The total packaging waste generation in the EU increased from 66 million tonnes in 2009 to 78.5 million tonnes in 2019 (around 173kg per inhabitant).
The COVID-19 pandemic might have further enhanced the trend due to more internet sales, more sales in supermarkets for food consumed at home instead of restaurants and more take-away/prepared home delivery of food.
Once packaging becomes waste, it’s sorted between recyclable and unrecyclable packaging waste. From 2012 to 2020, the amount of unrecyclable packaging increased. The situation is even more aggravated by a relevant amount of recyclable waste that, due to the lack of recycling infrastructure and the unprofitability of the recycling process, ends up in landfill, nevertheless. Furthermore, a relevant part is even not collected, and this affects the environment, especially the marine one.
To address this situation, in December 2020, the Commission set the goal that all packaging should be reusable or recyclable in an economically feasible way by 2030 with the scope to reduce packaging, over-packaging, and therefore packaging waste. The role of waste prevention is key to reaching the goal.
Why is prevention key to reducing the environmental impact of packaging?
The environmental impact of packaging varies based on the material. Plastic packaging is the most carbon-intensive material, with a total of 1.8 tonnes of CO2e emitted for the lifecycle of one tonne of plastic packaging. It is followed by paper/board and glass, which have emissions of 809 and 565 kg CO2e per tonne, respectively. Wood packaging has 19 kg CO2e net emissions per tonne (source: Eunomia report December 2021 based on EUROSTAT data). The assessment of the Commission’s Early Warning Reports has revealed so far that plastic is the most challenging packaging waste stream, in terms of recycling. The assessment found that 19 Member States might be at risk of missing the 50% recycling target in 2025. The main reasons for not meeting the recycling targets are the low separate collection rates for plastic packaging waste. This clarifies even more how important is to promote packaging waste prevention since recycling, alone, cannot be an answer.
Why is packaging a relevant sector to move towards a circular economy?
The demand for packaging, together with the low levels of reuse and recyclability, drives the permanent need for non-renewable primary resources. Finally, while the generation of GHG emissions from packaging keeps rising – they are projected to reach 66 million tonnes of CO2e in 2030 – litter from packaging has severe consequences, especially for the marine environment.
Avoiding overpackaging and improving selective collection can strongly reduce the littering phenomenon and increase the quality of the material ready for recycling.
The role of the European Week for Waste Reduction
The European Week of Waste Reduction will focus on packaging for the second time in its history (the first time was during the 2016 edition). Even after 7 years, this topic keeps being key in terms of waste produced, which has not been reduced but pushed forward with the increase of the e-commerce sector. The campaign will raise awareness of the strong environmental impact of packaging, always providing inputs, ideas, and support to promote a more sustainable consumption behavior. The EWWR community will also be guided through the different kinds of packaging and the alternatives that exist to reduce packaging waste.