The R3PACK consortium welcomes the European Commission’s proposal for the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) as well as its ambition to encourage prevention and reuse of waste in line with the waste hierarchy and to reach higher recycling rates, to minimise the adverse impacts of packaging waste on the environment and human health.
Until now, EU policies have mainly been focusing on managing waste (recycling) and did not achieve their ambitions when it comes to avoiding its generation on the first place. However, this is only one piece of the puzzle – current recycling efforts need to be complemented by prevention measures and reuse schemes to turn the idea of circular economy for packaging into reality. We therefore welcome a strong legislative framework that supports and promotes the uptake of industrial reuse schemes where these make sense.
We welcome the definition of reusable packaging in Article 10 of the proposal – a strong definition is the basis to a solid legislation. We nevertheless have a few remarks.
Some reusable packaging that requires a “closure system” (e.g. a lid) that is single use. This is so because it allows to scale up the solution in a well-designed reuse system. Some food products require a sealant to ensure hermiticity or a lid to contain the modified atmosphere for preserving the food. These small components are hard to capture, there is a high risk of loss in the process. It would also be difficult to guarantee the food safety with the current washing methods. Lastly, even if properly washed, the sealants are likely to not age well and limit the number of possible cycles. The current lack of alternatives makes the single-use plastic components almost irreplaceable. Therefore, where possible and feasible, a reusable packaging should be allowed to have such a closure system without this affecting its categorization as a reusable packaging.
In addition, paragraph (f) is not realistic and too restrictive – for some packaging categories and products, labels on information to consumers need to be single-use and cannot be maintained in the packaging without damaging the information. Single-use labels are needed for specifically product-related information such as shelf life, serial number, composition and so on. Reusable labels however are needed for permanent information like the tracking number of the packaging. The packaging may contain a different type of product in its next round; therefore, the product information needs to be washed off to avoid any misinformation to the consumer. We therefore call for the paragraph to be amended and to allow, where necessary, for single-use labels.
Lastly, paragraph (h) calls for reusable packaging to fulfil the requirements relating to recyclable packaging when it becomes waste. However, today reusable packaging presents certain challenges when it comes to be effectively recycled. Recycling is a key element in the circularity process of packaging, while it is paramount, the targets could be too restrictive when applied to a trend yet to be established, such as reuse. Some materials, specifically plastics (PBT, tritan) that have been proven to function well in reusable packaging, meaning maintaining food safety and that are washable, do not benefit from effective recycling infrastructures yet.
Overall, the definition of reuse is essential to scale-up efforts to move towards sustainability and circularity. This definition needs to include and acknowledge in a holistic way specificities and needs of reuse packaging to allow widespread distribution and use through the Union. A restrictive definition on key components of such packaging, such as cover or labelling, could in fine hamper reuse from being used on a large scale, and alter its capacity to be a game changer in the packaging transition to a circular model.
Reuse where it makes sense
The PPWR presents an important opportunity for a transition towards more circular packaging systems at a time when it is crucial to tackle pollution, emissions and resource use in all sectors. EU legislation needs to address the adverse impacts of packaging waste on the environment, while ensuring the functioning of the internal market.
Packaging sustainability can be achieved through a range of complementary solutions, including packaging reduction, substitution, reuse, refill and recycling. R3PACK welcomes and supports the European Commission’s objective of increasing the share of reusable packaging. We acknowledge, however, that a combination and complementation of the solutions mentioned is key to achieve circularity.
While reducing single use plastic packaging by implementing reuse systems is an eligible solution, it may not be applicable for all type of products and packaging and even worsen their environmental impact. Indeed, reuse implies logistics, transports, washing which will have to be scaled and optimized in time to achieve the best economic-environmental performance. Reusable packaging may also be heavier when switching from plastic to glass for instance or induce a shorter shelf life. All these criteria need to be taken in account when setting up reuse systems to avoid intensifying or shifting the problem.
The PPWR proposal needs to foresee the performance of impact assessments to ensure that the packaging solution in place (in its context e.g. type of product, seasonality, initial packaging) makes sense from an environmental perspective, based on life cycle assessments (LCAs) of the packaging solution. Moreover, the legislation needs to take into account different national contexts, different types of packaging materials and different types of reusable systems.
