Environment ministers secured several concessions before agreeing a joint position on legislation designed to reduce the amount of packaging material discarded annually, prompting the Netherlands’ Vivianne Heijnen to warn against any further “watering down”.
Governments pushed for various concessions before agreeing a joint position on legislation designed to reduce the amount of packaging material discarded annually, and Dutch environment minister Vivianne Heijnen warned that any further “watering down” could delay for years EU efforts to stem one of its most rapidly increasing waste streams.
“If we do not set clear and ambitious targets now, a circular packaging chain will he held back for at least a decade,” Heijnen told her peers at an EU Council meeting in Brussels on Monday (18 December), where ministers planned to agree a negotiating mandate before entering final talks with the European Parliament.
Packaging waste generation hit a record high in 2021 of over 188 kilogrammes a year for every EU citizen, almost 11kg up on the previous year and reflecting growth of more than 20% since 2011, a trend that prompted the European Commission to propose a new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation that has become the focus of intense lobbying even by the standards of Brussels.
To secure an agreement, current EU Council presidency holder Spain had to make various amendments to placate a group of countries led by Italy and Finland, who called as Euronews reported last week for the scrapping or easing of proposed targets on re-use, separate collection and recycling, and of restrictions on certain types of single-use packaging.
The Commission proposed a series of targets to limit the use of disposable packaging, requiring for example that 20% of coffee cups and other beverage containers filled at point of sale would have to come in re-usable form by the end of the decade, along with 10% of boxes and crates use to transport goods in bulk.
The EU Council, however, wants a review clause that could allow for a five-year delay, and a further review, in 2034, of the feasibility of tighter 2040 targets based on countries’ experiences of trying to meet the first deadline. A last-minute amendment pushed by Germany would allow companies to ‘pool’ their operations to meet reuse targets collectively.
Under pressure from governments that have already put effective recycling systems in place, ministers agreed an exemption from a requirement to implement national deposit-return schemes for any country that already collects 78% of bottles for recycling, against a 90% threshold proposed by the Commission and 85% agreed by the European Parliament.
During a public discussion ahead of the vote, Finland welcomed the reinstatement of an exemption for cardboard boxes from the transport packaging reuse target, saying it would reduce the risk of a counterproductive switch to the use of heavy plastic crates. Sweden agreed: “We also want to avoid unwanted shifts from fully recyclable and renewable paper packaging to fossil plastics,” state secretary Daniel Westlén said.
The proposal has seen intense lobbying from various business sectors. Paper manufacturers complained that reuse targets unfairly encouraged a switch to plastic, while the plastics industry objected to exemptions for cardboard. Fast food companies joined them both in fiercely opposing a ban on disposable wrappers and cartons for food consumed inside restaurants.
The compromise brokered by Spain weakens the ‘fast-food’ provisions to the apparent benefit of paper producers, as wrappers made from ‘flexible materials other than plastics’ would be exempted. This sets the scene for a heated debated with MEPs, whose negotiating mandate deletes entirely the ban on the in-house use of disposable packaging.
Despite the various tweaks made by Madrid to forge agreement, the headline targets remain: governments must ensure the overall production of packaging waste is down 5% by 2030, 10% by 2035, and 15% by 2040, and by the end of the decade all packaging will have to be recyclable. EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said the Council position “remained broadly consistent with the core of the Commission proposal”.
Similarly, the campaign group Zero Waste Europe said after the agreement was announced that, even in its watered-down form, the EU Council’s mandate was an improvement on the “backwards position” taken by the parliament. The next step will be negotiations between government delegates and MEPs, who will seek to hammer the legislation into its final shape behind closed doors.
German Christian Democrat MEP Peter Liese, the centre-right EPP group’s environment lead, said the Council had not gone far enough in opposing an “orgy of prohibitions” proposed by the Commission, and called on governments to side with the parliament in opposing bans on items like sachets of sugar. “Paper is a sustainable material and we really do have other things to worry about in Europe at the moment than paper bags,” Liese said.
Denmark called on Belgium, which takes over the EU Council presidency on 1 January, to push for a final deal well ahead of EU elections in June, while several ministers said they were backing the compromise despite reservations in a bid to close the file quickly.