A successful and efficient circular economy for beverage packaging will ultimately depend on the European Union’s (EU) support in creating the right enablers for the soft drinks sector to deliver fully circular beverage packaging by 2030. Amongst these enablers is the set-up of minimum requirements for Deposit Refund Systems (DRS) to ensure its efficient implementation across Europe, as DRS can greatly accelerate the uptake of packaging collection in Europe, particularly for recycled PET plastics.
Supporting this outcome, we sat down with Nicholas Hodac, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe’s Director-General, who also defends that the non-alcoholic beverage sector should be granted a preferential right (or “right of first refusal”) to access the recycled PET coming from the bottles that they put in the market.
Upon the one-year anniversary of the launch of their Circular Packaging Vision 2030, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe reiterates the industry’s commitments on packaging collection and recycling, shining a light on the consumer’s role in bringing about change. Hodac also underlines what kind of support the sector needs from EU policymakers to deliver on its commitments.
1. Meeting the EU mandatory targets for packaging collection with DRS
It goes without saying — achieving the EU mandatory targets of 25% recycled content for plastic packaging by 2025 and 90% collection for all packaging by 2029 requires strong commitment and coordination between governments, stakeholders and consumers.
“If EU countries are serious about achieving the packaging targets, they have to take a decision today on which type of collection system they need,” urges Hodac ahead of the European Commission’s revision of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.
Across Europe, the collection of beverage packaging among countries is very diverse. Currently, 12 countries have implemented DRS and their collection rates are significantly higher than those countries without this collection scheme.
Belgium, however, is a notable exception. Operating without DRS, the country manages to collect 85% of soft drinks packaging based on a long-established system set up by the federal government. In stark contrast are France, Portugal and Bulgaria, among others, where packaging collection is rather low, risking undermining the EU’s targets.
If we are to achieve the targets of 90% collection by 2029 in those countries with lower collection rates, DRS is the only way of doing this. For example, in the Baltics, within a couple of years the collection rates have increased from 60% to 90%.Nicolas Hodac, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe’s Director General
A vital element of DRS is the involvement of the consumer on the life cycle of circular packaging. “One of the added-values that we see with DRS is that it really makes sure that the consumer is part of the journey of circularity,” Hodac highlights, noting that, as part of the scheme, the consumer is incentivized to bring back the bottle to the return vending machine for recycling based on a financial incentive.
2. Developing minimum requirements for well-functioning DRS is needed
Commenting on the design and implementation of efficient DRS, the soft drinks industry has already defined minimum requirements together with the environmental NGO Zero Waste Europe and the European Natural Mineral Waters association, noting that the system needs to be non-profit and all the stakeholders must actively participate and have a responsibility in the scheme. For example, the retailers, such as supermarkets, are a fundamental player as they need to install vending machines and should be obliged to take back the beverage packaging. The industry believes that location is a fundamental aspect for the success of DRS and that supermarkets will play a key role since they will be the bridge between the consumer and the deposit.
Moreover, the industry defends the existence of a mandate to make sure the deposit is of such a level that it actually gives an incentive to consumers. According to Hodac, previous assessments have concluded that 10 to 20 cents are enough to encourage the practice.
Another key aspect highlighted by the industry is that incomes from the deposit must be reinvested in the scheme in order to improve it. Finally, the DRS should include all types of packaging: plastic bottles, aluminum cans and glass bottles.
We have seen in many countries around Europe that there’s a good relationship between industry and government and it’s working well. What is needed now, is political guidance at European level to facilitate the discussion at national level.Nicolas Hodac, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe’s Director General
The industry believes that these basic principles need to be used to ensure that new DRS will be fully efficient. Therefore, it calls on the European Commission to incorporate minimum requirements for DRS in the revision of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.
3. Need for a Right of First Refusal — give our bottles back
The beverage industry is effectively creating the market for the recycling industry, placing more sustainable products in the market. For that reason, the soft drinks sector is asking the European Commission to close the legal loop in circularity, by having the right of first refusal when buying back recycled plastic coming from its PET bottles on the market.
“In order to meet the EU recycled content targets, we need some policy support and the right of first refusal is for us a way of getting recognition that the soft drinks industry, as the obliged industry, is investing heavily in collecting its bottles through DRS or any other separate collection scheme,” says Hodac.
Additionally, the soft drinks industry defends that the increase of recycled content by one sector should not be at the expense of breaking another sector’s efforts: “We are paying an additional premium for recycled content material, we believe that it’s only normal that we are offered the Right of First Refusal to use these materials,” he urges.
Reiterating the industry’s efforts in transforming the sector by investing on more sustainable products to achieve its environmental goals, Hodac recalls that the price of recycled content is higher than the price of virgin plastic, meaning that the price to be circular today is higher than the price not to be circular: “We feel that this is a complete market distortion,” UNESDA’s chief stresses.
“The Commission needs to intervene to make sure that the price distortion between recycled content material and virgin plastic needs to be corrected and the Right of First Refusal is a way of doing so,” urges Hodac.
4. Encouraging other sectors to become circular
An indirect benefit of the concept of the right of first refusal is that it creates an incentive for others to invest in circularity. While the non-alcoholic beverage sector is making big investments to close the bottle loop, other industries currently don’t have an incentive to invest in going circular since they can easily use the recycled materials brought to the market by other industries.
Alluding to a plethora of industries using plastics such as textiles, automotive, toys, among others, Hodac stresses that the definition of circularity is about reusing your own products multiple times, and not transforming the products that somebody else puts in the market into other products — and, by doing so, breaking the recycling loop.
5. Investing on reduce and reuse
UNESDA’s vision for circular packaging by 2030 is based on yet a third pillar — reduce and reuse — which the industry believes it will probably be the most challenging but “the right thing to do”.
We are committed to increase the share of reusable packaging. What we now want is to develop a roadmap with the European Commission on how this can be done in the most environmentally friendly way and the most cost-efficient way.Nicolas Hodac, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe’s Director General
The industry pledged to study the best way to increase the share of reusable packaging. This covers not only the traditional refill bottles that consumers can buy at the supermarket, but also other types such as dispensers, or recharges, for instance, of soda drinks, in the form of a rechargeable unit.
The soft drinks industry is taking action to create a circular economy for beverage packaging. The sector’s sustainability commitments give a glimpse of hope for the generations to come — always placing the consumer at the centre of the sustainability journey.
“We have a push and pull in both directions. We have an industry that is obviously pushing, but we have a consumer who is very eager to pull,” Hodac notes, stressing how the consumer today is much more conscious and interested in being part of the circular economy.