2021 was a Banner Year for the Circular Economy. Will 2022 Surpass it?
2021 was a big year for a central pillar of the European Union’s ambition to build a circular economy, with several of the EU’s most influential member states announcing new laws that address waste in general and packaging waste in particular – with a particular focus on encouraging reuse, an indispensable piece of the puzzle for a continent that hopes to adopt a sustainable approach to consumption.
But while policymakers are drawing up lofty objectives for tackling consumer-level waste both at the national and EU levels, they have by and large left industrial packaging outside the scope of their reuse drives. With a new round of updates to its waste shipment legislation and other core regulations linked to the circular economy coming up for adoption in the months to come, the stakeholders aiming to build a truly sustainable European economy still have the chance to rectify that omission, by making sure currently overlooked forms of industrial packaging do not get left out.
Amid crises, a year of overdue progress
The ongoing supply chain crisis that has created shortages worldwide has also underscored just how unsustainable our modern consumer lifestyles have become. Mankind produces at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste every single day, with reuse or recycling methods failing to reclaim most of it. The circular economy seeks to curb this dangerous trend by ensuring raw materials, components, and products, as they are used and reused over time, lose as little of their value as possible.
While the idea has been floating around academic and environmental circles for decades, the European Union adopted its first “circular economy action plan“ in 2015 and followed up with a second plan in 2020. In line with the EU’s objective of making the circular economy a reality, some of the largest countries in the bloc introduced landmark new legislation aimed at curbing waste in 2021.
In Germany, the Bundestag implemented important amendments to the country’s 2019 Packaging Law, incorporating the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive and its Waste Framework Directive and putting new requirements in place for transport packaging. Thanks to initiatives like the famous Pfand bottle deposit scheme, which was further extended this past year to include reusable containers for take-away meals or coffee to-go purchases, Germany has already proven itself a pioneer for reuse in Europe.
The Pfand programme adds a tax of the same name to the price of every can or bottle sold, allowing buyers to return the empty containers in exchange for a refund of the tax. According to the NGO Environmental Action Germany, “some 3 billion disposable beverage containers were dumped in the environment every year” before the introduction of the Pfand, whereas the return rate is now above 98%.
Neighbouring France is already seeing the impact of its own new anti-waste legislation, as laws passed in 2020 began coming into effect in 2021. These include the progressive elimination of single-use plastics from the French economy by 2040, but also more unique measures such as a ban preventing designer clothing and luxury goods companies from destroying unsold items – a practice that has long been criticized as one of the dangerous excesses of modern capitalism. Last year also saw the implementation of the “polluter pays” clause, which requires some companies to finance the proper disposal of waste they are responsible for generating.
For Spain, 2021 started more ignominiously, with 16 civil society organizations taking their frustration over the government’s failure to achieve existing targets directly to the European Commission. Their complaint decried “years of erratic policies, stagnant selective collection and recycling rates and total disinterest in promoting prevention and reuse”. In response, the Spanish government announced in September a set of waste management rules that would not only expand the guidelines for waste reduction, but will hopefully also cut out the loopholes that allow blatant avoidance of rules under the country’s current legislative framework.
While these national governments have taken the initiative in applying the EU’s circular economy principles to consumer goods such as bottled water and take-away packaging, Europe’s steps towards systemic reuse have yet to come up with a good answer for preventing the unnecessary disposal of perfectly reusable industrial packaging, which is rarely used exclusively within the borders of a single country.
Unveiled by the European Commission in November, the EU’s plans for updating its Waste Shipments Regulation (WSR), for example, are meant to crack down on those shipping hazardous waste out of Europe. The updated WSR, however, fails to do more to incentivise the reuse of the containers themselves, specifically intermediate bulk containers or IBCs. Such industrial packaging, which often comes in the form of steel or plastic drums, can be continually reused to transport consumer food and drink products – not to mention a wide range of other goods – before they are individually packaged.
Unfortunately, the hierarchy of waste, which prioritises reuse over recycling, is often disregarded in the case of IBCs, which too often end up being discarded when they could instead be sanitized, reconditioned, and put back to work. Given the scale of the global shipping industry and the amount of materials that go into industrial packaging, the EU cannot achieve its goal of a circular economy without addressing this little-seen but incredibly important area for reuse in its own supply chains.
With the Commission set to adopt its new directive on packaging and packaging waste in the weeks to come, 2022 could be an even better year for the EU’s shift towards a truly circular economy – but only if it takes serious action to address its shortcomings on the reuse front, industrial packaging chief among them.
Image credit: 7CO via Flickr