The European Commission has now addressed cheese makers' concerns about the new packaging rules.
Cheesed off at EU recycling regulations, Camembert producers have lobbied to have their packaging excluded from new rules.
French MEPs tabled last-minute amendments on Wednesday to protect the distinctive traditional wooden containers used for the cheese.
“We have saved our Camemberts,” said French free-trade Renew Europe legislator Valerie Hayer after the vote. And she said others will be safe under the measure: “Camembert, Pont l’Évêque or Mont d’Or will be well protected."
What are the EU's new recycling rules?
First proposed in November 2022, the recycling regulation was voted on this week in the European Parliament. Intending to reduce waste, it imposes recycling targets for all packaging from 2030.
These apply to the entire packaging life cycle, from raw materials to final disposal, and constitute a ban on non-recyclable packaging.
The law was the subject of intense hostile lobbying by a wide array of companies.
According to French newspaper Le Figaro, it would have seen wooden cheese boxes replaced with recycled plastic.
But the European Commission spoke out on the issue last week in a press briefing and on social media platform X. It clarified that "absolutely nothing in our proposal would make the use of wooden packaging illegal" but "producers could well be led to redouble their efforts to improve their recycling or reuse."
Why was Camembert packaging the subject of fierce debate?
As well as being an iconic sight on shop shelves, round wooden boxes provide breathability for soft cheeses like Camembert, which are prone to sweating. Disposing of the packaging remains an issue, however.
Had the boxes been included in the new rules, they would be subject to new recycling and reuse regulations that could make them prohibitively costly.
“The wooden boxes used to package cheeses like Camembert do not have a dedicated recycling channel, as it would be too expensive to create a logistics chain,” Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, a Normandy MEP from French President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance party, told news agency AFP last week.
Yon-Courtin’s centrist group, Renew Europe, tabled an amendment calling to spare wooden packaging from the recycling law. This included boxes containing Camembert, Mont-d'Or, oysters and strawberries, among other items.
An exemption for wax packaging, such as that used for Babybel cheese, was also proposed.
They asked the European Commission to produce a report by the end of 2028 to assess the availability of recycling infrastructure for these types of packaging. They also wanted to know the environmental benefits of being forced to recycle them before being subjected to the new law.
According to the European Commission, packaging represents around 50 per cent of paper used in the EU.
‘An oversight’ on the part of the European Commission
The regulations had already received a green light from the European Parliament's Environment Committee in October.
Renew Europe's amendment “should receive a large majority, because it is obviously nobody's intention to do away with wooden packaging for Camemberts”, assured the chairman of this parliamentary committee, Renew Europe member Pascal Canfin, ahead of Wednesday's vote. He denounced it as “an oversight” on the part of the European Commission.
“The difficulty in this particular case of wooden boxes is sorting… it’s economically impossible today,” Michael Matlosz, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Lorraine who supervised a report on recycling by the French Academy of Technologies, told AFP.
“Before asking people to recycle wooden boxes, there's already a lot to be done about plastic packaging,” argued Jérémy Decerle MEP (Renew Europe), former president of the Jeunes French agricultural union.
‘Rigid, complex and often counterproductive standards’
The draft regulation was debated on Tuesday and a vote will took place in the European Parliament on Wednesday.
France’s European affairs minister, Laurence Boone, supported the amendments. She said the law could anger rural voters ahead of next June’s EU elections.
“If you want to caricature Europe before the elections, you start by annoying Camembert producers and their wooden packaging... that makes everyone sit up,” she commented during a meeting with journalists.
“We need to encourage companies to use recyclable packaging [but] we need a little pragmatic realism,” she added.
Camembert-makers were unlikely to give up on the issue, having previously fought a 12-year legal battle over the naming of their product.
Amendments were also tabled by French MEPs François-Xavier Bellamy and Arnaud Danjean of the right-wing EPP group, and by MEP Catherine Griset on behalf of the far-right ID group, to exclude wooden packaging from the scope of the regulations.
“This issue is, above all, symptomatic of the problem posed by this text, which once again introduces rigid, complex and often counterproductive standards,” François-Xavier Bellamy said.
“We are mobilising, for example, to prevent the mandatory deposit system for all plastic bottles in Europe, which would destroy the recycling model in which France and our local authorities have invested massively for many years,” he added.
Not everyone agrees with the exclusion, however.
“The requirement for Camembert's wooden packaging to be recyclable must remain,” German MEP Delara Burkhardt of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) told AFP ahead of the vote.