Stop downcycling our bottles! Why Europe’s non-alcoholic beverage industry needs to be granted fair and necessary access to its recycled packaging
By Natural Mineral Waters Europe (NMWE), European Fruit Juice Association (AIJN) and UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe
We, the European non-alcoholic beverage industry, are firmly committed to deliver on the EU Green Deal objectives to reduce waste, increase resource efficiency and accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
Making our packaging fully recyclable, maximising its collection through well-designed collection schemes and increasing the share of recycled content are the cornerstones of our industry’s actions to achieve a circular economy for our beverage packaging.
Recycled PET – everybody wants it
PET is an extremely versatile plastic material that can be recycled over and over again. This makes it one of the most sustainable packaging materials today. The demand on the market for high-quality recycled PET that is suitable for the food industry is hence very high. An increasing number of non-food industries are using food grade recycled PET coming from beverage bottles and are transforming them into other products. Consumers might not be aware, but in shopping malls, they often find clothes, backpacks, carpets, toys, audio speakers and so much more produced from PET (polyester). But what will happen to that winter jacket that is made out of PET bottles after it was worn for a couple of years? It will not be recycled into a new winter jacket but most likely be thrown away and probably end up in a landfill or incinerator. This means the material was downcycled and the high-quality recycling loop was broken, making it a non-circular product. The shift towards truly circular products and packaging should be fair. Increased use of recycled content by one sector should not be achieved at the expense of breaking another sector’s closed loop.
Give us our recycled bottles back. Don’t break the loop.
While the sustainability efforts of other non-food industries are laudable, their use of recycled PET bottles does not automatically make their products more circular and leads to a significant shortage of food-grade recycled plastic for the non-alcoholic beverage industry. This in turn has created a lot of uncertainty for our industry despite our steady investments in shifting to circular packaging and choosing highly recyclable materials like PET. Moreover, granting unrestricted and unconditional access to our recyclable high-quality content to other sectors does not incentivise them to further invest in recycling of their own materials, therefore hurting the very objectives of the EU circular ambitions.
Therefore, we are in urgent need of a legal framework that guarantees beverage manufacturers fair and necessary access to their own recycled packaging material for which they are already financing the collection across Europe. The same should apply to any other industry which is obliged to use recycled plastics in closed loop. Securing access to recycled PET is the only way to achieve effective bottle-to-bottle recycling. MEP Maria Spyraki, Co-Chair of the Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development echoes the industry’s concerns:
“For the industry to reuse its recycled packaging material in a closed loop is clearly the way forward”, says MEP Maria Spyraki. “This will contribute substantially to resource efficiency. Therefore, measures to facilitate producers’ access to their recycled material must be encouraged. Circularity is a key component of the Green Deal supporting Europe’s journey towards carbon neutrality.”
What the non-alcoholic beverage industry has to deliver on
The Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) introduces a 90% collection target for beverage PET bottles and also mandates that they should contain at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025 and 30% by 2030. To meet EU food safety and quality standards, our PET bottles have to be of food-grade quality. Effective bottle-to-bottle recycling is therefore a prerequisite to ensure that we meet the targets laid down in the EU Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD).
Our industry’s commitment, however, goes far beyond the established EU targets: we want to create a closed loop for our bottles to accelerate a truly circular economy for beverage packaging in Europe. We will do it by collecting all beverage bottles, recycling them, and turning them into new bottles.
How the European Commission can support our common goal to be truly circular
It is without question that the policy and business context we are operating in is very challenging. On the one hand, we have to meet the EU mandatory collection and recycled content targets while we aspire to go far beyond those EU requirements. On the other hand, we face a growing demand for our recycled plastic material from non-food applications, breaking the whole spirit of circularity.
In light of this, we urgently call on the European Commission to introduce a right of first refusal mechanism in the revision of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD). This should grant beverage producers fair and necessary access to the recycled materials coming from the packaging that they placed on the market, and which was successfully collected. This legal mandate will pave the way for European beverage manufacturers to produce new packaging that is compliant with EU food safety standards, support the industry in achieving EU targets, and prevent their own recycled PET from being downcycled to non-food applications.
We look forward to the European Commission’s legal recognition that beverage manufacturers should be given back the equal amount of recycled content that they bring on the market. This enabler is a fundamental precondition for us to create truly closed recycling loops for beverage packaging.