Plastic pollution | Opinion

What SUP? Europe’s agenda-setting plastics directive

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The EU’s challenging incoming single-use plastic rules will have wide-ranging consequences for the sector. But does it have the game-changing potential required?

Response to the pandemic has dominated everything during 2020. And the plastics industry has worked hard to ensure policymakers appreciate the role the sector can play in bringing much needed personal protection equipment (PPE) to the market. In April, the European Plastics Converters (EuPC) trade association called on the European commission to “lift all bans on some of the single-use plastic items” and postpone the deadlines outlined in the EU’s single-use plastics (SUP) directive for “at least an additional year”.

But the commission dismissed the argument, pointing out that the SUP includes exceptions for medical devices and urging that deadlines in EU law must be respected. So: member states will still have to enforce a ban on plastic straws and other single use items by mid-2021.

The problem the SUP is trying to address is, of course, clear. Plastics account for 85% of marine litter and up to 12m tonnes of plastic are estimated to end up in the oceans every year. Under business-as-usual predictions, plastic production will double in the next 20 years. And inevitably with that extra production comes pollution. In Europe, less than 30% of the 25.8m tonnes of plastic waste generated each year gets collected and recycled.

Directive requirements

The SUP places a ban on products made wholly or partially from plastic, and which are primarily designed to be used only once (or a few times) before being thrown away. It applies to single-use paper items with plastic lining too, such as cups and plates made of paper but with a plastic layer. Unlike items such as plastic wrappers and carrier bags, these items had so far fallen between the cracks of waste legislation, hence the introduction of SUP.

The banning of straws and stirrers – the items for which suitable alternatives are readily available – was the first step. But the new law also sets out a range of measures for each of the products it targets – either calling for new product designs, targets for separate collection, asking producers to cover the costs of waste collection and recycling, and raising awareness among consumers. 

For plastic drinks bottles, five measures have already been established, including a call for PET bottles to contain 25% recycled content by 2025, for all types of plastic bottles to have 30% recycled content by 2030, and for all bottles to have caps and lids attached by 2024. 

There is also another group of products being dealt with by the SUP which will limit their use through labelling requirements and awareness raising. These include balloons, wet wipes and tobacco products (the second most littered product). The SUP will force tobacco manufacturers to pick up the cost for consumer awareness campaigns and waste clean-up and treatment from January 2023. 

‘Leap in the right direction’ 

So, how significant is the SUP and what sort of impact might it have? For Archana Jagannathan, senior director of sustainable packaging at PepsiCo Europe, it’s a leap in the right direction. “The SUP directive is setting the shape of future environmental legislation,” she says. 

Legislative intervention in Europe could be especially useful given the large disparity between member states when it comes to plastic recycling.

The requirement for 90% of plastic drinks bottles to be collected separately by 2029 is a big ask when many countries lack waste collection and treatment infrastructure, and solutions such as deposit return schemes (DRS) are likely to become necessary. However, as Philippe Diercxsens, environment manager at Danone Waters has pointed out, DRS can be expensive to implement and there is a lack of political will to introduce it. There can be unintended consequences of DRS removing PET bottles from domestic recycling schemes, for example. It is a relatively valuable material and such kerbside recycling, as currently set up, can become financially less viable without PET.  

Ahead of the rules 

The good news is that many of the big businesses are ahead of the legislation. While the SUP will “bring challenges in implementation,” Jagannathan says the directive is supportive of the work PepsiCo has already been doing to reduce, recycle and reuse and reinvent its plastic packaging.

Right now, 88% of the company’s packaging is recyclable, compostable or biodegradable, with a 2025 goal of 100%. “We’re also making strong progress towards our commitment to use 50% recycled plastic in our EU beverage bottles by 2030,” she adds. Three Pepsi brands are already using 100% recycled plastic bottles in Europe.

Similarly, Unilever has a series of ambitious commitments. Within five years, it will halve the amount of virgin plastic used in its packaging and make sure 100% of it is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable. Coca-Cola too has stretching goals around plastic use. 

Challenges ahead 

However, that’s not to say that businesses are ready to meet all of the SUP’s demands. Jagannathan describes meeting the rule on having tethered caps for all bottles by July 2024 as “challenging”. With no defined standard in the legislation, the company says it is watching developments closely and will then have to work with its suppliers to meet the deadline.

The biggest challenge for most big businesses is increasing the percentage of post-consumer recycled materials in their packaging due to the limited availability of recycled waste materials, especially in developing markets.

While big companies – encouraged by shifting consumer demands – are happy to lead the charge on implementing the SUP there is acknowledgement that collaborations will be needed to get over the line with a number of the requirements. PepsiCo is joined by the likes of Procter and Gamble to trial the use of digital watermarks on packaging from 2021 as part of the Holy Grail Consortium. This will make it easier for packaging to be sorted in waste management facilities so more can be recycled. Jagannathan argues that collaboration is essential as “individual efforts can only go so far and to drive sustainable change in plastic waste requires a collaborative approach across society”.

Alternative materials?  

But, what about the unintended consequences of using less plastic – or switching away from it altogether? Plastic is of course great at keeping food and drink safe and fresh. A number of companies are using the SUP to challenge their way of thinking, again working in partnerships to scale up suitable alternative packaging. A good example is the Pulpex consortium, which has seen a group of businesses, including Diageo, develop the first fully-recyclable paper bottle.

The renewable and biodegradable pulp bottles are said to deliver 90% and 30% carbon savings compared to glass and PET respectively.

However, there is also a need for retailers and manufacturers to consider consumer demands, as well as logistics, storage and transportation challenges, and to ensure positive environmental impacts. 

Costs to come  

The SUP might have grabbed the headlines and helped to focus the minds of businesses and governments everywhere. But it is really just the start for how economies will be asked to evolve across Europe in the coming years in dealing with plastic pollution.

Big companies know that they will have to pay more for waste management, clean-up and consumer awareness-raising schemes from now on. But if the existing legislation is implemented fast, investment in collection, sorting and DRS systems, for example, can catch up with its ambitions. 

PepsiCo’s Jagannathan says that investment has to be stepped up now so there is more recycling capacity, but that then real progress can happen. “Once these basic foundational structures are consistently in place, there will be a quantum leap in progress and we will be much closer to a fully circular society,” Jagannathan concludes.

There’s still time to join Archana Jagannathan and 200+ others at Innovation Forum’s future of plastics conference 20th-22nd October. Click here for full registration details

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