The EU is on the cusp of mandating a plastic resurgence

Just as the world takes a major step in turning the tide on plastic pollution with a global treaty, the European Union is on the cusp of agreeing new regulations that could flood the market with millions of tonnes of new plastic.

Alex Manisty
Group head of strategy and innovation at DS Smith

Well intended but misguided amendments have been put forward on the Commission’s proposal for a Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), which are now being debated in the European Parliament.

These amendments undermine the spirit of the regulation by trying to introduce mandatory reuse targets for cardboard, a material that is often unsuitable for multiple reuses. If accepted, these amendments would push economies away from the most recycled packaging materials and towards plastic alternatives, embedding a plastic economy into the market.

For example, FEFCO (European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers) calculates that these amendments would flood the supply chain with 8.1bn new plastic crates weighing 12mn tonnes. To ensure their suitability for reuse, some of those new plastic crates will need to be cleaned, requiring 16bn litres of water to wash just half of them, a resource no country can afford to waste.

Cardboard tray
Cardboard tray

These outcomes fly in the face of the EU’s efforts to deal with the plastics crisis.

If accepted, the amendments would mean PPWR ends up contradicting the EU’s Circular Economy Action plan, which states that all packaging in the EU should be reused or recycled in an economically viable way by 2030.

It would jeopardise recent successes in curbing plastic waste, including the Single Use Plastics Directive.

And it would be in contradiction with the objectives of the ongoing negotiations on the landmark international treaty to curb plastic pollution.


the recycling rate of corrugated cardboard

These amendments also risk compromising the paper-based packaging industry. With a recycling rate over 80% corrugated cardboard is the most recycled packaging material available today, and the industry is committed to an ambitious decarbonisation roadmap to further reduce its environmental impact in-line with the Paris Agreement.

The Commission’s intentions for reforming packaging waste in the EU are good, but the proposed amendments to mandate reuse targets for all materials risk undermining its aims.

If waved thorough, these amendments will mark the triumph of plastic over common sense, at the expense of people, businesses, and governments who want less plastic, not more.

Corrugated cardboard boxes are 100% recyclable or reusable
Corrugated cardboard boxes are 100% recyclable or reusable

Recycling and reuse both have a role to play in supporting packaging to become more sustainable and circular and should be complementary. There is a place for reuse systems, but only in situations where the outcomes are beneficial to the environment, economy, and society.

Over the years, DS Smith has built a circular model based on 100% recyclable paper-based packaging, meaning we have been able to work with the world's leading brands to replace plastic in their supply chains. In turn, if reuse systems were adopted judiciously where they offer environmental, economic, and societal benefits, they could offer tremendous opportunities, rather than mandating a plastic resurgence.

To maintain the EU's global leadership in sustainable packaging and to uphold the spirit of the Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan, we must steer clear of unintended consequences that threaten to embed plastic further into our economies and ecosystems.