A recent (june 22) letter to the European Commissioner on the Environment from the policy officer of the European Environment Bureau entitled “Beverage packaging: European jobs and waste legislation in serious danger” raises a very interesting subject. According to that document, Europe should protect and promote reusable packaging (for beverages only, as for other goods apparently one way packaging is OK) as a way to prevent waste and also to protect jobs.
No rationale about the jobs argument, unfortunately, can be found in the letter. There are many examples where, going backwards in technological development, jobs can be created: for example, a shift from e-mail back to paper post, would create, among others, several thousand postmen jobs.
The letter is addressed in the context of the forthcoming Circular Economy Package. Circular Economy means reintroducing goods in the production cycle, namely among others ensuring the best possible recycling, exactly what we have been learning for more than twenty years of improving our collection, sorting and recycling methods to ensure that all – not only drinks- used packaging materials are processed in the best possible way.
Why drinks packaging only then? Perhaps the writers of the letter don’t realize how much waste is produced in Europe, and of that, how much comes from drinks packaging. Just to refresh their memory, roughly 10% of waste in Europe is municipal waste, and more or less one third of municipal waste is packaging waste. Depending on the country, some 40% of that might be glass packaging, and the other 60% light packaging. Between 5 and 10% of light packaging and roughly 50% of glass packaging are drinks packaging. Of all used packaging generated, drinks packaging are by far the most recycled packaging simply by technological reasons: the higher the volume to weight fraction, the higher the efficiency of the sorting systems; on the other hand most countries don’t have separate statistics on how much drinks packaging are recycled, so no one can claim how much a new system could improve drinks packaging recycling vs the current systems.
From the above data we can deduct that if w is the amount of waste, non recycled drinks packaging at most could be less than 0.025%w. That amount thus does not seem to show to be the reason for the alarm.
If the amount of waste is not the reason, another reason might be the apparently more favorable environmental credentials of refillable packaging vs one way packaging. That has also been a long debate, and all experts agree that it is basically something which has to do with number of trips and transport distance: the longer the distance, the more favourable it is for one-way, especially light packaging. The energy cost of transporting a refillable container for every cycle is around twenty times the cost of transporting a one-way container for the same amount of drink delivered. Distance is the key.
Number of trips is another story. Organizations who promote that, have never been able to show with factual information that a refillable bottle can do 50 trips. No need for that, in fact those organizations don’t have to prove their claims.
In any case there is a very developed scientific discipline, Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) which can be used to ascertain the differences, but by the way is seldom used by organizations promoting refillables. This could be the golden opportunity to do it.
Local products are another argument. If you are a small bottler you can only fill bottles. All your production of one year could be filled in half a morning in a modern can filling line at a very small cost, for example. Thus if you want want to produce a small amount of eg only local beer, not only refillables are preferable, they are your only choice.
Many of the organizations who back this letter have a common characteristic: they support deposit and return systems (DRS) for drinks packaging. Does it mean that promoting DRS is equivalent to promoting refillable drinks packaging?
Quite the opposite. Since DRS were implemented in the nordic countries and Germany, the share of refillable drinks packaging has constantly diminished. In Germany some 30 percentage points from 2003 to now, in Denmark 31 percentage points between 2008 and 2013, in Finland packaged beer went from 90% refillables to around 10% in only seven years, in Norway packaged beer had a refillable share of 100% in 2000, 44% in 2000, and only 17,5% in 2013.
The emotional argument the DRS promoters use is that with DRS we will bring back the bottle to refill “as our parents did”, but DRS, in fact, has been the smart way to get rid of refillables.