Last month, the European Commission (EC) announced its proposed revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) and was met with immediate outrage from the beverage industry. European beverage associations, united in their indignation over new ambitious reuse targets outlined by the EC, believe that it undermines their progress in recycling development which they optimistically estimate to reach 90% by 2030. They view the new rules as a threat, almost an insult to their investment in closed-loop recycling. Willemijn Peeters, of circular plastics company Searious Business disagrees. "Reuse has amazing potential for beverage producers to achieve circularity. It will exist alongside recycling; one doesn't cancel out the other."
UNESDA's claim of high recycling rates across Europe could be considered inflated. A study by Zero Waste Europe shows that average recycling rates for PET are currently as low as 50%, and of that, only a small percentage makes it back into new bottles. The rest is downcycled into 'end of life' products like textiles or strapping. Not exactly a closed-loop system. Even in the 10 European countries with active Deposit Return Systems, only 31% of the PET collected will make it back into beverage bottles. However, PET bottle recycling is still the most developed technology and infrastructure in plastic waste management. The fact that it has been so successful is why we can now be more ambitious and move up the waste hierarchy to reuse.
Far from dismantling the investment in recycling, reuse will complement it. In Germany, reusable PET bottles are already being used to extend the life between recycling cycles. The bottles have a special coating which allows them to be washed up to 20 times before they are recycled, offering enormous resource savings.
"If we assume that a reusable PET bottle performs the work of 15 single-use PET bottles, it would be possible, in the event of a complete changeover to multi-use, to save around 260,000 tonnes of PET in Germany every year," explained IKV.
The resounding success of Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) proves customer willingness to return packaging to stores. In Germany, 97% of PET bottles are collected through DRS, and the reverse-vending machines are able to distinguish between single-use, multi-use or returnable bottles. These infrastructure and technology are already in place in several countries, making adding reusable bottles to the mix simple. Concerns about implementing large-scale behavioural change are also unfounded. The current DRS schemes could easily be adapted without changing the customer experience in any way.
The price of rPET
UNESDA themselves said - Recycled PET is becoming as rare and expensive as gold or white truffles. With targets on recycled content set to become stricter, the demand for rPET is rocketing, putting increasing pressure on SMEs who do not have the buying power of larger competitors. They insist that the beverage industry must be prioritised over other sectors to meet the mandatory content requirements. Yet another reason why reusables would be an advantage. The fewer new bottles you make, the less material you need to buy. With shorter supply chains and greater flexibility, SMEs could ironically benefit the fastest from a reusable system.
Several independent LCAs will attest that multi-use always has a lower environmental impact than recycling, even when considering washing and logistics. When the bottles in question are made from recycled, reusable PET, the efficiency can be up to 5 times that of a single-use bottle.
Threat or opportunity?
The EC's decision to prioritise reuse over recycling is in recognition of its superior potential to reduce plastic pollution, and it isn't just a case of putting planet before profit. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation reusable packaging is a $10 billion opportunity. Those who jump in feet first will reap the rewards. Standardisation of packaging and collaboration across the industry is the fastest way to transformative change and minimise the financial burden. The fact that the European Fruit Juice Association, The Brewers of Europe, Natural Mineral Waters Europe and UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe can all unite to express joint concern means they could also get together to create solutions, standardise their bottles, and share logistics and washing facilities.
With their support instead of their opposition, the transition to a reusable future would be unstoppable.