Blog | 11/24/2023 09:11:48 | 5 min Read time

What’s hotter than hot in Brussels? Packaging.

Jukka-Pekka Rantakokko

Senior Manager, Public Affairs

Sometimes, it is the extraordinarily mundane that ignites surprisingly high passions in politics. Packaging has now taken centre stage in EU politics. It has even been claimed that the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, currently under discussion in Brussels, is one of the most lobbied legislative initiatives in EU history. Why is this?

Packaging is everywhere and that is why it is being fought over

I am writing this blog in my home office, and I started thinking about how many different types of packaging I have already used today: toothpaste tube, shampoo bottle, coffee package, milk carton, butter carton, porridge package, cheese wrapper, bread bag, chewing gum bag, plastic bag around vegetables... The list goes on and on. 

Changes in packaging legislation will change how we live our daily lives: how do I recycle, how do I consume and how are products marketed to me? Our consumption habits are being reshaped by reducing the amount of single-use packaging and encouraging the use of reusable packaging when shopping in cafés, for example. As with all legislative initiatives that affect us directly, the changes will bring both positive and negative reactions. 

The interests of EU Member States differ considerably and there are ongoing battles over national recycling and waste schemes, among other things. At the business level, regulatory changes will affect a wide range of industries from luxury goods manufacturers to fast food restaurants and from forestry companies to online retailers. There is also a battle between materials: for example, will more plastic be used in future packaging, or will wood-based materials be chosen more often?

To reuse or to recycle – that’s the problem 

The most heated political battle in Brussels right now is the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation. The legislative initiative, published in November 2022, aims to stop and reverse the trend of ever-increasing amount of packaging waste in Europe. This is a goal that most people can easily agree with. Consensus about the means to reach the goal is still far from agreed, though. 

The biggest controversy relates to single-use packaging and follows on from the Single-Use Plastics Directive, which came into force in 2019 and aimed to reduce plastic waste. The Commission and some stakeholders argue that recycling alone is not enough to reduce packaging waste and that reusable packaging is needed to replace single-use packaging. However, the sustainability of reuse has been questioned, citing, among other things, the increase in water and energy consumption and the amount of plastic needed. In concrete terms, discussions are ongoing on issues such as a ban on single-use packaging for dine-in restaurants, the future of cardboard packaging in transport packaging or a ban on miniature shampoo bottles in hotels. 

Other areas of disagreement include obligations to use recycled material in packaging, grading of materials by recyclability and the introduction of deposit bottle schemes in Europe more widely. Decisions on several details are also postponed until later. For example, guidelines on how packaging should be designed to be considered recyclable, will most likely not be available in a couple of years. 

The next European Parliament will be elected in the EU elections in June 2024. The European Council and the European Parliament should reach a political agreement on the Packaging Waste Regulation during the first months of 2024, so that the outgoing Parliament has time to adopt the legislation before the campaign trail begins. 

And that's not all: Green claims, food contact, chemicals... 

Packaging will also be subject to the EU’s Green Claims Directive. The aim is to regulate more accurately what environmental claims can be made about different products and to weed out greenwashing in the marketing of products. It is likely that by the end of 2024, there will be clarity on the data that is required in the EU to be able to claim that a product is carbon neutral, renewable or plastic-free, for example. 

In addition, the European Commission is preparing legislation to ensure the safety of food contact materials. The impact on packaging materials is inevitable, as most packaging in Europe is used to package food. There will also be plenty of work for chemical experts in packaging materials and packaging companies, as new chemicals and microplastics legislation will affect packaging materials and increase companies' reporting obligations. 

So what’s next?  

What is certain is that packaging will continue to be used, as the need to protect different products during transport, sale, storage and use will not disappear. What is also certain is that packaging will change in many ways as a result of legislative changes. Answers to most of the currently open questions will be available in the course of 2024. 

What is uncertain is which topic will take the place of packaging as the next hot topic in EU policy. If you have a crystal ball, please let me know!

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