How the EU’s ambition to overhaul its packaging legislation might impact the tobacco industry.
By George Gay
As I understand things, a human body can be composted, in those places where this practice is legal, within about 30 days. On the other hand, my experience is that some starched-based “fully compostable” packaging can take more than 600 days to break down completely. Such a difference in composting times gives pause, I think, and I have long felt that the messaging around compostable packaging could do with some fine-tuning.
So I was encouraged, at least on behalf of those living in the EU and countries that follow EU packaging rules, to see that the EU Commission, as part of its proposed overhaul of its packaging legislation, is seeking to clear up the confusion around bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics.
In an end-of-November press note titled “European Green Deal: Putting an end to wasteful packaging, boosting reuse and recycling,” the commission announced its proposed revision (see https://bit.ly/3F6PRfp) of the EU’s legislation on packaging and packaging waste, saying that while the production and use of bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics had been increasing, a number of conditions had to be met for these plastics to have positive environmental impacts rather than exacerbating plastic pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. “The commission’s new framework clarifies in what way these plastics can be part of a sustainable future,” it added.
In my view, it is important that the proposals, which must now be considered by the European Parliament and Council, are successful in their aims. The commission says a circular economy of packaging will help decouple economic development from the use of natural resources, contribute to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and halting biodiversity loss, and reduce the EU economy’s dependency on many materials. Specifically, it estimates that by 2030 its proposed measures would bring greenhouse gas emissions from packaging down to 43 million tons compared to 66 million tons if the legislation is not changed. (Detailed impact assessment documents can be accessed at https://bit.ly/42cYEXd.)
These proposals, which are said to be aimed at creating a level playing field of packaging that is not more trade restrictive than necessary to fulfill the environmental objectives, will impact all companies working within the EU and those selling into the region, including those working within the tobacco and nicotine industries, though some exemptions apply to small companies. The use of packaging is universal, and the materials covered by the proposals include aluminium, cardboard, ceramics, glass, metal, paper, plastic, porcelain, stoneware, textiles and wood.
But, just to be certain where the tobacco industry would stand, I wrote to the commission asking if I would be correct in assuming that all the proposals finally accepted by the parliament and council would apply to the tobacco industry, in respect of both its leaf tobacco and its product (including new-generation products) packaging.
Interestingly, the commission chose to answer a different but related question by saying, “The tobacco industry would certainly [my emphasis] not be exempt from these rules according to our proposals.” I thought this answer, apart from being a little sniffy, was interesting because it seemed to assume that, despite a history of disadvantages being heaped on tobacco industry packaging, I had been wondering whether the industry could, suddenly and miraculously, expect to be advantaged by being exempted from some of the proposed rules.
In fact, my thoughts had been going in another direction. I had been wondering whether the tobacco industry and its much put-upon consumers might be well served by being treated equally with other industries for once. As I understand it, the commission proposals, in part, are about incentivizing innovation, something the industry might want to examine.
Buying in Bulk
If the proposals applied across the board, the tobacco products industry might, for instance, be encouraged to participate in refillable initiatives, which are mentioned in the proposals as a way of reducing the use of packaging materials. It could be imagined that, under such a scheme, cigarette consumers might buy from their local store cigarettes obtained from bulk packs and taken away in reusable containers. Clearly, with the exception of the bulk packs, which would be seen only by a limited number of people, possibly mainly nonsmokers, this would put paid to the grotesque health warnings that smokers, unlike alcohol drinkers, have to endure.
I cannot imagine the tobacco industry being allowed to apply such a system given that it has in the past been dissuaded, both by external or, rather more shockingly, internal forces, from introducing environmental incentives into its packaging because of the idea that, in the mind of consumers, environmental claims equal health claims. This idea, I suspect, would be impossible to defend, but it persists.
But why should the industry not be allowed to apply such a system? Where is the moral line to be drawn here? Is it right for the commission, despite what it says, to apply exemptions to the tobacco industry? Is it defensible for the commission to hang onto these health warnings, which have dubious moral or practical underpinnings, in an attempt to dissuade smokers from continuing with their habit? Remember, to disallow such a tobacco industry initiative would, in the commission’s view, discourage the use of more environmentally friendly packaging and thereby make the world a riskier place for everybody.
Certainly, if it does decide to disadvantage the tobacco industry, it should do the same with any number of other industries, such as the automotive industry, which destroys lives in much the same way (and other ways) as the tobacco industry is said to destroy lives. Sections of the automotive industry, too, have been deceptive about the risks caused by the use of their products and, in their case, about the extent to which such use endangers the public at large rather than just the users of their products.
Having said that, while I do not work in packaging and cannot speak for the practicality or efficaciousness of individual proposals, it is clear to me that action needs to be taken in respect of the three stated objectives of the proposed revisions. Firstly, to prevent the generation of packaging waste by reducing it in quantity, restricting unnecessary packaging and promoting reusable and refillable packaging.
Secondly, to boost high-quality (“closed loop”) recycling by making all packaging on the EU market recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. And thirdly, to reduce the need for primary natural resources by creating a well-functioning market for secondary raw materials and increasing the use of recycled plastics in packaging through mandatory targets.
I like the emphasis on preventing wherever possible the generation of packaging, though it is important to note the commission makes clear that packaging plays a vital role in protecting and preserving products.
I also like the commission’s emphasis on having clear and consistent labeling on every piece of packaging to indicate what it is made of and to what waste stream it should go. This is not the case currently. The commission, in its proposals, makes the point that regulatory approaches differ from one member state to another, which means that, for instance, labeling requirements differ.
One concern has to be whether the new rules can be made to work, because previous rules haven’t, at least not satisfactorily. The commission says that its directive on packaging and packaging waste (94/62/EC – PPWD), which, under the latest proposals, is due to be repealed, was a regulatory failure that cannot be remedied simply by better enforcement of the current rules. Moreover, the commission added, the available data hinted that neither measures undertaken by the member states based on the current PPWD nor those based on the ORD [2020 Own Resource Decision] or SUPD [2019 Single-Use Plastic Directive], both of which would be amended under the proposals, were sufficient to ensure that they met all the specific targets for the recycling rates set out in the PPWD.
In trying to make the proposed rules more effective, the commission is aiming for them to be bound up in a regulation rather than in a directive, which seems to be a step in the right direction. Regulations are binding legal acts that must be applied in their entirety throughout every member state whereas directives are legislative acts that set goals that all states must achieve but that allow room for individual states to devise their own laws for achieving those goals.
Finally, the press note included a couple of comments, and in part, Virginijus Sinkevicius, the EU commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, made the point that we had all at one time or another received products that, ordered online, had arrived in excessively large boxes. I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned from this claim, but I hope that such knowledge does not lead only to the examination of packaging, which is merely a symptom of a social problem. Tracking back to the cause will show, I think, that we need to examine, too, our buying habits. For those of us lucky enough to be able to do so, we should surely try to buy less stuff and only from shops to which we can walk or cycle carrying reusable containers—including elegant cigarette cases.