EU Policy. Brewers froth over winemakers’ exemption from anti-waste rules

Médoc wines from the famous Bordeau region. Brewers say exemptions from mandatory bottle reuse and desposit-return scheme would give vineyards an unfair commercial advantage.
Médoc wines from the famous Bordeau region. Brewers say exemptions from mandatory bottle reuse and desposit-return scheme would give vineyards an unfair commercial advantage. Copyright Michel Euler/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Robert Hodgson
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As the EU debates rules to limit packaging waste, beer producers argue they are being unfairly discriminated against with exemptions for winemakers from reuse targets and deposit-return schemes, but one of Europe’s wine industry association chiefs says brewers should “mind their own business”.

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European brewers have warned that exempting wine and not beer from deposit return schemes and reuse targets is unfair and potentially illegal, as lawmakers enter final talks over a new law designed to turn a surging tide of packaging waste across the EU.

Environment ministers agreed an EU Council negotiating mandate on the proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) before Christmas, paving the way for imminent political talks with the European Parliament, which are already underway at the technical level.

“Our position is clear,” the trade association Brewers of Europe wrote to MEPs and government negotiators (10 January). “If targets and mandatory requirements in the PPWR apply to beer then there is a legal obligation that they apply to all alcoholic beverage categories.”

The 18 December ministerial summit yielded a carve out for winemakers from the requirement that, by the end of the decade, 10% of products must be supplied in reusable containers within a system for reuse or refill, rising to 40% in 2040. The exemption would also apply to the requirement, likewise supported by the European Parliament, that wine should be exempt from deposit-return schemes that should be put in place by 2029 under the proposal.

Both the Czech and Belgian ministers immediately expressed reservations at the 18 December summit about the unequal treatment for brewers, but acquiesced. Belgium, which now chairs the rotating EU Council presidency and is therefore in principle neutral in terms of inter-governmental negotiations, hopes to clinch a deal with the parliament by early March.

Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, secretary general of the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins trade association representing some 7,000 wine producers across Europe, is dismissive of the concerns of the beer makers. He told Euronews that a market dominated by multinational brewing conglomerates bears no comparison with one comprised almost entirely of small, domestic producers.

More than 99% of the domestic wine sector is made up of micro- to medium-sized companies, Sánchez Recarte said, questioning the solidity of legal arguments made by brewers and asserting that his organisation had focused on presenting policy makers with information “relevant and appropriate” to its own industry.

“It is not my role to estimate if the beer sector should have this or that target, as it would depend on the intrinsic characteristics of their own sector,” Sánchez Recarte said. “In the same way, brewers should mind their own business and focus on their own responsibilities.”

Brewers of Europe shared with Euronews a brief legal analysis it sent to the European Commission last year, where it argues that wine and beer are competing products that are “at least partially, substitutable with each other”, and which argued that rules favouring one over the other would distort the market.

Simon Spillane, the lobby group’s head of operations, said brewers were “already leading the way” in packaging sustainability, citing the example of beer kegs being reused around 165 times before being crushed and recycled after 30 years. They support reuse recycling systems already in place in many countries, he said.

“We therefore advocate for an ambitious PPWR but need a level playing field in packaging legislation where beer and other alcoholic beverages play by the same rules, with each sector contributing fairly to reaching the targets and supporting collection systems,” Spillane told. “Any other approach puts the brewers at a competitive disadvantage.”

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