Enhancing recyclability

The European metal can sector is calling for stronger recycling rules in revised EU packaging and packaging waste regulation. Liz Newmark reports from Brussels


Ambitious recycling measures in a proposed European Union (EU) packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR) are essential to boost packaging waste collection and achieve a true circular economy for packaging, EU can industry experts have told CanTech Intematwnal. Indeed, as EU ministers and MEPs negotiate the final legal text of these planned reforms, the CEO of industry association, Metal Packaging Europe (MPE), Krassimira Kazashka, said her group wants “EU legislators to provide for stronger recyclability measures and more pragmatic reuse requirements.” She added that MPE “also believes that introducing a definition of high-quality recycling is a prerequisite to encouraging economic operators to enhance recyclability.”

But the EU Council of Ministers’ ‘general approach’ (a political stance ahead of negotiations with the European Parliament) on the proposed regulation adopted 18 December, following the  European Parliament’s adoption of its negotiating position in November 2023, waters down recyclability provisions made in the original November 2022 proposal from the European Commission. The result, said Kazashka, is that the ambition to recycle contained within the reforms has been weakened by reducing the number of performance grades for materials recycling (A to E) in Annex II from five to three. She also stressed that the latest draft’s omission of earlier plans to set qualitative criteria to assess recycling performance would weaken regulatory action to boost recycling.

Negotiations between the three institutions have now begun under the EU’s new Belgian presidency (that holds office until 30 June). It aims to reach an agreement on the text by early March. This would give the European Parliament time to vote on the text before the end of its term on 25 April, ahead of upcoming May elections, noted Sandrine Duquerroy-Delesalle, sustainability and external affairs director, EMEA, of US-based packaging company, Crown Holdings.

Steve Claus, secretary general of the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging (APEAL), also regretted the latest PPWR text’slack of ambition and its omission of “the crucial concept of multiple recycling.” He explained: “To ensure that packaging materials are not simply downcycled – recycled once or twice before degrading – it is critical that any ‘high quality recycling’ definition includes the ability of materials to withstand multiple recycling loops without losing their inherent properties.

“Performance grades should reflect a material’s ability to be recycled multiple times, with the A grade reserved for those fully compatible with the design for recycling criteria and supporting a 100 per cent closed material loop, like steel.”

Similarly, Crown’s Duquerroy-Delessalle said, “I am sure that aluminium cans, which withstand multiple recycling loops” will be awarded an ‘A.’

“Consumers  recycle  aluminium  cans globally at a rate of69 percent, more than twice the rate of plastic bottles,” she added.

“Teresa Riber Rodriguez,
Spanish third vice-president of the government and minister for the ecological transition and the demographic challenges, said PPWR is crucial in the EU’s path to a circular economy and a climate-neutral Europe. Image: la Moncloa – Spanish

European can manufacturers are also confident of achieving metal recycling goals under the PPWR. The aluminium beYerage can and steel recycling rate was already 73% and 85.5% respectively as per 2020, the MPE emphasised – important given the PPWR’s proposed overall metal recycling goal of 80% by 2030 has already been obtained.

Claudia Bierth, Berlin-located sustainability and public affairs manager, at US-based can major, Ball Corporation, told CanTech International that a more ambitious aluminium target in the PPWR than 60% by 2030 “would be desirable to mm·e the industry recycling performance forward, especially in non­ beverage categories.”

Maarten Labberton, director of the packaging group at industry association, European Aluminium (EA), said many EU member states had already achieved 60% aluminium recycling by sufficient investment in collection and recycling.

For example, Belgium has installed extra eddy current separators at their five sorting centres for the small and light aluminium fraction, he said “Small portion packs, foil wrapping and aluminium coffee capsules can now be easily separated and prepared for recycling, a great result ,vhich should be followed by other countries.”

Metal packaging organisations also welcomed the obligation within the planned PPWR to set up deposit return systems. But they were disappointed EU member states had proposed exemptions for countries collecting 78% (or more) of all cans by 2026 (instead of the 85% or 90% by 2029 goals farnured respectively by the  Parliament and the Commission).

