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Waste not, want not: packaging recyclability and minimisation

02 February 2023

A new EU proposal on packaging and packaging waste says the current legislation is not enough and more is needed to tackle rising packaging waste. 

How feasible is a requirement for packaging to be recyclable when infrastructure is outside of businesses control, and EU Member States are struggling to meet current recycling targets? Will this proposal succeed in reducing packaging waste?

The new regulation on packaging and packaging waste ('2022/0396') contains wide ranging changes, from EU-wide deposit returns schemes (DRS), to labelling and mandatory recyclability and minimisation requirements. Each of these areas is significant and below we look at the proposed sustainability requirements for packaging recyclability and minimisation, and the potential challenges in implementation.

EU and UK application

As a regulation, 2022/0396 will apply directly to EU Member States and will not require further implementation. It will also apply to UK companies wanting to sell goods in the EU, and as it deviates from UK law, will create additional friction for manufacturers using common packaging.

The overarching requirement is that packaging can only be placed on the EU market if it complies – but at present it is not clear whether packaging is placed on the market when full of product and first transferred from the manufacturing stage to be distributed, or when empty of product (packaging only).

If the former (which would follow interpretation of current UK packaging regulation), all UK goods when imported into the EU would be bound to comply with this proposal.

Online distributors in particular may be affected, as e-commerce packaging (transport packaging used to deliver products sold online or by other distance means) is specifically regulated in this proposal, suggesting packaged online sales entering the EU market would need to meet requirements.

Food and beverage manufacturers and distributors are also specifically targeted – tea and coffee bags or single-serve units intended to be used and disposed of together with the product, are deemed to be packaging, and so would need to meet any packaging requirements. Without this specific call out, a tea bag would more likely be seen as the product itself, being required to use the tea leaves. Consumer disposal behaviour is the reasoning here as it is common practice to dispose of the 'packaging' along with the product residue, leading to contamination of waste streams.

Adoption in the UK

Over the last couple of years the EU's focus has been plastic, with the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) coming into force. However, this new proposal pulls all materials back into the spotlight, reiterating the EU's target of all packaging being reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Following the SUPD, the UK has implemented similar bans in each nation with certain single-use plastics to be banned in England from October 2023. Whether the UK will similarly follow suit with this broader packaging proposal remains to be seen. Given the proposal's wide reach there may be a pause while the UK observes the proposal's progress before deciding whether (and how) to adopt a similar approach.

Packaging minimisation

Both the UK and Member States already have a duty to ensure packaging is limited to the minimum adequate amount. The proposal reiterates this requirement, but also requires economic operators supplying to final distributors in grouped transport or e-commerce packaging to ensure the ratio of empty space in packaging versus the packaging product(s) is 40% maximum.

The concept of empty space is not as straight forward as it appears – it includes space filled by filling materials such as paper cuttings, air cushions, bubble wraps, sponge and foam fillers, wood wool, polystyrene or styrofoam chips. There is potential for conflict here, as there are likely to be scenarios where more than 40% of 'empty space' is needed to maintain the packaging safety and functionality, and to avoid further waste from the product in question being damaged in transit.


The regulation boldly states that "all packaging shall be recyclable". This is a high bar given that the share of unrecyclable packaging has grown significantly from 2012 to 2022, but even more so when looking at the criteria packaging must meet in order to be deemed "recyclable":

a) It is designed for recycling.

On the face of it this is one of the more achievable criteria, but there is potential for mismatched approaches. Businesses designing packaging are reliant on their country's waste collection framework being fully established (or at least fully detailed) before packaging design can harmonise with recycling capability.

b) It is effectively and efficiently separately collected in accordance with [return and collection systems].

c) It is sorted into defined waste streams without affecting the recyclability of other waste streams.

The wording here, "It is", implies that recyclable status is based on packaging being effectively and efficiently separately collected, rather than its capability of being collected. This again demonstrates dependence on a waste framework outside of businesses control. We know from the proposal that Member States are struggling to meet current recycling targets, so establishing fully capable and efficient return and collection systems will be no easy feat.

Clarity is therefore needed on whether to be recyclable, packaging must be capable of being sorted, not actively be sorted, for recyclability status to apply and businesses to be compliant.

d) It can be recycled so that the resulting secondary raw materials are of sufficient quality to substitute the primary raw materials.

e)It can be recycled at scale.

The primary issue is again capacity and capability. There is not only reliance on the waste collection framework, but also on the secondary raw materials market. One challenge that is highlighted in the regulation's impact assessment is low recycling quality in plastic packaging and use of secondary raw materials. The reasoning is said to be a lack of profitability in recycling, leading to a lack of investment in technology and supply logistics needed to ensure packaging is recycled at a high quality level. There is no clarity on how the recycling market's capability could be increased to a level which is capable of meeting these ambitious goals.

Overall, businesses may be able to ensure packaging is physically capable of being recycled, but whether it will be is outside of their control. The proposal itself notes that even when packaging is recyclable "it often isn't because the processes needed for its collection, sorting, recycling are either not available or not cost efficient". The fulfilment of these criteria as currently drafted would prove difficult for any business to prepare for as it involves a reliance on adequate waste collection systems, the ability of packaging designers to foresee what these waste collection systems will look like, and efficient capable secondary markets.

While England is clearly out of scope, the 2021 DEFRA consultation on household and business recycling in England demonstrates the issues that will exist in some Member States. In the consultation response, the Local Government Association raised concerns that a lot of responsibility would be left with councils and their collection systems, and questioned whether "there is sufficient domestic capacity to deal with existing and new recyclates". With Member States struggling in the same manner as the UK, expanding the waste framework would be a huge undertaking requiring clear responsibilities, capacity, and cost.

Progress and next steps

2022/0396 is currently in its early stages, with the proposal in its first reading out of the potential three. The European Commission previously faced enormous pressure when they published the SUPD to provide further clarity on the SUPD's scope, and subsequently published guidelines. Given the scope of 2022/0396 and its wide reaching definition of packaging, we have little doubt this current proposal will face even larger pressures in the same manner. It currently raises a multitude of questions not only about scope, but its entire feasibility. Given the impact it will have it is vital that businesses are ready for these changes.

To find out more more please also refer to our Global Consumer Trends 2023 article: 'It is not easy being green'.

Authors: Dominic Watkins and Kirsty Poots.

Further Reading