which represents two million companies and freelancers from all sectors, emphasizes “the importance of setting realistic goals based on a sustainability analysis and if it has been shown that they have clear benefits for the environment, and society” (6).
I am not suggesting that plastic packaging should be removed. We must be pragmatic. There are and are many uses for plastic. But where it can be moved for a sustainable alternative, it should.
The EU faces some important decisions on the PPWR. The first is tomorrow (November 21) when the EU Parliament will have a final vote on it. Then on December 18, the Council of Ministers of the Environment is scheduled to decide its position on the same regulation.
The overarching principle should be this: we cannot replace the world’s best recycling system with an unproven use-and-return system to justify a product that people want. to use less rather than more.
In theory, if we reuse all plastic, none ends up in the environment. But this is a myth. Currently, reuse systems consider themselves successful with a return rate of 75 percent — equivalent to just four trips from the producer of a packaged item to the consumer and back to the producer. This is far from what the regulation requires.
There is a clear risk that, well-intentioned as this regulation may be, Europe will end up with large amounts of oversized, reusable packaging that in practice will only make a few trips and cannot be recycled according to the definitions of the same regulation.
Use and return systems are commendable if the material is fully recyclable and biodegradable. This is all the more important because a completely closed use-and-return system will no longer exist in the near future. The thousands of different plastics all have different chemical compositions that cannot be recycled together. This makes it impossible to process plastic efficiently while the proposed regulation requires that all reusable packaging can be recycled when it becomes waste.
Fortunately, cardboard packaging is now 100 percent recyclable and biodegradable. One of its greatest features is that it can be customized to perfectly wrap any product. This saves space and creates important transport efficiencies while reducing CO2 emissions. At Smurfit Kappa we work every day with our team of over 1,000 designers to create bespoke packaging fit for purpose for our 70,000 customers. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Sustainable packaging, 100 percent renewable, recyclable and biodegradable is available.
Like many important moments in history, the upcoming vote in the European Parliament and the decision of the Council will come down to politicians doing their best to choose between two possible futures. One, where plastic production continues to rule and grow. Or the second, better option, where cardboard packaging with, preferably, an existing and proven recycling system throughout Europe becomes the basis of EU policies for a real circular economy. Will our political leaders commit to a green and circular Europe? Or will they continue to favor fossil-based materials that will add to Europe’s existing mountain of plastic packaging waste?
Saverio Mayer is the CEO of Smurfit Kappa Europe
(2) Smurfit Kappa commissioned the Censuswide study. Sample 700 people in Spain, France and Germany. Margin of error +/-3.7 percent for each market.
(3) FEFCO: https://www.politico.eu/sponsored-content/plastic-economy-the-unintended-consequence-of-reuse-targets/