The European Union is currently strongly divided over the issue of package recycling. On the one hand there is the powerful environmental lobby groups who are pressurising the European Commission to step up reforms. On the other hand there is the food and beverage industry. Although keen not to come across as the enemy of the environment, the industry is pleading that reforms are introduced in terms that it is able to realistically comply with, within the prescribed time-frame.
Currently the European Commission is considering proposals to update the existing EU Packaging and Packaging Waste directive. If the update gets the go-ahead it will mean that food and beverage manufacturers in the leading band of EU countries (which includes the UK, Germany and France) will have to step up recycling requirements from the current 25 per cent of all packaging they produce, to 65 per cent by 2006.
Many industry observers point out that the country that seems to have complained the loudest in recent months is the UK. Also accused of being slow to comply with previous demands, many small to medium-sized manufacturers refute such allegations claiming that the future of their businesses are being jeopardised because of the level of investment necessary.
"FDF takes its responsibility to the environment very seriously and recognises the role of the industry in working towards a more sustainable environment," said Kate Snowden, spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation. "The food and drink industry lies at the very heart of sustainability as food production sustains the world's population. FDF is committed to making an active contribution to this important issue and companies within the UK food and drink sector are committed to minimising the environmental impact of their activities and working towards the objective of long-term sustainability.
"However, we believe that any targets for the recovery and recycling of packaging waste must be realistic and achievable. We encourage our members to go beyond the legal requirements and regularly work with government and the Environment Agency on issues surrounding packaging waste."
Time and time again the industry's biggest grumble has been the unacceptable level of costs that the directive requires the it to spend, a point that Snowden stressed.
"On costs, a recent House of Lords Inquiry into the costs to industry associated with the directive has concluded that annual costs to the UK industry could rise to between 400 and 500 per cent to meet the proposed higher targets.
"At present the UK has achieved its targets through collection of packaging waste from industry and commercial activities. If we are to achieve a higher target, we need to collect packaging waste from the household waste stream. This will need to include the involvement of local authorities."
The FDF has also stressed a number of factors that it believes could contribute to increased costs and impact on timescale. These include a lack of existing infrastructure, non-food and beverage waste having to be separated and apathy on the part of consumers to help contribute towards such a scheme.
"We are not saying no to these reforms, quite the contrary," said Snowden. " What we are saying is that they should be introduced in a way that is both manageable and economically viable to the industry. Many people in the industry believe that trying to jump from a 25 per cent recycling rate to 65 per cent is too great. We believe that 50 per cent would be a far more realistic figure."
However, the concerns of representative organisations have not been confined to the UK. The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries for the EU, the CIAA, has also voiced similar concerns for the rest of Europe and has backed up the FDF's stand in the UK.
It is hard for the industry not to sound like the enemy of 'the environment' in this scenario, but there is hope that a united front and a continued cooperative stance will eventually win some concessions. Whatever happens though, the industry has to concede that a strong increase in future European package recycling quotas is an inevitability.