At the 7th European REUSE Conference, on 24 September 2019, I was asked to speak on the implementation of reuseable packaging in Europe. The conference was organised by Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V.), the European Association of Beverage Wholesalers (CEGROBB), Private Breweries Germany, and Reloop. More information on the conference can be found here: https://www.duh.de/reuse2019/
My keynote speech:
Good morning. Thank you very much, Mr Haelterman, for the kind introduction.
Almost 30 years ago, I went on strike for a better future – just like our kids today. We were, of course, much less radical than the kids today, as we kept going to school. But nonetheless, I helped successfully organising a strike in the schools of our region of Lower Saxony to end the use of single-use milk containers in all schools. Reusable milk bottles were a common sight to see in German schools for many years and it worries me to see a decline in reusable packaging. You see – I have a long history in fighting for your industry with a tendency for certain romantic relationship.
Therefore, thank you again for the invitation to this very timely debate. It indeed comes at a crucial time. I trust many of you will have listened to Greta Thunbergs speech at the United Nations earlier this week. I believe she is absolutely right. Our carbon budget is rapidly depleting. Business-as-usual solutions are no longer adequate to solve the existential climate crisis. What we need is a radical shift in the way we organise our economies and our daily lives. I am, therefore grateful that you organised this conference and I look forward to hearing your innovative ideas to drive the European packaging industry forward.
We have seen a part of this shift that is needed to ensure we mitigate the worst effects of climate change at the European Elections earlier this year. You will allow me to say how happy I am that my own group grew by about 50%. The Green Wave, however, was not limited to my group and not even limited to the Parliament. I am very pleased to hear the Commission President-elect is planning to publish a European Green Deal including a new Circular Economy Action Plan, following the success of the first action plan.
Packaging will naturally be a priority sector for the Circular Economy, both because of its visibility and public awareness as well as for its circular potential. I am sure Emmanuelle Maire will have a lot to say about the European Plastics Strategy and the Single-Use Plastics Directive. Allow me to just highlight a few points that we as Greens and that the European Parliament as a whole think will be important over the coming years.
Packaging waste is still on the rise. In my home country alone, the yearly amount of packaging waste rose by almost 3 million tonnes over the past 10 years. In Germany, we produce per capita 220 kilogrammes of packaging waste every year. We throw away almost 40 kilogrammes of plastics per head every year. Only a tiny portion of this – about 15% or so – is being recycled and put back onto the market. It is very obvious that single-use packaging remains an issue to be solved.
Therefore, the prevention of waste through longer product use phases and through the re-use of products will remain high on the Parliament’s agenda – as it is mandated by the EU’s Waste Hierarchy. I will not have to remind this audience that it was the European Parliament that adopted a whole article on the reuse of products during the revision of the Waste Framework Directive. And it was the Parliament’s initiative that ensured the review of the Waste Framework Directive will need to include a study of binding waste reduction and reuse targets.
Any future circular economy measures will have to incentivise the reuse of products. We were successful over the past five years in introducing new recycling targets and in banning some of the most harmful single-use products, but the core of the issue will remain the design of products, value chains, and markets for a longer use of products. Reuse systems, as they already exist in many member states including my home country, for certain beverage bottles and diary products, contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions and waste prevention. However, I believe we will need to think beyond the bottle and tackle all packaging. I am happy to see in the audience and on the programme representatives of food and transport packaging industries. The transition towards reusable packaging cannot be limited to bottles. We will also have to ask the difficult questions regarding food containers, secondary, and tertiary packaging.
To solve these questions a radical change is necessary. We will have to think outside the box. I firmly believe European packaging return schemes can be a bold new idea, a radical shift that would allow us to introduce reusable packaging in many more places. I know from my constituency in the Düsseldorf region that there are plenty obstacles to introduce reusable packaging in border regions. And I know the introduction of a new system would come at a cost, but I believe it is worth the effort. A European system of reuse packing could also contribute to the identity of the European project. It would be symbolic for the Green Deal we would like realize. I would be happy to hear your thoughts on the implementation of a European packaging return scheme.
Of course, before we implement a re-use system, we have to change the design of the packaging we use. To impact the design stage of any product, but packaging in particular, we will need new legislation that incentivises sustainable design choices. For packaging, a number of initiatives are on their way, including the revision of the Essential Requirements, which we hope will send a strong signal towards more sustainable product design. Following the approach taken under the Single-Use Plastics Directive, design requirements for specific products and materials should encourage the introduction of reusable packaging.
Furthermore, we will have to ensure all products on the market are fully biodegradable, recyclable or made from recycled materials, wherever possible. The Single-use Plastics Directive introduced a requirement for plastic bottles, but of course this will need to be extended to all packaging products.
However, we should not forget any unintended rebound effects. The introduction of mandatory recycled content or biodegradable plastics, for example, while well intended, cannot legitimise the use of unnecessary packaging. Waste reduction must always take precedence.
Beyond design requirements and banning the worst products, financial and economic incentives will need to be adapted to further the introduction of reusable packaging. The new Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive mandates the Member States to encourage the increase of reusable packaging. It is well known that the Parliament’s position was a much stronger one, with the adoption of binding targets for reusable packaging. We should therefore continue to explore avenues that would make the currently voluntary measures mandatory, such as use of deposit-return schemes, a minimum percentage of reusable packaging placed on the market every year for each packaging stream.
We have recently adopted advanced Extended Producer Responsibility schemes for certain products under the Single-Use Plastics Directive. It is my believe that all producers of all packaging products should be held accountable for the true cost of waste including litter clean-up costs.
An issue of the scale of the European packaging waste mountains needs to be tackled from all angles. Besides requiring producers to opt for sustainable products, we will also need to encourage consumers to make the right decision in the supermarket. The price of a product should be directly linked to the sustainability of its packaging. Extended Producer Responsibility schemes should incentivise the design of sustainable packaging through the eco-modulation of fees. Similarly, Deposit-refund schemes should impose higher fees on single-use containers.
Of course, a commonly suggested policy measure is to incentivise reusable products through tax rebates, for example a reduced VAT rate. I, for one, am more sceptical of tax incentives, simply for the reason of the complicated unanimous voting rules in the Council on tax matters. I fear we do not have the time to wait for a unanimous vote, but we need solutions now.
In a world with steadily rising waste production, an unpopular truth is that we need to reduce the amount of packaging we consume – be it single-use or reusable. The Single-Use Plastics Directive introduced consumption reduction measures, but we would like to see a binding EU-wide consumption reduction target. In the same way that it is obvious that reusable packaging is preferable over single-use, it is also fairly obvious that tap-water is preferable to water filled in a reusable container. The development of packaging-free goods, wherever possible, will be a key issue over the coming years.
We will also have to talk about the use of chemicals, their traceability and recyclability. Reusable packaging will – just like today’s single-use products – need to be made free of any hazardous substances, in a way that enables high-quality recycling and biodegradability.
In a circular Europe, we need to use products as long and as often as possible. We need to ensure they are 100% recyclable or biodegradable – and, eventually, produced from 100% recycled or renewable materials. While we are a long way from that ideal, I am happy to see so many representatives of companies and organisations contributing to this transition. I encourage you all to keep innovation and to keep pushing for ambitious legislation that enables you to achieve more circular packaging supply chains. I am counting on your contributions to the debate – with successful innovative products and ideas. Thank you very much.