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Expecting to see more recycled soft drinks bottles in the EU? Let us first get the amount of recycled plastic we need

Expecting to see more recycled soft drinks bottles in the EU? Let us first get the amount of recycled plastic we need
Credit: Prostock-Studio

Some may think I sound like a broken record. This is because, for more than a year, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, the European association representing soft drinks producers, has been insistently reporting a major problem faced by the European food and drink industry: the lack of availability of sufficient qualitative recycled PET for food and drink applications.

You may have noticed that a growing number of beverage bottles are made of recycled content. That’s because using recycled content, and creating a closed-loop system, reduces the environmental footprint of packaging significantly. Those beverage bottles are made of recycled PET (or rPET), a high-quality recycled plastic produced from the recycling of PET bottles. PET can indeed be recovered to be used again in new bottles, creating what we can call ‘circular’ packaging. Nevertheless, it has been immensely hard for our sector to get back the necessary amount of recycled PET coming from our bottles. This happens because many other sectors are using our recycled PET to create their own products. The result? We are struggling to find enough recycled PET to produce new recycled bottles for our consumers.

This problem is serious. Yet, not everyone seems to appreciate how deep it is and that a fix is desperately needed.

The solution is right in front of us: let’s seize the opportunity to enhance circularity of beverage packaging

Since the publication of the EU Circular Economy Strategy, most stakeholders agreed that more needs to be done to make our European economy more circular and to close the loop (or loops…).

Today, an amazing opportunity to support this ambition is just in front of us: in two months, the European Commission is expected to publish a proposal to revise the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.

This proposal has the potential to create all the key enablers which will allow the soft drinks industry and many others to take their sustainability strategy to the next level.

In particular, it  has the potential to help our sector to get back the necessary amount of high-quality recycled plastic to produce new bottles.

Why does it matter so much?

Our recycled PET is the new gold

A key element of the EU Circular Economy Strategy is to be able to give more materials a second life and use them multiple times, ideally by closing the loop. Let’s take a simple example: a plastic bottle should always be collected and reused or recycled to produce a new plastic bottle. This principle has been highlighted in the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular TextilesA specific source of growing concern is the accuracy of green claims made on using recycled plastic polymers in apparel where these polymers do not come from fibre-to-fibre recycling, but in particular from sorted PET bottles. Beyond the risk of misleading consumers, such a practice is not in line with the circular model for PET bottles, which are fit for being kept in a closed-loop recycling system for food contact materials...’’

A few years ago, the European Commission decided to intervene and established mandatory recycled content targets for single-use plastic bottles.

While we fully support this ambition, those targets were not accompanied by any review clause or mechanism that would guarantee access to sufficient recycled materials for the sectors that are obliged to comply with the targets.

Therefore, we have ended up in a situation where any company from any type of industry can freely use any amount of recycled food-grade material as long as it is ready (or able) to pay the price for it…. even if they do not actually need such a high-quality material!

However, there is no alternative for the beverage industry, which has to use high-quality PET as the source of its recycled content. The EU can indeed be proud of its food safety standards on the basis of which any material entering into contact with foods or drinks must comply with very strict safety requirements.

Where does the problem lie? Let’s sum it up briefly:

  • Our sector must, by EU law, incorporate a certain amount of recycled plastic in its bottles by 2025 and 2030.
  • To do so, and for food safety reasons, it has to buy recycled plastic coming from a plastic beverage bottle.
  • Our sector has therefore been paying for its plastic beverage bottles to be collected separately so they can be easily recycled.
  • Still, beverage companies must compete on the recycled plastic market with industries that do not have mandatory recycled content targets, do not necessarily produce recyclable products, do not invest in separate collection schemes, and do not need the same level of material quality we do.

Those industries have increasing demands for recycled PET but do not contribute to increasing its offer. As a result, recycled materials are becoming more and more expensive, and virgin materials more and more financially attractive.

I am sure you will agree with me: something does not sound quite right.

Keep it simple: give beverage producers priority access to their recycled PET before it is bought by others

Do you remember David and Goliath? Now imagine: how is a small local beverage producer supposed to compete on the recycled PET market with textile or automotive heavyweights? Unfortunately, I believe this story will have a way more predicable ending than the biblical one.

Today, while the deadlines to meet our recycled content targets are approaching, there is simply no certainty that our sector will be able to access the necessary material to do so, and our SMEs are at particular risk.

You may be wondering what can be done to solve this issue. There is a simple solution which has already been implemented in a couple of countries such as Sweden and Slovakia.

It is called “right of first refusal”, a very technical name for such a simple principle: if a company puts recyclable packaging on the market, and if that company pays for its collection, this company has a priority right to buy a share of recycled material equivalent to the amount of packaging it put on the EU market (based on the proportion which has been successfully collected, and which can be recycled for use in beverage bottles again).

Such a mechanism would allow all beverage producers (from the smallest to the biggest one) to meet their mandatory targets, but also to achieve more ambitious targets, with even greater environmental benefits.

It will indeed help all beverage producers, including those who cannot compete in the current rPET market, to shift from virgin to recycled materials.

But that’s not all! It will also encourage other industries to invest in their own closed loops.

With new recycled content targets expected in the revised EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, it is time to act to guarantee that the EU market will provide the necessary recycled material to all companies which need it, and which do their part to create and use more circular packaging.

Opinion by Delphine Close, EU Policy Manager, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe


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