Three important announcements on packaging's environmental sustainability and the impact of food contact materials on consumer health in Europe were made this past spring with Euractiv hosting a workshop on the topic of 'Safe and circular: Making food contact material work for consumers and the environment' in Brussels, Belgium.
"Packaging is essential to preserve the safety and quality of food for consumers all across Europe. Food Contact Materials (FCMs) help maintain food and drinks’ standards and safeguard public health," the Food Packaging Forum said in April.
"But the packaging is also an essential component of the Circular Economy, with materials having to meet specific recycling targets. More effort is, therefore, being put at European level to use recycled material for new packaging."
For example, the EU Plastics Strategy highlights the need to boost demand for recycled plastics, including in food-contact applications. This could, however, have an impact on the quality and safety of FCMs, since the traceability of certain waste streams is fragmented.
Several directives at EU level have an impact on FCMs and their environmental footprint, from deposit schemes to the eco-modulation of fees. But how can a balance be struck between the protection of the environment and consumers? Is there necessarily a trade-off between the two objectives?
Jean-Pierre Schweitzer of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) called for “a more holistic, systemic approach to packaging in general,” taking into account different aspects such as “health, the environment, and socio-economic considerations". The IEEP together with Friends of the Earth Europe, Zero Waste Europe, and the Rethink Plastic Alliance, released a report on April 10 illustrating that plastic packaging does not effectively reduce food waste.
Jane Muncke of the Food Packaging Forum highlighted the difference between permanent and non-permanent materials. The former can be recycled “endlessly” and contain “fewer chemicals that transfer from the packaging into the food.”
The latter “degrade and lose their material properties during mechanical recycling,” and are “more prone to transferring chemicals from the packaging into the food.”
Jean-Paul Judson, of the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE) stated that “protecting the consumers and the environment has to go hand in hand.” The glass packaging industry has a “reference packaging,” Judson claimed, and wants to “work with policymakers.”
In April, Sweden backed EU restrictions on microplastics with the Swedish Chemicals Agency (KEMI), supporting the need for an extended ban on microplastics in cosmetic and other chemical products.
In February 2018, the Swedish government decided to ban microplastics in cosmetic products that are rinsed off or spat out (e.g. body wash and toothpaste), entering into force on July 1, 2018.
The Swedish government asked KEMI to determine whether the national microplastics ban should be extended to other cosmetic and chemical products. KEMI stated that “the work being done at EU level has the potential to result in clear and uniform rules to help protect the environment from emissions of microplastics; the agency will take an active part in preparing proposals for EU regulation".
In the UK, Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, said its members were "delighted" by the plastic deposit-return scheme announcement. The UK government announced plans for a deposit return scheme for bottles, after a long campaign by a coalition of Sustain members.
"Sustain members Keep Britain Tidy, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Marine Conservation Society have led a campaign to introduce DRS in the UK. Their research showed that it could save councils millions of pounds a year," Sustain said.
Currently, UK consumers go through an estimated 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year, but more than three billion are incinerated, sent to landfill or left to pollute the streets, countryside, and marine environment.
Scotland announced a plan for a DRS scheme in September, while several supermarkets said they will pilot the scheme.
CPRE campaigned for the introduction of a DRS for 10 years. Their litter programme director, Samantha Harding, said: “What’s significant is that producers will now pay the full costs of their packaging, reducing the burden on the taxpayer and setting a strong precedent for other schemes where the polluter pays. This really is a bold and exciting step by the Government.”
Dr. Sue Kinsey, MCS senior pollution policy officer, said the move will significantly reduce plastic pollution. "An average of 72 beverage containers per 100m of beach in England was found in our Great British Beach Clean survey in 2017. This is a win-win situation for consumers, taxpayers and the environment alike."