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Proposed Mandatory Reuse Rules Jeopardizing World’s Best Recycling System

Smurfit Kappa

Smurfit Kappa – Sustainable packaging, 100 percent renewable, recyclable and biodegradable  already exists.  Six years ago, millions of viewers saw a mother albatross feeding her newborn  chick scraps of plastic in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. What followed was a  wave of support for more sustainable packaging and less waste ending up in  nature. 

Unfortunately, pledges for more sustainable packaging made little difference.  According to Eurostat, packaging is still 36 percent of solid municipal waste and  growing. This constant increase combined with low levels of reuse and poor  recycling of plastic makes a low-carbon, circular economy a difficult task.  

The governing body closest to meaningful change is the European Union. In this,  MEPs are representative of their electorate: a study commissioned by Smurfit  Kappa revealed that 65 percent of people surveyed prefer paper packaging over  plastic. 

To help, the EU is proposing the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation  (PPWR). It’s a big step in the right direction, and everyone supports its goals of  reducing waste and CO2 emissions. Back in 2020, the EU Council already  welcomed the intention for all packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2030.  

However, proposals to impose mandatory reuse rules for transport packaging are  concerning. As I wrote earlier this year, they would pull the rug out from under  the world’s best recycling system and cause the amount of plastic being produced  as reusable packaging to double by 2040. A regulation intended to prevent  waste could end up including a loophole that causes a mountain of it. 

The reality is that only 9 percent of plastics are currently recycled . The  remaining 91 percent end up in landfills and incinerators or in our rivers, beaches and oceans. Plastic also accounts for 10-13 percent of the CO2 emissions we need  to eradicate by 2050. Encouraging reusable packaging is well intentioned, but we  shouldn’t have to scrap recyclable materials: the two should go hand in hand.  

The Spanish agri-food sector has also sounded the alarm that reuse doesn’t consider the ongoing increase in CO2 emissions caused by the logistics,  transportation and washing systems needed for reusable packaging.  

And the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations (CEOE), which  represents two million companies and freelancers from all sectors, has stressed,

“The importance of setting realistic objectives based on a sustainability analysis  and only when it is demonstrated that they have clear benefits for the  environment and society”. 

I’m not suggesting plastic packaging should be eliminated. We must be pragmatic.  There are and there will be many uses for plastic. But where it can be switched for  a sustainable alternative, it should be.  

The EU faces some crucial decisions on the PPWR. The first is tomorrow (November 21) when the EU Parliament will have a final vote on it. Then on  December 18, the Council of Environmental Ministers is set to decide its position  on the same regulation.  

The overriding principle should be this: we should not replace the world’s best  recycling system with an unproven reuse-and-return system to justify a product  people want to use less rather than more. 

Theoretically, if we reused all plastic, none would end up in the environment. But  this is a myth. Currently, reuse systems consider themselves successful at a return  rate of 75 percent — an equivalent of just four trips from the producer of a  packaged good to consumer and back to the producer. This is far away from what  the regulation aims for. 

There is a clear risk that, well intended as this regulation may be, Europe will end  up with huge amounts of oversized, reusable packaging that in practice will make  only a few trips and is nonrecyclable according to the same regulation’s  definitions. 

Reuse-and-return systems are laudable if the material is completely recyclable  and ideally biodegradable. This is of paramount importance since a perfectly  closed reuse-and-return system will not exist in the foreseeable future. The  thousands of different plastics all have a different composition of chemicals that  cannot be recycled together. This makes it impossible to process plastic efficiently while the proposed regulation requires all reusable packaging to be recyclable  when it becomes waste.  

Fortunately, cardboard packaging is already 100 percent recyclable and  biodegradable. One of its greatest features is that it can be customized to  perfectly package just about any product. This saves space and creates important  efficiencies in transport while reducing CO2 emissions. At Smurfit Kappa we work  daily with our team of over 1,000 designers to develop bespoke packaging that is  fit-for-purpose for our 70,000 customers. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Sustainable packaging, 100 percent renewable, recyclable and biodegradable  already exists.  

Like so many important moments in history, the upcoming vote in the European  Parliament and the Council’s decision come down to politicians doing their best to  choose between two possible futures. One, where plastic production continues to  rule and grow. Or the second, better option, where cardboard packaging with its,  by far superior, existing, and proven recycling system across Europe becomes a  cornerstone of EU policies for a truly circular economy. Will our political leaders commit to a green and circular Europe? Or will they continue to favor fossil-based  materials that will further enlarge Europe’s existing mountain of plastic packaging  waste?  

Saverio Mayer is the CEO of Smurfit Kappa Europe 

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