Why packaging has become – and will remain – at the centre of EU policy

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Among the many breathless EU regulations related to packaging, the PPWR stood out in 2023, even though the competition was fierce (see the “Sustainability” section of this newsletter). In this article, we will look at why the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation became one of the most lobbied legislative initiatives in the history of the EU. And we look ahead to what will happen with the PPWR in 2024. Due to the current situation, however, we are starting with some “breaking news”: the introduction of the plastic tax.


The plastic tax is coming (immediately)

It was a bombshell at the end of the year: On 13 December 2023, the German government announced that it would introduce a plastics levy for companies amounting to 1.4 billion euros per year to plug the budget gap in 2024.

It is still completely unclear who will pay how much and for what. It is also unclear whether it will be a tax or another form of levy. To make matters worse, from 1 January 2024, a special levy on single-use plastics (already decided beforehand) will be imposed to implement the European Single-Use Plastic Directive (SUPD).

From an ecological point of view, the planned flat-rate plastic levy does not make much sense, as it will massively promote the trend towards paper-plastic composite packaging that is difficult to recycle.

We will keep you informed about the plans and measures to implement the new plastic tax.


The PPWR: the hottest topic in the EU

The hottest political battle in Brussels now is the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). The legislative initiative, which was published in November 2022, aims to stop and reverse the trend towards more and more packaging waste in Europe. This is a goal that most people can easily agree with. However, there is still no consensus on the means to achieve this goal.

Of all the regulations in 2023, the PPWR was the most discussed. The topic of packaging moved to the centre of EU politics. It is even claimed that the PPWR is one of the most lobbied legislative initiatives in the history of the EU. Why is this the case?


Packaging is everywhere, and that’s why people are fighting for it

Packaging is omnipresent in our lives and in our everyday lives. There is no other way, because without packaging we would not only have nothing to eat, but we would also be completely empty-handed, just like the companies along the entire value chain.

It is therefore hardly surprising that our daily lives will change if there are changes to packaging legislation.

  • As a consumer, one of the issues is how do I recycle, how do I consume and how are products marketed to me? Our consumption habits will be reshaped if the amount of disposable packaging is reduced and the use of reusable packaging, for example when shopping in cafés, is encouraged.
  • At company level, the regulatory changes will affect a wide range of industries, from luxury goods manufacturers to fast food restaurants and from forestry companies to online retailers. The changes affect processes and products, but also structures and costs, as they are generally associated with an increase in bureaucracy and administration.

As with all legislative initiatives that affect us directly, the changes will provoke both positive and negative reactions. The interests of the EU member states are very different. For example, there are ongoing battles over national recycling and waste programmes. There is also a battle between materials: for example, will more plastic be used for packaging in the future, or will fibre-based solutions be chosen more often?


Reuse or recycle – that’s the problem

The biggest controversy within the various discussions surrounding the PPWR concerns the issue of single-use packaging. It follows the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), which came into force in 2019 and aims 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 higher water and energy consumption and the amount of plastic required.

Specifically, topics such as

  • a ban on disposable packaging for dine-in restaurants,
  • the future of cartonboard in transport packaging,
  • a ban on miniature shampoo bottles in hotels,
  • the obligation to use recycled material in packaging,
  • the categorisation of materials according to their recyclability and
  • the introduction of deposit bottle systems in Europe are being discussed on a broad basis.

A number of decisions on various details have been postponed to a much later date. For example, it can be assumed that guidelines for the design of packaging that define what is considered recyclable will not be available for several years.


What’s next for the PPWR?

On 18 December, the European Council adopted its position on the European Commission’s PPWR proposal. This means that all parties involved in the trilogue have set out their position and the final negotiations can begin.

The aim is to reach a political agreement on the packaging waste regulation in the first few months of 2024 so that the outgoing parliament has time to adopt the legislation before the start of the election campaign – the deadline is 18 April 2024 – until then, it will remain exciting as far as the PPWR is concerned.

The next European Parliament will then be elected in the European elections at the beginning of June.


What’s next for the packaging – and for you? 

What is certain is that packaging will continue to exist, as the need to protect various products during transport, sale, storage, and use will not disappear.

It is also certain that packaging will change in many respects due to changes in the law. Answers to most of the currently open questions will (hopefully) be available in the course of 2024.

As we explain in our article on the topic of “innovation“, you do not have to (and should not) wait for the final result of initiated regulations. The basic direction is usually clear and there is no time to waste.

In the sustainability section of this newsletter, we tell you what should definitely be on your work plan in 2024.

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    Jenny Walther-Thoß