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EU unveils plans to cut Europe’s plastic and packaging waste

Draft regulations would ban mini-shampoo bottles and throwaway cups, with push towards reuse over recycling

Some ‘avoidable packaging’ would face an outright ban, such as mini-shampoo bottles in hotels. Photograph: MarsBars/Getty Images

The EU executive wants to ban mini-shampoo bottles in hotels and the use of throwaway cups in cafes and restaurants, as part of sweeping legal proposals to curb Europe’s mountains of waste.

A draft EU regulation published on Wednesday also proposes mandatory deposit and return schemes for single-use plastic drinks bottles and metal cans, as well as an end to e-commerce firms wrapping small items in huge boxes.

The new rules, which will have to be approved by EU member states and the European parliament, are intended to tackle the surge in plastic and other packaging waste. EU officials estimate that 40% of new plastics and 50% of paper are used in packaging, making the sector a vast consumer of virgin materials.

The EU passed a law in 2019 to ban the most common single-use plastic items, such as plastic cutlery, stirrers and straws, but officials want to go further to tackle soaring amounts of packaging rubbish. The average European is thought to generate 180kg of packaging waste each year, which could rise by 19% by 2030, without action.

Under the latest proposals, EU member states would have to reduce packaging waste per capita by 15% by 2040 compared with 2018. Officials think this could be achieved by more reuse and refilling, as well as tighter controls on packaging. For example, e-commerce retailers would have to ensure that empty space in a box is a maximum 40% in relation to the product.

Some “avoidable packaging” would face an outright ban, such as mini-shampoo bottles in hotels and single-use packaging for small quantities of fruit and vegetables. Hotels, cafes and restaurants would no longer be able to use throwaway cups and plates for consumers dining in.

By 2040, restaurants offering takeaways would be obliged to serve 40% of their meals in reusable or refillable packaging, while most coffees on the go would come in a reusable cup or one supplied by the customer.

“The way goods are packaged can and should be done a lot better,” said the European Commission executive vice-president Frans Timmermans. “Such overpacking is a nuisance to us and is increasingly damaging to our environment.”


“We want more packaging to be reusable, because we cannot recycle ourselves out of a growing stream of waste. And reusable packaging in a well-functioning reuse system is better for the environment than single-use options.”

The commission also hopes to end confusion about recycling: it proposes harmonised labels, probably pictograms, to make it clear to consumers which bin to use.

In a separate law, the commission seeks to ensure that products claiming to be “biobased”, “biodegradable” or “compostable” meet minimum standards. In an attempt to clamp down on greenwashing, consumers would be able to tell how long it takes an item to biodegrade, how much biomass was used in its production and whether it is really suitable for home composting.

Pascal Canfin, the MEP who chairs the European parliament’s environment committee, described the packaging proposal as a major step forward and the most ambitious in the world.

“We have moved from disposable to recyclable and we are concretely committing ourselves to a trajectory for reuse, because this is the most resource-efficient and will also help us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said.

The ocean conservation group Oceana accused the commission of giving into pressure from industry, by pushing back targets on reducing single-use plastics to 2040. “The proposal from the European Commission represents a unique opportunity to stop marine litter at its source,” said Natividad Sánchez, who leads Oceana’s plastics campaign in Europe. “It is worrying, however, that reuse targets for beverage packaging and e-commerce containers were decreased, and some of them even halved, when compared to the draft text leaked only a month ago.”

This article was originally published in The Guardian and republished here.

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