Patrick ten Brink imagines a more circular future in which legislation is stronger and fairer, but reflects on the various hurdles that must be cleared in order to get there.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) advocates for progressive and protective policies to create a better environment in the European Union and beyond in order to fulfil the vision of a better future. In practice, that means recommending new or reformed legislation, setting policy targets, changes in governance practice, suggestions for tools, and market-based instruments.
According to the bureau, the EU should regulate via clear objectives, targets and measures to drive progress towards a zero-carbon, clean, circular economy and to create a level playing field in Europe. It highlights that business initiatives and voluntary agreements have proven insufficient to enable the shift from a linear model to a circular one, and that these initiatives work better if they complement regulations instead of substituting them.
“One of the challenges regulators face is to effectively combine legal requirements, economic incentives and effective information schemes. It is important to not pretend that only one instrument can do the job on its own. We need policy mixes and innovative governance for systemic change,” says Patrick ten Brink, Deputy Secretary General and Director of EU Policy.
Lack of EU legislative action leads to individual action
The EEB also promotes reaching purely recyclable and reusable packaging on the market by 2030. One of the challenges for this is determining how to disseminate reusability in the food retail and takeaway sector. It argues that only policymakers can achieve this, as existing business cases tend to be isolated and small scale.
"It is important to not pretend that only one instrument can do the job on its own. We need policy mixes and innovative governance for systemic change."
Similarly, it points to the current revision of food contact materials legislation, which represents an opportunity to, among other things, phase out problematic substances. “The level of detail should be really demanding when it comes to chemical content to avoid health and environmental risks,” explains ten Brink. “There are zero and low-risk alternatives that should be promoted.”
The bureau also highlights the lack of EU legislative action as having led to some member states taking their own action. “France, for example, has banned Bisphenol A in all packaging, containers and utensils coming into contact with food, and Denmark has banned the use of PFAS in paper and cardboard food packaging,” he points out.
“The key to the upcoming reform is to ensure a level playing field for businesses by harmonizing the EU legislation to the highest national norms, so that all citizens are protected from harmful chemicals in FCM, regardless of where they live, and so that all businesses are subject to the same rules, regardless where they are based.”
A compromise between banning and incentives is necessary
In terms of whether EU legislators should be banning or favoring incentives, the EEB argues that both are needed. “If there are no bans, then there is the risk that the cheapest, often most resource-intensive or polluting solutions will drive the competition to the bottom line,” says ten Brink. “If there are no incentives, then we cannot expect to transform the market towards the best in class in a given time. We need both push and pull mechanisms.”
One potentially good hybrid way of incentivizing packaging reuse, for example, could be to ensure that a certain share of packaging extended producer responsibility fees is invested in developing reuse systems, while companies that produce packaging which ends up in the ocean pay for the clean-up costs.
“Having businesses around a table should be a chance to reimagine how we deliver products in packaging,” says ten Brink. “For example, creating shared reuse pooling infrastructure and standards for European businesses. Packaging reuse will be the future, and European companies have an opportunity to lead on this globally.”
Better regulation must focus on achieving objectives effectively, efficiently and fairly
Reflecting on the future of EU legislation, the EEB contends that better regulation should be focused on how to achieve the greatest benefits and how to achieve overall objectives effectively, efficiently and fairly – the “Think Sustainability First” principle. Despite the ambition of the European Green Deal and its Green Oath, there remains the significant risk that less and weaker legislation will be agreed than is needed to achieve a sustainable future.
Ten Brink offers some closing thoughts.
“The future of the food industry should be circular. In thirty years, the food industry should be more local, seasonal and with direct links from farm to fork, organic, waste-free, based on vegetable proteins rather than meat. It should be safe and sustainable by default rather than seeing sustainable solutions reserved for an elite, and must come with clear diet information.”
He also issues a reminder that politics is the art of the possible.
“However, if and where the possible does too little to avoid dramatic climate change, biodiversity loss and major negative health risks, then the future challenges will be impossible for society to deal with. Appreciating the impossibility of truly being able to deal with climate change and other risks and existential crisis in the future should make us reflect again on what we perceive as possible today and make us reconsider the level of courage and ambition for the decisions in our remit.”
While this may seem a philosophical point, Ten Brink says that it is actually one of deep relevance to the ambition we integrate into our laws given their impacts on the future we want, and the future we may wish to avoid.