An independent YouGov poll, published 4 May 2023, reveals that consumers want a reduction in paper packaging waste. Results from Italy, France, Germany, Finland and Sweden show the overwhelming majority of Europeans (74 per cent) are troubled by the rise in paper and cardboard packaging and think governments should take action to reduce it. As EU institutions hammer out the details of a proposed regulation to reduce packaging and packaging waste, they must be mindful that consumers expect them to take effective action.
European paper production and consumption are on the rise, driven by the dramatic increase in disposable packaging for on-line delivery, take-aways or to replace single-use plastic. Paper and cardboard are consistently the main packaging waste material (data from 2009 to 2020).
Industries linked to packaging and packaging waste have long externalised costs (see the proposal’s Impact Assessment) – the pollution of air and waterways, the excessive waste that municipalities contend with, the loss of forests and nature – onto local communities and broader populations. The new poll makes it clear that citizens want this stopped.
The fact that paper and cardboard can be readily recycled is often advanced as an easy solution to this dramatic problem. This is a misconception. At most, only half of the paper produced in the EU uses recycled material. The other half comes from forests and plantations, which cannot sustain the runaway rise in paper and board packaging, as well as other controversial uses such as biomass (FW 284).
Paper-based packaging has severe social and environmental consequences
Three billion trees are cut down annually to meet the demand for paper packaging, and the impact on forests troubles six in 10 Europeans. Excessive paper packaging also places an unfair burden on consumers, faced with outsized delivery boxes, unnecessary and duplicate layers of packaging, dirty food containers and complicated recycling symbols.
Consumers and small businesses cannot – and should not have to – reverse this trend by themselves. Three quarters (75 per cent) of poll respondents believe that governments are responsible for reducing packaging waste, and should set regulatory restrictions on companies that produce and use disposable packaging.
Promisingly, the EU is currently revising its rules on packaging and packaging waste. As it stands, however, the Regulation is being undermined by the packaging industry. Targets for reduced waste and increased re-use (as opposed to single-use throwaway containers) for the food and beverage sector have now been removed altogether. Yet similar regulatory provisions – and practical examples of how to comply with them – already exist in France.
Rather than accept industry demands, the broader public interests must remain at the heart of the EU proposal. The upcoming Regulation must end over-reliance on disposable packaging and implement a widespread shift to re-use systems. NGOs have examined how to do so, here.