Member states with aluminium can deposit return systems normally exceed the 90% target (eg Estonia – 94%, Finland – 98%, Germany- 99%, according to European Aluminium (EA) data. Therefore, introducing deposit systems can boost recycling and are “a question of willingness,” MPE said.

The EA’s Labberton  noted that worldwide, countries with deposit systems are expected to achieve 90% collection targets  by  2029, and “countries which have just started  [deposit  systems] can reach this rate within two to three years.”

In addition, “due to the high scrap value  of  the aluminium beverage cans, these systems can be run at minimal costs. Unredeemed deposit fees should be reinvested to further improve the system (eg more collection points also for out-of-home cans) and to replace reverse vending machines [RVMs] at the end of their lifetime,” said Labberton.

Re-use proposals within the PPWR remain controversial, however. EU metal organisations unilaterally reject a proposal for  a 25% beverage reuse target by 2040: “We are not in favour of reuse targets for aluminium beverage cans which are very recyclable but not reusable. For the  circular economy to flourish, Europe needs recycling  and reuse to be complementary,” MPE stated.

Reusable packaging criteria laid down in Article 10 “are not applicable to many beYerage packaging formats,” notably cans: “Therefore, highly recyclable packaging like aluminium beverage cans should be exempt from reuse targets,” said MPE.

Labberton argued that “While there is certainly room for reuse systems for specific local markets, we fail to understand the environmental logic behind this proposal. No proper impact assessment has been made and it might result in extra costs for brand owners…”

Ball’s Bierth was also disappointed the Council did not include exemptions from reuse targets for widely collected and recycled packaging. “Obliging each individual producer to shift its business model to reuse by 2030 will put an excessively high economic burden on producers, especially SMEs,” with no certain environmental advantage, she said.

Nicholas Hodac, director general of Brussels-based UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, said the EU should recognise reuse and recycling are complementary: “Without any exemption mechanism, a company only using 100 per cent recyclable cans in a country [where they are] collected at more than 90 per cent would be forced to shift part of its packaging to reusable glass or plastic bottles or refill solutions without any guarantee of enYironmental benefits or even consumer acceptance.”

Only spiritsEUROPE director general, Ulrich Adam, welcomed the reuse targets – as spirits do not have to meet them. Their exemption “demonstrates a deep level of understanding for the spirits drink sector” with its varied packaging formats, he said.

“Under the new EU PPWR, all packaging placed on the market must be recyclable by 2030 or by 2035 under certain conditions. Image: Tony Webster I Wikimedia
Commons/ CC BY

A Commission official defended the need for “a balanced mix of measures on reuse and recycling.” Studies and experience have demonstrated reuse’s cost effectiveness, she said, adding, “in most cases the reuse targets are fairly low.”

Hodac also called for “well-performing packaging formats” to be exempt from a foreseen PPWR ban on single-use, plastic-grouped packaging material for cans. Switching to alternatives ‘would require an appropriate transition period to perform customer trials, stability tests and ensure retailer and consumer convenience,” he said.

One another aspect of the PPWR – ‘prevention’ or reducing packaging at source – is also controversial.

Labberton said the  materials reduction targets of 5% by 2030, 10% by 2035, and 15% by 2040 targets compared to 2018 levels were unbalanced. “They could have the perverse effect of investing in low weighting but more difficult to recycle packaging solutions.” Prevention targets should be set by material and depend on if specific packaging formats reach ambitious reuse and recycling targets, he added.

Francesca Stevens, secretary general of the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN), hoped the new regulation would deliver more harmonised recycling laws within the EU’s 27 countries. Continued national differences in rules would discourage investment in much-needed technologies.

“Industry is ready to deliver on the ambitious sustainability goals, ensuring all packaging put on the market is recyclable, but there is not enough investment to deliver the required infrastructure to make this happen,” she added.

Federica Dolce, manager of environmental affairs at EU food and drink association, FoodDrinkEurope, added: “It is essential for European, national and local authorities to invest in their recycling and waste infrastructure. We cannot recycle what we don’t collect.”

In response to EUROPEN, the Commission official said, “efficient European packaging waste management requires… taking account of local, regional and national circumstances on the one hand, and EU harmonisation on the other… A  unified, standardised approach must be sufficiently flexible.”

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