Lawmaker: Food sector woes ‘overlooked’ in EU packaging law

With its new packaging rules, the EU aims to curtail exponentially-growing waste. But for the food sector, the proposal has unintended ramifications that have so far stayed under the radar, lawmaker Ulrike Müller warned.

The proposal for the new packaging and packaging waste (PPWR) regulation was tabled by the European Commission last November to boost reuse and recycling in an effort to reduce growing amounts of packaging waste.

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The new rules would also apply to food and drink packaging: For beverages and takeaway food, the Commission proposes an 85% recycling target for paper and cardboard packaging, as well as a 55% target for plastic.

But the potential ramifications of the proposal for the agri-food sector have not been sufficiently taken into account, according to Müller, who is a member of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee for the liberal Renew group.

“I believe that many unintended consequences of the proposal on the food chain have been overlooked,” she told EURACTIV in an interview.

When talking about reduction targets and bans, one should keep in mind that, for food, “packaging fulfils the important function of preserving it during transport and storage, avoiding food loss and waste,” the German lawmaker stressed.

With packaging only making up a fraction of food products’ environmental and climate footprint, she added, “under-packaging generally can have a more severe impact than over-packaging”.

Infrastructure gaps

Müller also pointed to the fact that, while high recycling rates should be achievable for food packaging in the next years, the availability of recyclates suitable for contact with food is a “huge issue”.

At the same time, the necessary infrastructure to ensure a high use of recycled materials for food packaging is, in many cases, still lacking, the lawmaker stressed, saying she was “concerned about the lack of infrastructure for separate collection”.

“For most plastics”, she added, “there are no standards available, and the recycling infrastructure will not be ready by 2030,” the benchmark year proposed in the regulation.

In Müller’s view, gaps also remain in terms of legal clarity for the food and hospitality sector when it comes to reusable packaging for take-out food and beverages.

“Who is liable for hygiene issues when a customer brings their own cup or container?” she asked.

“The proposal is full of good intention, but in many cases not well-thought-out,” she concluded.

Impact on consumers

For the liberal MEP, the reform is also set to have significant impacts on consumers. “In parts, this is justified,” she said.

“Consumer behaviour is a massive factor: just keep in mind that households are by far the largest contributor to food waste in the EU.”

But while certain changes in consumer behaviour are “necessary”, Müller added, “we need to make sure that provisions in the regulation match the actual daily life of people”.

For instance, collection schemes for bottles and reusable packaging for take-out “must not put an undue burden on consumers, which means that we need to make sure that requirements for adequate infrastructure and interconnected collection systems are established,” she stressed.

The lawmaker also warned that reduction targets and bans on certain types of food packaging could lead to more food waste because consumers might have to “buy more than they need and do not have the means to store leftovers, both due to inappropriate packaging.”

Packaging waste versus food waste

According to Müller, similar unintended effects could come with selling food items in bulk – option environmentalists have championed as a way of reducing household waste.

Bulk packaging “is only suitable for a limited range of products with a long shelf life – and only if these are consumed regularly,” she stressed. “Otherwise it might contribute to increased food waste, which would be worse than a slightly higher volume of packaging waste due to portion-sized packaging.”

In a time when more and more people live in city flats with little storage space and increasingly consume food out of the house, this latter situation is becoming more and more likely, Müller warned.

“Instead of less packaging per se, we need smart packaging that uses the right amount of the right material for individual purposes to achieve the optimal balance of the product footprint,” she concluded.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Nathalie Weatherald]


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