Packaging and packaging waste in the EU are rising faster than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the most widely used, fastest growing packaging materials are paper and cardboard. A proposed EU Regulation now under discussion aims to reduce packaging while giving consumers reusable options. As the proposal stands, efforts to reduce plastic packaging may drive the unsustainable increase of paper packaging, but France could offer valuable practical lessons for what can be done.
The food and drink sector is one of the EU’s largest paper users, yet industry has managed to water down the Regulation’s packaging reduction objectives, and re-use objectives for take-away meals were removed altogether from Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI) draft report. The Agriculture Committee (AGRI) is also pushing to weaken re-use for dine-in options.
But in France things are already changing.
In 2020, France adopted an Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law (Loi n. 2020-105) to eliminate waste from product design and transform production, distribution and consumption. Effective as of January 2023, the law eliminates disposable tableware in fast-food restaurants; diners now benefit from reusable plates, glasses and cutlery. Restaurants that fail to implement this can be fined.
As larger fast-food chains can more easily transition to re-usable tableware, an annual Euro 20 million fund has been set up to help independent restaurants’ transition. Restaurants with fewer than 20 seats are not included in the legislation.
The Law will prevent close to 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, representing 20 billion throwaway items. McDonald’s restaurants in South-West France have already reduced their cardboard consumption by 30 per cent, and restaurants are now investing in local jobs for in-house washing, for instance. It is imperative that these jobs guarantee living wages and decent working conditions.
Fast-food companies appear to have embraced the opportunity to reduce their environmental impact. Fresh Burritos have opted for durable enameled ware, Burger King showcases its new tableware, yet in Brussels, some of these same chains are lobbying against an ambitious Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation. The European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) – with members including McDonald’s and Burger King – commissioned a study that – questionably – concludes the environmental impacts of re-use outweigh those of single-use paper dishes. It is in direct contradiction to peer-reviewed life cycle assessments undertaken in the United States which found that re-use is more sustainable than single-use in restaurants under most conditions.
Rather than fighting to preserve a status-quo with harsh impacts on forests, companies should apply their energies to embracing change. The upcoming EU Regulation needs to align with peer-reviewed science (and citizens’ concerns) rather than flawed industry-funded studies. This means mandatory re-use for dine-in and ambitious deposit/return objectives for takeaway food.