(R)evolution in packaging | In Principle

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(R)evolution in packaging

An end to the mass discarding of packaging and waste. Instead, recycling, refillable packaging, a deposit on plastic bottles and limits on disposable bags. Such changes are proposed in a new draft regulation of the European Commission. The changes are to be implemented gradually.

In the European Union, packaging is one of the main sources of waste. Its production consumes a significant share of primary raw materials, and yet it is relatively rarely reused. Additionally, a lot of packaging is not suitable for recycling. All of this significantly impedes the transition to a circular economy model.

At the EU level, attempts have already been made to reverse these trends. One of them was the Single-Use Plastics Directive (2019/904), which, however, has yet to be implemented by many member states, including Poland. Therefore, on 30 November 2022, the European Commission published a draft Regulation on packaging and packaging waste, amending Regulation (EU) 2019/1020 and Directive (EU) 2019/904 and repealing Directive 94/62/EC. The proposal would establish new, more stringent requirements for packaging and for management of packaging waste. If it becomes law, the new provisions will be applied directly (there will be no need to implement them into the national order).

New sustainable packaging

The new requirements cover the entire life cycle of packaging and specifically relate to its composition, size, reusability, compostability and recyclability. As a rule, the manufacturer is responsible for meeting these requirements, and will have to carry out a conformity assessment and prepare technical documentation before placing the packaging on the market. Also, importers and distributors will have certain obligations, especially if they use their own name or trademark when introducing packaging onto the market: in such cases, they will be liable under the same rules as the producer.

Packaging is to be manufactured in such a way as to minimise the presence and concentration of potentially hazardous substances. In particular, this will apply to lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium, the concentration of which should not exceed 100 mg/kg in the packaging. Also, the packaging is to be as small as possible, which means reducing its weight and volume to the minimum necessary to ensure its functionality. For this purpose, the empty space between the packaging and the product inside will have to be reduced, including the space filled with paper clippings or bubble wrap. Additionally, the packaging should be reusable, which means it should be possible to empty it or unload it without damaging the packaging and in accordance with applicable health and safety requirements.

The proposal also regulates the compostability of packaging, i.e. its ability to decompose physically, chemically, thermally or biologically in such a way that most of the finished compost decomposes into carbon dioxide, mineral salts, biomass and water. Currently, the issue of which packaging is suitable to be composted raises doubts, and as a result, truly compostable packaging may be mixed with packaging that does not have this property. The draft regulation clearly resolves this issue, stating that industrial composting will only be allowed for tea bags, coffee capsules and sachets, fruit and vegetable stickers and very lightweight plastic bags. Other packaging will be recycled, which constitutes a key element of the Commission’s proposal, as all packaging entering the EU market is to be recyclable. For this purpose, the Commission has proposed conditions under which packaging can indeed be considered recyclable (among other things, the quality of the resulting secondary raw materials must allow them to be substituted for primary raw materials). In practice, the design of recyclable packaging can be questionable, so the Commission will be authorised to issue a delegated act establishing design criteria for recycling. Additionally, the Commission will establish recycling efficiency classes to be awarded to particular packages. It is already known that the highest, class A, is to mean a recyclability rating of 95%, and the lowest, class E, below 70%. As of 2030, E-rated packaging will be considered non-recyclable.

However, the recycling requirements go further. Not only will packaging be required to be recyclable, but its plastic parts are also mandated to contain a minimum percentage of recycled raw materials. This percentage will vary depending on the packaging. For example, for single-use plastic bottles, it is to be 30% in 2030 and 65% in 2040.

Most of the requirements proposed by the Commission concern the packaging itself. However, there is no shortage of solutions for labelling as well. Thus, depending on the type of packaging, it should bear an appropriate label, including, among other things, information about the possibility of multiple use or about being covered by a deposit and return acceptance system. Proper labelling is expected to increase consumer awareness and facilitate proper packaging management.

