Does single-use packaging regulation go far enough?

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 26th March 2024, in CEO Insights

Targeted packaging waste legislation and single-use packaging regulation could finally signal a turning point in shift toward sustainable, reusable packaging. As long as policymakers don’t torpedo their own work and progress so far.

single-use packaging regulation

The scale of pollution still attributable to single-use packaging waste is staggering. Today, our throwaway culture produces around 400 million tons of plastic waste every year. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that approximately 85 percent of all single-use packaging ends up as waste in landfills and in our natural environment. The full impact of this on human and planet health remains unclear, but it’s not good.

Although it’s universally recognized that the single-use packaging waste crisis needs to be urgently addressed, not everyone can agree on the right course of action. Which is perhaps one of the reasons why the United Nations Environmental Assembly, the world’s highest environmental decision-making body, wants to introduce an international treaty to end plastic pollution globally. Could such a step make a difference to international legislation?

Single-use packaging regulation

An international treaty to end all single-use packaging waste?

The final document is expected by the end of 2024. It’ll be interesting to see which countries end up ratifying the legally binding treaty. And when.

The negotiators should feel encouraged in their goals by the positive conclusions of a study by UNEP, titled Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy. Its authors argue that it will be possible to reduce global plastic pollution by over 80 percent by 2040. But this will require a rethink in many industries and an integrated approach to restrict single-use packaging, promote reusable packaging and strengthen single-use packaging waste legislation in general.

The role of common legislation on reusable, recyclable packaging

Key takeaways from the report tie into my own beliefs. Disposability is the real issue. We need to turn off the tap and stop the leaking of single-use packaging waste into our environment.

Most notably, the report highlights how industries will need to adopt reusable and recyclable packaging solutions that are run with a circular economy mindset. And that it will require common legislation to get us there.

The 80 percent mark can only be hit if businesses eliminate unnecessary single-use packaging, develop solutions for dealing with the legacy of single-use packaging waste – and mandate the use of reusable packaging where feasible. These solutions must not negatively impact the environment or human health. It’s a big but timely ask, and I’m confident our industry can step up, act and meet our environmental responsibilities.

single-use packaging regulation

A mixed bag of packaging regulation and increased legislation

Until the treaty is ratified and implemented – which is likely to take years – I fully expect the regulatory landscape to remain complex and difficult to navigate. One recent McKinsey report into sustainable packaging and packaging regulation confirmed what I’ve experienced firsthand: international and domestic legislation on packaging waste is confusing.

Regulations vary from region to region, including across the EU, and even from city to city in some countries, such as in the US. This makes it especially challenging for any grower or retailer that wants to work on an international level.

What’s more, regulation around single-use packaging is on the rise. As the report notes, the European Union and Asia have the highest number of regulations, with France and India coming top in this category. And the report readily admits that the regulatory landscape is still evolving. Legislation is constantly changing, so uncertainty remains around what new measures are likely to be.

How to prepare for the future of packaging legislation

While no one can accurately predict the future, I expect the regulatory landscape to develop in a common direction. Here are some of the key focus areas that will gain in importance:

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Circular business models for packaging

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) is exemplary for the kind of legislation we can expect. This is geared at speeding up the transition to a circular economy model for packaging in line with the European Green Deal, the goal of which is to achieve climate neutrality through a catalog of different initiatives by 2050 at the latest.

The PPWR harmonizes EU packaging rules, waste policies and reporting requirements. Essentially, it introduces measures to promote reusable packaging, minimize excess packaging and ban avoidable packaging for certain uses, such as specific types of single-use packaging for fresh fruit and vegetables.

It requires EU Member States to ensure that they have extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes up and running for all packaging types.

That’s the positive side of the story. Unfortunately, EU policymakers in certain countries faced some unreasonable demands from businesses that have yet to move with the times. The use of cardboard, a material with high carbon and water intensity, appears to have been exempted. This is disappointing and will invariably impact progress on the European Green Deal.

