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Want not, waste not? Making EU circularity goals a reality

AmCham EU

26 Jan 2022

Proliferation of labelling requirements for waste disposal across the EU Member states is impeding recycling efforts. The revision of the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive provides a chance to design an EU-wide approach to waste sorting and empower consumers by putting them at the centre of recycling efforts.

Europeans have been quarrelling over harmonising standards since the creation of the Common Market. If you have been in the Brussels bubble long enough you might remember the ‘Cassis de Dijon’ case (establishing the principle of mutual recognition of national legislation in the absence of harmonisation) and the chocolate dispute in 2003 (prohibiting chocolate products containing other than cocoa butter to be marketed as ‘chocolate’). Now that we have agreed what’s the right percentage of alcohol in Cassis de Dijon and what’s the right percentage of cocoa butter in our chocolate, it’s time to decide how to recycle the packaging of these products. In case you are holding the paper bag that your pain au chocolat was served in and you are new to the Brussels scene, you are probably wondering where you should put that. In the yellow bag, right? Wrong. Or at least according to the Germans. Fun fact: while in Belgium the national consumer sorting instructions indicate that paper goes into the yellow bags and plastics go into the blue ones, Germany has spent three decades educating consumers in the opposite: blue means paper, yellow is where your plastics should be. Doesn’t seem like a big deal? Well, the underlying problem is that whenever consumers don’t have a clear indication of how they should recycle, recyclable products end up in the residual bin. To meet the EU’s waste separation targets, there’s a need for a harmonised system across Member States that will educate consumers and boost the joint recycling efforts.

This issue goes much beyond the colour of your waste bags, however. On a larger scale, proliferation of disparate national labelling schemes and individual Member States' requirements have already caused market fragmentation, burdened companies and confused citizens. To accommodate the information required, companies increase the size of the products and their packaging. Additionally, the need for several labels makes stock management more complex, leading to unsold goods, which cannot be sent to another market. So why increase waste when a sustainable approach dictates otherwise?

Whenever consumers don’t have a clear indication of how they should recycle, recyclable products end up in the residual bin.

How US companies help consumers make sustainable choices 

Enabling consumers to dispose of packaging without generating unnecessary waste 

Not only do we need to diminish the overall use of plastics, but also increase collection rates of recycled materials. Companies play a key role in educating consumers in environmentally sound habits. That is why US companies are designing sustainable packaging to ensure customers easily recycle them without generating unnecessary waste. HP Inc. is committed to a 75% reduction in plastic packaging by choosing materials with higher recycling rates worldwide. Herbalife has undertaken a similar initiative – eliminating plastic bags as well as plastic packaging from merchandising, and removing second plastic film packaging thus getting rid of 33,000kgs of plastic. 

Encouraging consumers to reuse and repair 

Providing consumers with opportunities to be part of the circular economy model must also be central to companies' efforts towards sustainability. Mattel PlayBack, a toy takeback programme that enables families to extend the life of their Mattel toys once they are finished playing with them. The initiative supports the company’s goal to achieve 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic materials across all products and packaging by 2030. Liberty Global operates a subscription model that gives customers the opportunity to dematerialise their services by retaining ownership over their set-top boxes and modems. Once a customer decides they no longer need the service, their device is returned for reuse. More than 40,000 metric tons of waste have been avoided this way since 2012. 

Empowering consumers to select a sustainable product 

US companies know that we need to not only decrease the size of the packaging but also allow customers to choose from a wide range of sustainable alternatives. That’s why Lyondell Basell is producing a line of Samsonite suitcases entirely made from secondary materials and Dow’s RENUVA programme takes foam from discarded mattresses and turns it back into its raw material (polyol) through chemical recycling. Coca-Cola is also giving customers the opportunity to break up with the virgin plastics model. In fact, Sweden is the first European market to have moved to 100 percent recycled plastics bottles across all of Coca-Cola Company brands, while trials of a cardboard bottle design have also been undertaken in the EU market. In the area of electronics, Dell is pioneering circular designs to decrease e-waste by prolonging the lifespan of PC components

Sustainable innovation requires rulebook harmonisation 

US companies invest in product innovation, raising awareness and eliminating plastics to boost circularity within the EU. However, Member States should enable this further by laying the foundations to unitary and harmonised standards. If legislators don’t align labelling requirements for waste disposal, Europeans will struggle to achieve the ambitious goals set by the Circular Economy Action Plan. To fulfil recycling targets, EU policymakers will need to empower consumers by placing them at the centre of recycling efforts and ensure that divergence of national labels will not impede the free movement of goods. Until then, be careful how you dispose of your patisseries’ packets!   


Read the cross-industry statement on the harmonisation of consumer sorting instructions in EU member states

Read more about the work of the Environment Committee

Read more about the work of the Transport, Energy & Climate Committee