A packaging future fit for purpose?

Foodservice operators are questioning EU proposals to cut food packaging. Helen Roxburgh outlines the proposed regulations and how operators will be affected

Ambitious new proposals that could substantially cut packaging waste across the European Union are facing criticism from restaurant groups, who believe the plans don’t take into account the realities of food production and consumption.

The wide-ranging Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations, published by the European Commission in November, set out recommendations for cutting waste, reducing overpackaging, and boosting the use of reusable materials.

The new regulations will have a big impact on Europe’s foodservice industry if adopted in their current form. By 2030, a fifth of takeaway drinks should be served in reusable or refillable packaging — rising to 80% by 2040.

Other recommendations require 10% of takeaway food materials to be reusable, rising to 40% by 2040, cutting unnecessary packaging on fruit, vegetables or multipacks, and only using compostable plastic bags.

“The European Commission’s proposal on the revision of the EU packaging regulation foresees a good base of measures to address packaging waste in general, including binding waste prevention and reuse targets for specific sectors,” said Larissa Copello, packaging and reuse policy officer at Zero Waste Europe. “Such targets are imperative if the EU wants to promote waste-free and resource prevention practices and to move away from business- as-usual and wasteful practices.”

One size doesn’t fit all

The European Commission’s plan is to maintain materials for as long as possible in a “circular” system. Without changes, the EU predicts packaging waste will increase by another 19% by 2030.

However, critics have accused the EU of a “one size fits all” approach. They argue the proposals put too much emphasis on reusable packaging at the expense of other environmentally friendly options such as single-use paper packaging, and overestimate how durable reusable packing will be.

“The wholesale shift to reusable systems… would demand huge investment from restaurants in new washing and drying infrastructures, sorting stations, anti-theft systems, deposit systems and refurbishments as well as increased running costs in the form of extra labor (for washing), warehousing (for storage of reusable systems), water, detergents and energy spend,” said Matti Rantanen, director general of the European Paper Packaging Alliance. “Given that the average profit margin of a fast-food restaurant is 6-9%, it is no exaggeration to say this could be a fatal blow to many hospitality entrepreneurs.”

Takeaway growth

Rantanen cites a report from analysts Kearney, which estimates that upfront investments to achieve reuse at scale could be as much as €20bn. He also warns the proposals could drive the sector back towards plastics. “By imposing reusable packaging, the EU would see a flood of hard plastic products onto the market, many of which have a low reuse rate – below 10 uses for the cheapest ones imported from outside the EU,” he adds.

Packaging has become increasingly important as consumer habits change. Kearney says around 70% of the informal eating out sector’s revenues now come from takeaway orders, a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

“As packaging waste is at an all-time high, all available independent evidence strongly supports more action on waste prevention,” said Marco Musso, policy officer on fiscal reform for circular economy and carbon neutrality at the European Environmental Bureau. “To tackle the uncontrolled growth of packaging waste, the EU needs ambitious waste prevention and reuse, notably in the food and beverage sectors that represent two-thirds of the total packaging market in Europe.”

In Kearney’s report – commissioned by McDonalds, but which it says was independently carried out – researchers concluded additional annual operating costs would range from 0.5-7% of the dining out sector’s projected revenues by 2030.

Analysts say consumer habits could undermine the benefits too, warning that “when consuming on the go, the average consumer does not typically recycle packaging waste”, often facing a lack of public recycling facilities.

It concludes that a mix of compostable, recycling and reusable materials is best to reduce waste, with different rules applied for eat-in and dine-out orders. Industry body FoodDrinkEurope said it “supports the ambition” to reduce waste, but urges the European Commission to “consider the needs of SMEs, which form 99% of the EU food and drink sector.”

The organization, which represents 290,000 European businesses, urged in a position paper that “proportionate targets” on reuse should only be applied where backed by clear evidence of the environmental benefit.

Simplified solution, complicated situation

Various countries have already begun implementing their own legislation, including France, which has introduced an “anti-waste” law that bans single-use plastics.

Many brands have also started to introduce environmentally friendly packaging and measures, partly to comply with national laws. In an open letter to the European Commission in April, companies including McDonalds, Yum!, Baskin Robbins and packaging groups, warned a “rush to a simplified solution for a complicated situation will only make the problem worse”.

It claims reusable packaging mandates could result in the consumption of an “additional four billion liters of water each year” and more intensive energy use due to the need to wash and dry products. The letter urges “decision makers at EU level to pause, assess the increasingly significant data, and reflect upon the best way forward.”

“To cut waste, you need to look at the overall environmental impact, which the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) does not,” said Rantanen. But a coalition of 81 organizations, including Zero Waste and WWF, have warned that “intense lobbying from the single-use packaging industry and the take-away sector are undermining the need for reuse as a driver for waste prevention, resource conservation and climate protection.”

Environmentalists also raised concerns that over-reliance on compostable paper packaging – sometimes put forward as an alternative to reuse – exerts pressure on forests.

“Misconceptions about hygiene, safety and food waste are being intentionally spread by some in the concerned single-use packaging industry to defend the perpetuation of the current wasteful practices,” Musso said.

The EU says by 2030 the directive will bring greenhouse gas emissions from packaging down to 43 million tonnes compared to 66 million if the legislation is not changed – about as much as the annual emissions of Croatia – and says water use will be down about one million cubic meters.

The Commission’s proposal paper, which is being considered by the European Parliament, says boosting reuse will save money and create some 600,000 jobs, as it expects “much innovation in packaging solutions making it convenient to reduce, reuse and recycle.”

“Single-use packaging industries will have to invest into a transition, but the overall economic and job creation impact in the EU is positive,” it concluded.

Helen Roxburgh

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