R3PACK is currently working on risk assessments as well as LCAs to support the structuring and prioritisation of solutions, verifying their environmental benefit. This is a crucial part of the work to ensure that our solutions are being implemented where it makes sense (in terms of environmental impacts, relation with food product).
Standardisation of reusable packaging
Standardisation is a crucial element of systems of reuse – it streamlines packaging formats and infrastructures making them interoperable, facilitating logistics and collaboration of value chain actors, making it more accessible. It also creates economies of scale and largely improves the overall environmental and economic benefits of the system.
The PPWR proposal foresees that standardization efforts in the area of packaging designs would bring environmental and economic benefits. However, the proposal does not incentivize the use of standardized packaging designs. R3PACK calls for the proposal to revise and strengthen existing standards in order to align with the new requirements of systems for reuse specified by Annex VI of the regulation.
Introducing food safety protocols and washing grids
R3PACK strongly supports the promotion of reuse without compromising food safety and hygiene – this is necessary for the system to work, to safeguard consumer health and attain their trust in the system.
When it comes to reusable packaging, the main challenge concerns the interaction between the container and the content, and its impact on the food safety for consumers. Several factors can influence the integrity of the packaging; the durability and robustness of the latter once reused for several cycles, but also the use and misuse of the container-content. While food safety of food packaging is regulated under the Food Contact Materials Regulation (Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004), the current legislative framework entails important loopholes preventing consumers from being fully protected (e.g. numerous hazardous chemicals migrating into food and the new innovative materials such as recycled glass or plastics are not covered by the legislation). Moreover, existing food safety protocols by EFSA are not totally adapted to the evolution of industrial reuse and insufficient to ensure full safety over the lifetime of the packaging when reused more than three times.
As a matter of fact, food contact regulation is not harmonized for most materials across European countries. Only plastic and ceramic benefit from a European regulation, while glass, metal and paper can be subject to laws specific to a country. In the context of reuse upscale, the heterogeneity of food contact material assessments between EU Members may put at risk the food safety assurance owed to the consumers.
Plastic, among other materials, is specifically studied by R3PACK, because of its economic-environmental potential for reusable packaging. Plastic compared to glass or steel is not only cheaper, but also lighter, when recyclable it is a promising material to investigate. However, the suitability of the diverse resins has yet to be confirmed and the growing concerns over harmful chemicals integrated during recycling processes must be taken into account. To ensure a safe and chemical-free waste recycling process, better risk assessment and lab testing should be put in place to reduce safety risks brought on particularly by non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) leakage from FCMs to food.
According to regulation 10/2011/UE Annex V to validate a repeated use of plastic packaging, only three cycles of migration on a new product need to be carried out. While there are no set targets for a minimum number of rotations the packaging needs to perform, three cycles seem incompatible with the goal to widespread reuse as major lever for single-use plastic reduction in the European Union. According to the German Environmental Agency (UBA) a reusable plastic bottle can be refilled up to 25 times in the country, known for its well-functioning deposit-return system for reuse. In this case, the regulation also leaves out the real use of the article (abrasion, washing cycle, thermal choc) throughout its life cycle.
R3PACK has developed a food safety protocol for reusable packaging based on the existing regulations that in addition includes different constraints linked to reuse such as the consumer uses (microwave, refrigerator, abrasion due to direct consumption in the container), the industrial washing methods, as well as the overall packaging performance after 5, 10 and 20 cycles. While it is a solid basis to help packaging manufacturers validate their reusable packaging, it needs further improvement by taking into consideration the misuses that may be harmful.
To guarantee the food safety of packaging throughout its lifecycle, one must evaluate the packaging beyond the initial protocol. The washing process is key to secure food safety, therefore regulating practices is paramount. Indeed, R3PACK has interviewed 7 washers about their washing methods. We noticed disparities between the formula, washing temperatures, washing time and used technologies. While the same result can be achieved by different means, this raises the issue of harmonising and imposing good practices to ensure the highest possible level of hygiene quality and avoid deviations. In addition, the existing washing protocols are not always adapted to the type of packaging, its material, use and format.
