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EU strikes deal to cut single-use plastic waste

08 March 2024

The Council presidency and the European Parliament have introduced a new proposal to make packaging more sustainable and reduce waste.

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

The Council presidency and the European Parliament’s representatives reached a provisional political agreement on a proposal for a regulation on packaging and packaging waste.

The aim is to tackle the increase in packaging waste generated in the EU, while harmonising the internal market for packaging and boosting the circular economy.

Packaging production and packaging waste management is an economically complex and important sector, generating a total turnover of €370 billion in the EU. As such, it plays a significant role and has the potential to transform Europe into a clean, sustainable, circular economy, in line with the European Green Deal. 

However, even though recycling rates have increased in the EU, the amount of waste generated from packaging is growing faster than the amount recycled. 

Over the past decade, the amount of packaging waste has increased by nearly 25 percent and is expected to increase by another 19 percent by 2030 if no action is taken. For plastic packaging waste, the expected increase is 46 percent by 2030.

The current EU packaging and packaging waste directive was first adopted in 1994 and has been revised several times. It lays down rules for EU member states to ensure that the packaging placed on the EU market meets certain requirements and to adopt measures to prevent and manage packaging waste, in order to achieve recycling targets for different types of packaging waste.

However, several assessments of the directive have shown that it has not succeeded in reducing the negative environmental impacts of packaging.

The latest proposal considers the full life cycle of packaging. It establishes requirements to ensure that packaging is safe and sustainable, by requiring that all packaging is recyclable and that the presence of substances of concern is minimised. 
It also lays down labelling harmonisation requirements to improve consumer information. 

In line with the waste hierarchy, the proposal aims to reduce the generation of packaging waste significantly by setting binding re-use targets, restricting certain types of single-use packaging and requiring economic operators to minimise the packaging used.

Sustainability requirements and recycled content in packaging
The provisional agreement strengthens the requirements for substances in packaging by introducing a restriction on the placing on the market of food contact packaging containing per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) above certain thresholds. 

It also maintains the 2030 and 2040 headline targets for minimum recycled content in plastic packaging. The co-legislators agreed to exempt compostable plastic packaging and packaging whose plastic component represents less than five percent of the packaging’s total weight from those targets.

The agreement calls on the Commission to assess, three years following the entry into force of the regulation, the state of technological development of bio-based plastic packaging and, on the basis of that assessment, to lay down sustainability requirements for bio-based content in plastic packaging.

The new rules would reduce unnecessary packaging by setting a maximum empty space ratio of 50 percent in grouped, transport and e-commerce packaging.

It would also require manufacturers and importers to ensure that the weight and volume of packaging are minimised, except for protected packaging designs (provided that this protection was already in force by the date of entry into force of the regulation).

Deposit return systems (DRS)
Under the new rules, by 2029, member states must ensure the separate collection of at least 90 percent per annum of single-use plastic bottles and metal beverage containers. 

To achieve that target, they are required to set up deposit return systems (DRSs) for those packaging formats. The minimum requirements for DRS will not apply to systems already in place before the entry into force of the regulation, if the systems in question achieve the 90 percent target by 2029.

Restrictions on certain packaging formats
The new rules introduce restrictions on certain packaging formats, including single-use plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables, for food and beverages, condiments, and sauces within the HORECA sector, for small cosmetic and toiletry products used in the accommodation sector (e.g. shampoo or body lotion bottles), and for very lightweight plastic bags (e.g. those offered at markets for bulk groceries).

Next steps
The provisional agreement will now be submitted to the member states’ representatives within the Council (Coreper) and to the Parliament’s environment committee for endorsement. 

If approved, the text will then need to be formally adopted by both institutions, following revision by lawyer-linguists, before it can be published in the EU’s Official Journal and enter into force. The regulation will be applied from 18 months after the date of entry into force.

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