Should one size fit all? Beer, spirits and wine divided over EU packaging plan

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/elerium
Pic:getty/elerium

Related tags Eu Wine spirits deposit return scheme DRS Recycling Plastic Sustainability Glass

The European Parliament has adopted its position on new EU packaging rules: which could see a raft of long-term changes for drinks packaging. The reaction from the European alcohol industry is mixed.

The far-reaching EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was voted through by the European Parliament on November 22 with 426 votes in favor, 125 against and 74 abstentions: marking an important milestone in its progress.

In the alcohol industry, wine and spirits are set to benefit from exemptions to re-use targets – as well as seeing different rules in deposit return schemes.

The beer industry, however, says the EU has missed an opportunity to create a level playing field. 

Reuse and recycle 

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive​ lays down measures to prevent the production of packaging waste, and to promote reuse of packaging and recycling and other forms of recovering packaging waste.

It also sets out the requirements that all packaging placed on the EU market must meet.

The initiative’s objective is to ensure all packaging is ‘reusable or recyclable in an economically feasible way’ by 2030.

spiritsEUROPE – the trade body that represents the spirits industry at European level with 31 associations and 11 international companies – has welcomed the ‘ambitious and balanced position’ of the legislation.

The organisation is pleased to see spirits exempt from several obligations: including re-use requirements, deposit return schemes and minimum material requirements.

Next steps for PPWD

Parliament is ready to start talks with national governments on the final form of the law, once the Council has adopted its position.

Perhaps most significantly, the spirits sector has been made exempt from mandatory re-use targets.

spiritsEUROPE had argued that broad re-use targets were not suitable for the spirits industry, questioning policy-makers’ attitude that re-use is always best.

In the case of spirits, the body argued that ‘to be most efficient and environmentally sustainable, re-usable glass packaging should circulate quickly in high volumes within a limited geographical area (up to 200-300km) from producers to retailers to consumers – and back. In other words, re-use systems work best in high-speed, high-volume, and low-distance environments.’

Spirits, however, typically operate at the other end of the spectrum: ‘The typical product journey for spirit bottles is marked by comparatively low-speed, low-volumes and larger distances' (the organisation outlines its arguments in full here​)

Responding to Wednesday's vote, Sarah Melina Siebel, Director Internal Market and Sustainability at spiritsEUROPE, said: “We applaud the decision of the Parliament to revert to the proposal of the European Commission which made it clear why exempting spirits from mandatory re-use targets is the most sensible and sustainable approach forward.

"Re-use and recycling solutions go hand in hand and complement each other in practice.

"However, given the structural and product-related specificities of our sector, flexibility is needed to ensure future development and consistent progress – a fact that is now reflected in the EP’s position.”

“The European beverages sector, including alcoholic beverages, is marked by a huge diversity,"  said Ulrich Adam, Director General of spiritsEUROPE. 

"To boost sustainability ambitions in meaningful and feasible ways in practice, rules on packaging need to reflect this. The European Parliament set an important precedent... by acknowledging this diversity and allow for the development of tailored approaches."

Another key concern for spiritsEUROPE ahead of the vote had been that requirements for packaging minimization would threaten the ‘iconic designs’ used by top spirits brands.

A section on Intellectual Property right for packaging could have seen bottles for spirits drinks ‘de-facto be standardised’, with spiritsEUROPE warning that creative designs and iconic shapes would gradually disappear.

However, the final PPWD sees spirits excluded from mandatory minimization requirements criteria.

“With such a decision, the diversity of creative designs and iconic shapes of spirits bottles will be maintained,” said Ulrich Adam, Director General of spiritsEUROPE. “It will now be important for Members States in Council to adequately recognize and acknowledge these key points, too.”

Deposit return schemes

The regulation supports the establishment of deposit return schemes: saying these should be obligatory for single-use plastic beverage bottles and metal beverage containers.

Over in the soft drinks category, trade association UNESDA has reacted positively, saying it supports the mandated set-up of DRS systems.

Wine and spirits, however, get another exemption: ‘Given the nature of the products and the differences in their production and distribution systems, deposit and return systems should however not be obligatory for packaging for wine, aromatised wine products, spirit drinks and milk and milk products,' reads the amendments to the plan passed on Wednesday.

Exemptions are 'unfair from a market standpoint'

The Brewers of Europe, however, are less impressed by the exemption for wine and spirits recycling targets on packaging reuse targets and national deposit return schemes.

The organization – which represents some 10,000 breweries in Europe - says the exemptions are ‘unjustifiable from an environmental perspective and unfair from a market standpoint’.

Deeming the PPWR proposal as 'flawed', it is calling on the EU’s Council of Ministers - the next step in the process - to 'close the loopholes that weaken the planned rules.'

It notes that the PPWR’s original aim was to cut needless packaging in all areas of the economy, 'but the loopholes allow certain sectors, like wines and spirits, to be exempted from obligations on packaging reuse targets and national deposit return systems (DRS).'

When it comes to re-use, the trade body says beer brewers on average already sell more than half their production in reusable packaging, be it kegs or glass beer bottles (the other packaging uses recycled content and is typically recycled at very high levels due to its collection through well established systems, says the association).

“Brewers are disappointed that this opportunity to level the playing field in packaging legislation was not taken,” says The Brewers of Europe Head of Operations Simon Spillane. 

"Whilst finally we have a text that won’t imply the dismantling of effective national recycling collection systems, unfortunately logic didn’t carry through into all decisions. We now look to EU Member States in the Council of Ministers to take the much-needed steps to uphold Europe’s environmental credentials. The EU needs strong and fair packaging legislation, not rules that give some sectors an unjustified free pass.”

The organisation does, however, welcome a text that grants reuse exemptions for economic operators in situations where, for example, 85% of beer cans are collected and recycled.

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