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EU Policy. MEPs approve law to reduce growing stream of packaging waste

Volunteers in Hungary clear waste plastic from a river.
Volunteers in Hungary clear waste plastic from a river. Copyright Denes Erdos/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Denes Erdos/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Robert Hodgson
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The European Parliament has adopted new binding targets for reuse, collection and recycling of packaging, and outright bans on a range of disposable plastic wrappers, miniature bottles and bags deemed unnecessary, but NGOs have raised another 'greenwashing' alarm.


MEPs have adopted a new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) described as one of the most lobbied files to pass through the assembly in recent years. It has also been among the most contentious, and was nearly scotched during inter-governmental negotiations last month.

The new law – backed by 476 lawmakers drawn from across the mainstream parties, with 129 voting against and 24 abstaining – stipulates that the annual average of nearly 190kg of wrappers, boxes, bottles, cartons and cans discarded generated annually by every EU citizen should be cut by 5% to 2030.

This target rises to 10% by 2035 and 15% by 2040. Current trends suggest that without urgent action by policy makers, the level of waste generation could rise to 209kg per capita by 2030.

To prevent this, the law sets re-use and recycling targets, as well as mandating that nearly all packaging materials will have to be fully recyclable by 2030. It also introduces minimum recycled content targets for plastic packaging, and minimum recycling targets by weight of packaging waste.

Take-away food and drink outlets will have to allow customers to use their own containers from 2030, while being encouraged to offer at least 10% of their sales in reusable cartons or cups. Before that date, 90% of plastic bottles and drinks cans will have to be collected separately, by deposit-return schemes unless other systems are in place.

In addition, a raft of prohibitions specifically targeting plastic waste will come into force from 2030, affecting individual sachets and pots of condiments and coffee creamer and the miniature bottles of shampoo and other toiletries often provided in hotels.

Very lightweight plastic bags and packaging for fresh fruit and vegetables are also banned from the same date, along with food and drink filled and consumed in restaurants – a measure targeting fast food chains.

Matti Rantanen, director general of the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA), a lobby group, welcomed what he said was a “robust and evidence-based” law. “By standing behind science, MEPs have embraced a circular single market which promotes reducing the use of non-renewable resources, boosting recycling and protecting the shelf life of food,” he said.

Another lobby group, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, also made positive noises, in particular about the 90% collection target, but was critical of the decision to set mandatory re-use targets. Reuse was “part of the solution”, said director-general Nicholas Hodac. “However, the environmental efficacy of these solutions varies across different contexts and packaging types.”

Meanwhile, anti-waste campaigners slammed MEPs for failing to block separate legislation setting out how the recycled content of plastic bottles should be calculated. The European Commission decided on a ‘mass balance’ approach supported by the chemicals industry, where any plastic recycled is covered by a certificate that can then be attributed even to products made entirely of virgin plastics.

A similar approach is already applied in the certification of some 'fair trade' products, sustainable timber, and green electricity.

The European Parliament's environment committee last week narrowly rejected the secondary legislation, which was delegated to the EU executive in the small print of the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), an earlier effort to reduce waste by targeting unnecessary disposable items such as plastic straws and cutlery, but which sets a precedent that will apply more generally in EU law.

“The European Parliament has just opened the door for companies to cook the books on plastic for the SUPD and other future European implementing acts on recycled content,” said Mathilde Crêpy at Environmental Coalition on Standards, an NGO. “This decision will trigger a cascade of misleading green claims on recycled plastics.”

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