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ICIS: Europe’s PET industry in legislative ‘grey zone’ as the clock ticks on

3:52 min Facts & Figures
London, United Kingdom

Over 300 members of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) industry gathered in Brussels at the annual Petcore Europe conference in February, looking for clarity on the wide-ranging, market-changing packaging and waste legislation currently under discussion in the EU, but many left only slightly more informed than when they arrived.

  • EU legislators unable to give clarity on key topics
  • Questions remain around imports
  • Exciting opportunities for growing sectors

The industry is currently in a “grey zone’ that relates to the outcome of voting on the EU’s draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) according to Leonor Garcia of consultants E&Act. It would be fair to say, however, that this is the case for most pieces of legislation aimed at the PET and wider plastics industry in Europe.

The European Parliament and European Council reached provisional agreement on the regulation earlier this month although the text of that agreement has not been published.

The EU Commission, acting as mediator in the trilogue between the two co-legislators, has stalled its approval.

The three regulatory bodies involved in the trialogue for the regulation – the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the European Union – had different views and opinions when it came to topics such as recyclability of plastics, recycled content, restrictions on packaging formats and, particulalry, on reuse targets for 2030 and 2040, Garcia noted.

This point around reuse targets was emphasized by Delphine Close of soft drinks industry group UNESDA, and the chair of Petcore’s Reuse working group, presenting the different views of the three bodies around reuse targets. PETcore is the trade body representing PET value chains in Europe.

When looking at exemptions to the PPWR reuse targets, for example, the Commission has no real exemptions, the Council one exemption and the Parliament several.

But it is the timeframe that is of major concern for Close who pointed out that the three parties had little time to reach a decision on a regulation that will change the face of the European plastic packaging industry and its obligations to the circular economy.

“There were high expectations for clarity around the regulations by delegates of the conference but at a time when the legislators were still deep in discussions. Clearly industry needs to prepare for the regulations and how it will impact their business but are unable to do so while answers on so many points are still outstanding.” said Helen McGeough, Senior Analyst, Plastics Recycling at ICIS.

“To mirror comments made by participants in the event, regulation around recycled plastics is building at a rate which challenges the value chain to keep pace with. Clarity can only support the value chain in delivering on those requirements.

That said, the atmosphere was positively charged during the networking breaks, with this sector demonstrating high levels of collaboration to the common goal of improving the circularity of PET.”

The audience did not hide its dissatisfaction with some comments from the Commission speakers on the status of non-plastic packaging potential exemptions from the recycled content quotes. Shortly after the Petcore conference a legal assessment was profiled by the European Plastic Converters trade association (EuPC) to highlight that the bans on plastic film for a six-pack of bottles, for example, or exemption of coated paper packaging from recycled content quotes are likely not to be compatible with EU law.

Time Running Out

The European Parliament will end its mandate in April, and a new parliament will take its place, so the race is on to get the final vote on the PPWR though before then.

Nicholas Hodac, Director General of UNESDA said there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the Commission’s and the Parliament’s priorities ahead of the new EU policy cycle in 2024 but stressed that a major focus for UNESDA “has to be the proper implementation of EU legislation that was adopted”.

Hodac pointed out that while climate change is likely to remain a top priority during the next parliamentary cycle, focus could shift towards more nature-based policies such as nature restoration, restoration of biodiversity and protection of water resources.

Questions Around Imports

One of the main topics brought up during the course of the event was the stance on the flow of waste and products containing recycled material both into and out of the EU.

There was a lot of uncertainty around this particular topic, even from Wolfgang Trunk, team leader of the Commission’s DG Environment working group who stated this was the “most delicate” and “most uncomfortable” point for him during his presentation.

Trunk pointed to the fact that the Commission’s current proposal relating to the volume of recycled content in products is for products ‘placed on the market’, which, Trunk said, implies these products would be placed on the EU market.

Trunk said this failed to take into account imports of products such as PET bottles, for example, that are manufactured in the US but exported to the EU. The current wording would imply this imported product would also be required to meet the same recycled content targets as bottles manufactured in the EU and contain recycled content from EU-produced waste.

This contradiction illustrates both the complexity and ambiguity of the wording in the current legislation and raises the question of how the industry should interpret it.

On top of this, the ban on exporting waste from the EU to non-OECD countries will take effect from 2026, but, Trunk said, these same non-OECD countries can still be allowed to produce products with recycled content if they fulfill certain conditions.

Growth Areas

Outside of the complexity of legislation, there were updates on the textiles and depolymerisation markets as well as the ever-popular tray to tray sector where design for recycling will play a key role in bringing recycling to an industrial scale. These demonstrated the ability of the PET industry to innovate to achieve recycling solutions.

Long Path Ahead

The industry faces many challenges, however, when it comes to legislation, particularly due to the current lack of clarity coming from Brussels around specific targets, timelines and what might or might not be counted towards recycled content.

The trade group’s conference showed the willingness to work together to address these. All it needs now is for Europe’s legislative bodies to keep pace and clarify targets and requirements.

Insight by Matt Tudball and Helen McGeough

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