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Mandatory targets, bans and EPR fees

It’s likely that heavier penalties and extended producer responsibility (EPR) fees will be expanded on problematic, unnecessary or avoidable single-use packaging. Many are already in force. Canada has implemented an EPR system for packaging waste, however, not all states in Canada have the same rules.

And in the US, there is still no federal ban, only attempts to eliminate single-use products on public land. India has introduced the Plastic Waste Management Rules, which mandate the use of recycled plastic in certain products and require manufacturers to collect and recycle their own waste.

While the UK, South Africa, and many EU countries, such as Hungary, have established their own strict EPR schemes, other countries are just starting out on this journey. But they have started, and more are certain to follow. And there’s a good reason for this: EPR is an important tool in reaching alignment with the 1.5-degree scenario set out in the Paris Agreement.

It’s also expected that more countries will follow in the footsteps of the EU PPWR and extend the bans on unnecessary single-use packaging items. Even within the EU, countries may decide to go further than the PPWR, as France has done by completely banning avoidable single-use packaging, for instance.

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Extended bans on waste exports

Much like China, which pushed through a ban on accepting export waste from other countries in 2017 in an attempt to solve its own waste problem, other countries that now accept such waste may introduce their own bans in the future. This is rightly leading to new domestic waste management practices.

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Data-driven decision-making

Reliable data will become increasingly important to comply with new legislation. For instance, life cycle assessments will be used to evaluate the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of packaging and inform and substantiate decision-making around measures aimed at improving sustainability.

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Reusable packaging exemptions

As recent regulation has shown, reusable packaging that is managed in a circular pooling model is likely to be exempt from EPR fees and bans. This is the case in the UK and in Hungary. Regulators should very much distinguish between single-use and reuse packaging systems. In the same vein, they should distinguish between reuse and recycling when looking for ways to reduce waste.

For some, it may be a big shock to get used to this evolving regulatory landscape. However, it’s no good expecting the old world to return. It won’t. If anything, our industry will become even more regulated.

What history can teach us about environmental legislation

When I hear protests about packaging waste regulations, I like to hold up the Montreal Protocol as an example of what can go incredibly well when the whole world gets behind legislation that is aimed at protecting our planet. It’s a landmark UN environment treaty that is still the only one that was ratified by every country in the world.

What’s more, the Montreal Protocol succeeded in its goals.

The Montreal Protocol was adopted in 1987 and banned the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It came about after scientists identified that the CFCs commonly used in aerosols and refrigerators were destroying ozone molecules and depleting ozone. This was devastating for the stratospheric ozone layer that protects all of us and our ecosystems from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.

What happened? Bans were enforced, businesses found alternatives and, as a 2022 report outlined, the Montreal Protocol was key to supporting the recovery of the ozone layer.

ifco reusable packaging

A packaging waste regulatory framework with a clarity of purpose

The only downside was that it had taken almost 17 years from scientists identifying the culprits to the signing of the treaty. To be honest, considering how long we’ve now known about the damage caused by single-use packaging on our health and planet, those 17 years are starting to look relatively fast.

What’s interesting is that the CFCs were only introduced in the first place as they were believed to be safer, inexpensive alternatives to the more toxic gases – namely methyl chloride – that had been used in refrigerators in the past.

This is where I again like to draw comparisons with single-use packaging. Like CFCs, single-use packaging was initially viewed as a positive development: so convenient and inexpensive at first, but so very damaging in the long run and at end of life.

The Montreal Protocol provided a distinct regulatory framework that was ultimately translated into action worldwide. That clarity of purpose is still missing in many ways in the legislation around single-use packaging. Although we now understand the devastating environmental impact our throwaway culture is having, it seems too many businesses still need pressure from legislation to take the necessary action.

No time to wait for clarity on single-use packaging waste

Smart legislation has a valuable role to play in driving the shift away from single-use packaging and reducing packaging waste. It’s moving in the right direction, but it could easily shift up a gear. But that’s because we’ve always worked with the circular business model as our guide.

Taking environmental responsibility is absolutely core to who we are, what we do, where we’re from and where we’re headed. I firmly believe that it’s up to us to be a force for sustainability. We don’t need legislation to know what’s right.

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