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Lawmakers agree stance on contested EU packaging law

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Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s environment committee voted on Tuesday (24 October) their position on a new law to tackle packaging waste in Europe as discussions become increasingly fraught.

Tabled in November last year, the EU’s new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) aims at cutting waste, boosting reuse, and promoting recycling but has since become a tug-of-war between environmental groups and the industry.

On Tuesday, EU lawmakers agreed on a watered-down version of the draft originally tabled by the European Commission but defeated a move to dilute it further, led by Italian right-wing politicians.

Lawmakers approved their stance with 56 votes in favour, 23 against and 5 abstentions.

Their agreed position includes banning PFAS – also known as “forever chemicals” – in food packaging, setting waste reduction targets for plastic and introducing a minimum percentage for recycled content to be used in the manufacturing of new packaging.

“There can be no effective recycling or reuse policy without safe packaging, which is why the ban on intentionally added harmful chemicals is a major victory for the health of European consumers,” said Frédérique Ries, a centrist MEP from Belgium who is the lead lawmaker on the file.

“We have also ensured that environmental ambition meets industrial reality, with a report focusing on innovation and providing for a derogation for enterprises with fewer than ten employees,” she added.

‘Mix of emotions’ among green activists

For environmental groups, the vote raised a “mix of emotions”, said Raphaëlle Catté from the NGO Zero Waste Europe.

Although amendments to further dilute reuse targets were defeated, the overall text was watered down, she told Euractiv, referring to the removal of reuse targets for takeaway packaging and wine bottles.

Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish MEP who is the Green’s speaker on the packaging law, said “the deletion of takeaway targets is highly regrettable”.

However, she also praised the fact that lawmakers managed to “fight off” alternative proposals to scrap other reuse targets.

“At a time of a deepening waste and pollution crisis, this defence of big industry interests is unconscionable,” she told Euractiv, adding that she will continue to fight against a weakening of the text as the law goes to a vote in the full house in November.

Italian right-wing MEPs, who led a concerted pushback against reuse targets in Parliament, were also in a fighting spirit, with European People’s Party (EPP) negotiator Massimiliano Salini saying that “our battle continues” ahead of the November vote.

‘Arbitrary elements remain’: industry

The law has proved a difficult process so far, partly because packaging is something that affects people’s daily lives, said Annick Carpentier from the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment, an industry group representing carton manufacturers.

According to her, lawmakers attempted to strike a balance between the environmental objectives of the proposal and what is feasible within the constraints imposed by health and safety regulations, as well as time and money.

“There needs to be a sense of reality because otherwise things are not implemented, and I’m not sure that’s the right signal to consumers and citizens,” said Carpentier.

However, she warned that the text still contains problematic elements.

“There needs also to be consideration of health and safety requirements, food waste, etc for some products covered by the reuse targets,” she said. While reuse can work in “niche and specific conditions”, like with milk bottles, she warned against imposing a uniform reuse system across all 27 EU countries.

Alongside this, Carpentier warned that, while lawmakers recognise the need for a 90% collection target for materials, it needs to be material-specific to avoid loopholes.

Meanwhile, other parts of the packaging industry have warned against what they view as “arbitrary” elements.

“The vote in the environment committee is a missed opportunity and signals danger for the European single market,” said Europen, a trade association representing the whole European packaging value chain.

In a statement, the organisation warned that the European Parliament’s vote “further exaggerates some of the more ideological aspects” of the initial proposal, including “arbitrary bans” on certain packaging.

Alongside this, it “validates reuse targets not based on due evidence while increasing the discretionary power of member states to fragment the single market even further”.

NGOs relieved, but warn of lacking ambition

Environmental groups also criticised the text, warning that the European Parliament has watered down elements of the Commission’s proposal, particularly around reuse.

“The packaging regulation survived another attempt to cripple its waste prevention and reuse provisions. But the final text supported by the [Parliament’s environment] committee is weaker than the original proposal as a result of unprecedented levels of lobbying from the biggest polluters in the single-use packaging industry,” said Marco Musso from the European Environmental Bureau.

“Europe urgently needs credible rules to stop the uncontrolled growth of packaging waste. Any further dilution of the waste prevention rules must be avoided,” he added.

The packaging waste law will now be voted on by the full house in November and then negotiated with EU countries.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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