R3PACK has developed an auditing protocol for washing centres that ensures that the right methods, temperatures and washing products are used for the right product/material combination.
While every packaging has its own material composition (type of plastics, additives, colorants) and having a “one size fits all” approach would be very difficult, food safety is a matter that should not be taken lightly. The EU should have a framework in place to serve as a reference for food operators to assess and secure safe reusable packaging. Therefore, R3PACK calls for the introduction in the PPWR proposal of a food safety protocol and a washing protocol to ensure proper protection of consumers’ health and attain their trust in the system.
Incentive to return packaging as part of the definition of “system of reuse” & Awareness raising campaigns to consumers
R3PACK welcomes the instruction of Annex VI Part A introducing requirements for systems for re-use. Well-designed reuse systems are necessary for reusable packaging to deliver environmental savings. This includes having an incentive to return that can ensure the efficiency of the systems and that consumers return reusable packaging, so that the system can run effectively and smoothly.
As confirmed by the ongoing R3PACK consumer studies, consumers have a positive attitude about reuse and see a clear association with environmental benefits. While adoption of reuse schemes is high, expected return rate is something to work on. Therefore, strong and clear rules are needed in the PPWR proposal.
Although the need to set rules for effective and efficient collection is referred to in Annex VI of the proposal, the need for incentives for return should also be stipulated as a requirement in Article 45. This will help reuse systems work efficiently.
The need to identify successful incentive strategies is of paramount importance, which may further require changes in pricing strategies from food producing companies and retailers. Alongside the return maximisation incentives, large scale communication is essential to boost reuse adoption. Awareness raising campaigns for instance are an important tool to increase understanding, support and stimulate behavioural change.
An effective transition towards more circular packaging systems and a circular economy won't happen without consumers. Therefore, the implementation of ambitious and spread-out awareness raising campaigns is central to change consumers behaviours and promote the use of reusable schemes.
The R3PACK consortium therefore acknowledge the need for forceful consumers-targeted campaigns by national authorities in the promotion of reuse and other packaging practices that would help to achieve packaging sustainability, as consumers information and awareness is key, R3PACK calls for the introduction of incentives and liabilities in the PPWR proposal for Members States to implement such campaigns and to actively involve consumers in the move towards circularity.
Phasing out hazardous chemicals to attain a toxic-free environment
Whether intentionally or non-intentionally added, packaging materials may contain hazardous chemicals that could be harmful to human health if exposed to these substances over a long period of time (i.e. chemicals that cause cancers, gene mutations, affect the reproductive or the endocrine system, or are persistent and bioaccumulative). Existing EU legislation does not sufficiently address this issue and only applies to FCMs.( Food contact materials)
R3PACK supports other stakeholders when calling EU policy makers to carefully consider the role and impact of hazardous chemicals in packaging and recycling in the context of the proposal, not only when it comes to human health, but also their impacts on the environment and circularity. This echoes the work of the European Commission in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), which calls for non-toxic material cycles and minimizing the presence of substances of concern in products including (recycled) packaging and food packaging.
The PPWR proposal is too vague on substances of concern and does not incentivize the elimination of harmful chemicals in (recycled) packaging. Moreover, the proposal prohibits regulating the presence of substances in packaging for reasons relating to chemical safety as part of the recyclability requirements established pursuant to Article 6. This fails to be in line with the objectives set out in the EU Chemical Strategy for Sustainability (point 2.1.2).
EU legislation should focus on ensuring that consumer health and the environment are adequately protected and aim to reduce their exposure to substances of concern. R3PACK therefore calls for stricter requirements on chemicals and a strong risk management approach – following the precautionary principle - for phasing out the most harmful substances (such as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), bisphenols and phthalates) in primary articles to ensure their safety and circularity when recycled.In addition, effective measures to improve the availability and transparency of information on the content of chemicals of concern are currently missing and should be addressed for consumers to be able to make the best-informed food choices.