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The path to mainstream reusable packaging is paved with effective laws and standards

Current EU legislation requires countries to ban certain single-use plastic products but does little to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that is produced and thrown away. This issue will not be solved unless we learn to avoid unnecessary packaging and start promoting reusable alternatives. The EU urgently needs a combination of the right laws and standards to help reusables take the leap to mainstream.

On 3 July, Europeans waved goodbye to many single-use plastic items, including cotton buds, cutlery and straws, as the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) entered into force. Some of the plastic products floating in the ocean and washing onto beaches are never to be found on the EU market again.

It is good news for the environment, but the plastic pollution crisis is far from resolved. The SUPD itself does not provide sufficient safeguards against ever-increasing amounts of packaging waste. In fact, it deals only with expanded polystyrene food and beverage containers, which are included in the ban.
Worse still, the existing EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) does nothing to reduce the overall volume and flow of packaging waste: in 2018, EU citizens produced 174 kilograms of packaging waste on average per year, a stark 8 per cent increase from 2008 (according to Eurostat). The directive’s main achievement so far boils down to making single-use packaging lighter – and this is clearly not enough.

A truly circular solution to reducing waste is reusable packaging but its market remains niche and develops at snail speed. This could change now if EU policymakers who are currently reviewing packaging legislation give a push to reusable containers. Politicians and forward-looking industry players stand before a unique window of opportunity to help curb plastic pollution.

Overcoming the barriers to mainstream reusable packaging with legal requirements and standards

The main hurdle for reusable packaging is the lack of both dedicated laws and standards. This leaves entrepreneurs in the reusable packaging business having to constantly reinvent the wheel. They are often led to design packaging and packaging systems from scratch, which increases the number of formats, logistics chains and washing lines. They all operate differently and need to adapt to each other, particularly when it comes to primary packaging (in direct contact with the product itself).

The few existing systems do not operate to their full potential and struggle to compete economically against single-use packaging. To help spread reuse, we need a series of standards that harmonise reusable packaging formats and systems, smartly combined with legal requirements supporting reusables and decoupling products from single-use packaging.

Harmonised reusable packaging would reduce business uncertainty by limiting packaging and infrastructure diversity, thus providing clear framework conditions for investors and operators to develop interoperable systems and creating economies of scale. This would also enable smaller companies to share packaging, logistic processes and washing lines.

Standardised reusable packaging would be safer for people and the environment thanks to washing and handling protocols, optimised for different packaging materials, shapes and dimensions. Standards would also increase the return rate of used packaging by making it more straightforward for citizens when different systems work in a similar manner. Standardisation alone could reduce the operating costs of a reusable packaging business by a whopping 90 per cent, according to Packaging Services Europe, a large reusable packaging servicing firm.

Standards will be a powerful tool, but they will not create a market for reusable packaging by themselves. Legislation must set targets, minimum requirements and monitoring measures to support the uptake of reusables and the incremental improvement of reuse systems efficiency. Laws could increase the environmental benefits of reuse systems by setting durability requirements including a minimum number of trips or rotations, and limits on the presence of hazardous substances.

In this legal setup, reusable packaging standards would help businesses meet regulatory requirements. Harmonised packaging formats and reuse system requirements, if applied, can support cooperation and a healthy proliferation of businesses and innovations while minimising system inefficiencies.

Today, a reality in only a few countries – tomorrow everywhere?

A problem to be solved is the poor reputation standardisation of packaging has among companies using heavy branding to differentiate their products on the shelves. If all bottles look the same, how does a brand make sure it stands out? If designed properly, however, standards will not stifle innovation: they can enable variable degrees of product differentiation through design, marking and necessary product information to be renewed over multiple reuse cycles.

In some parts of the world, the beverage industry already offers standardised packaging systems where only the bottle labels change. For decades, the Netherlands has had a deposit-return system for reusable glass beer bottles, similar to the Perlenflasche (beads bottle) for mineral water in Germany. In South America, Coca-Cola uses reusable plastic bottles for different soft drinks.

Brands can use a different look and feel for their reusable packaging and still comply with a standard, as long as they keep the same dimensions. Containers must be of a given size and shape, but their colour, edges, embossing, finish, and other details of the design can still differ. The most specific designs would not be exchangeable between brands, but they could be washed and transported within the same system.

We have long acknowledged that we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic problem. Indeed, the solution to the ever-increasing amounts of packaging waste is not making single-use packaging more recyclable. Policymakers should push single-use packaging off the EU market instead, and support reusables with legislation and a series of standards adapted to each packaging type and market use. If done right, standardisation can create a fertile ground for reusable packaging to flourish. The time is now.

This oped has been written with expert advice from Lisa Rödig (Ökopol – Institut für Ökologie und Politik).

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