The big role of recycling

Recycling is expected to play a key role in packaging management. The Commission is not only proposing to make recyclability a feature of all packaging, but is also requiring member states to meet certain recycling levels. It sets targets in two time frames: by the end of 2025 and by the end of 2030. They do not differ from those indicated in Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste. According to the assumptions, recycling is expected to reach at least 65% by 31 December 2025, and 70% by 31 December 2030, by weight of all generated packaging waste. Postponing the implementation of recycling targets to 2025 is acceptable, but it does entail some additional obligations, such as submitting an implementation plan.

Return of packaging

New requirements will also arise for collection and return of packaging waste. The member states will be required to establish mandatory systems ensuring the return and separate collection of all packaging waste from end users, i.e., in practice, consumers. These systems should cover the entire territory of a member state, as well as waste from all types of packaging. The systems must take into account the size of the population, the anticipated volume and composition of packaging waste, as well as the availability and proximity of return points for end users. Still, some types of packaging waste will be allowed to be collected together if such collection does not affect their recycling potential and the result achieved is comparable to that achieved by selective collection.

The advantages of the deposit-refund system are widely known throughout Europe, especially in Scandinavia. The deposit-refund system is considered to be one of the most effective instruments for countering the penetration of plastics into the environment. But so far, attempts to implement it in many member states, including Poland, have proved unsuccessful. Due to delays in the implementation of EU directives, the draft regulation imposes an obligation to create return systems for plastic bottles and aluminium cans, with a volume up to 3 litres, by 1 January 2029. These will not include packaging for wine and spirits or milk and dairy products. However, glass in the form of single-use glass bottles may be included. The member states should ensure that deposit and return systems for single-use packaging, in particular single-use glass beverage bottles, are equally available for reusable packaging, where technically and economically feasible.

Reusable and refillable 

The proposals to promote reuse and refill packaging solutions cannot be overlooked. Their essence is to take measures encouraging the development of packaging reuse and refill systems in an environment-friendly manner. These measures include the use of deposit and return systems (different from those for plastic bottles and aluminium cans), as well as economic incentives, including requirements for end distributors to charge for single-use packaging or inform consumers of the cost of such packaging at the point of sale. And the Commission has set a series of reuse and refill targets for different sectors and packaging formats, along with a catalogue of exemptions. Businesses marketing reusable packaging will have to set up a system for reusing such packaging, and businesses using such packaging will have similar obligations. Moreover, businesses offering products for purchase through refilling will have to provide certain information to end users and ensure that filling stations comply with the established requirements.

Fewer disposable bags

The Commission has also taken note of disposable plastic bags. Their consumption should be significantly reduced, which is the purpose of the proposed limits. Annual consumption of disposable bags should not exceed 40 per person by 31 December 2025. This limit should be maintained after that date and be accounted for by 31 December of each subsequent year. The member states will be able to undertake a variety of measures to achieve this objective. These measures should be appropriate to the environmental impact of plastic bags and may include marketing restrictions. Plastic bags required for hygienic purposes or as food packaging may exceed the indicated limit, if the member state so decides. This exclusion seems rational and justified, taking into account the need to reduce food loss and food waste.


The draft regulation duplicates some of the solutions already present in the EU legal system but not yet implemented by member states. At the same time, it contains new requirements, particularly for design and manufacture of sustainable packaging. As intended, implementation of the new regulation should halt the trend of generation of excessive packaging waste by Europeans.

A good legislative solution seems to be the inclusion of the indicated requirements in the form of a regulation, which not only has a general scope, but above all, is directly applicable in all member states. This will avoid anomalies arising during implementation into domestic law in the case of directives.

The planned solutions are mutually consistent. The sustainable characteristics of products are supposed to translate into their proper management, so that the goals imposed on member states can be achieved. Many of the planned solutions are quite innovative, so the disposable packaging industry will be forced to invest in transformation to achieve compliance.

Agata Matysiak, Dr Adrianna Ogonowska, attorney-at-law, Environment practice, Wardyński & Partners