While policymakers continue to build appropriate legislation, food packaging companies can lead the change, says Petri Sarvamaa, Member of the European Parliament.
Central to the European Green Deal, the new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) aims to ensure that resources are kept circulating in the EU economy for as long as possible.
The plan presents concrete actions to address sectors that consume the most materials and where the potential for circularity is high, such as packaging.
"The share of recycling and composting among waste treatment methods ranges from 67 percent in Slovenia to 8 percent in Malta while the EU average is 46 percent."
However, Petri Sarvamaa, Member of the European Parliament, thinks the EU should develop its methods to support the action plan in order to make all packaging—including plastics—recyclable by 2030.
“From a legislative perspective, we should reevaluate the tools that have been created to harmonize recycling methods in member states,” Sarvamaa says.
"Although we have implemented directives on waste management in the EU, waste treatment still varies broadly across the union. For example, the share of recycling and composting among waste treatment methods ranges from 67 percent in Slovenia to 8 percent in Malta while the EU average is 46 percent."
Sarvamaa says mandatory sanction mechanisms or increased bureaucracy should be avoided. Instead, governments should push new initiatives that encourage innovative ways to make packaging more sustainable.
One such initiative could be extending producers’ responsibility when it comes to recycling packaging waste and creating deposit return schemes for bottles.
A lack of coherent policy and expertise in circularity is a problem to be solved
Sarvamaa points out two major challenges facing policymakers.
"First is how to convince all member states to follow regulation and contribute to a circular economy in general," he says, adding that every member state should see the potential in this sustainable transformation.
"Second is the lack of EU and national indicators and targets. There is no coherent policy framework or legislation to support the circular economy goals at EU level. A lack of professionals and education around circular economy is an issue that needs to be solved to credibly develop a circular economy in the future."
EU member states should share best practices
The EU should also be developing a well-functioning internal market for high quality secondary raw materials.
"It is important to find solutions to bring international distance selling and online platforms, for example, under the same regulation as companies operating in the EU."
Furthermore, Sarvamaa maintains that member states could learn a lot from each other; multilateral cooperation should be strengthened.
"Institutions that have mastered the problems of circular economy and recycling should be encouraged to share their best practices in the European Union. This would ease the burden for member states that do not yet have the knowledge or innovation in this particular field."
Food packaging companies should respond to customer demand for more sustainability
While the legislative machinery works to build a legal foundation, companies can lead the change by innovating sustainable and recyclable materials.
"They should engage in healthy competition with each other to find the best packaging solutions," Sarvamaa says.
"Food brands and packaging companies can offer more value to their customers by enabling them to choose more sustainable options. And I don’t mean this as a single marketing campaign—it has to be written in their strategies and be one of their guiding business principles."
Moreover, Sarvamaa sees transparency as a major trend that will drive the food industry.
"Increasingly, consumers want to know where and how their food has been produced—including its packaging. More and more, they appreciate brands that prioritize packaging sustainability and recyclability. This will influence food labeling, the composition of food products and food marketing claims."
For the EU’s part, Sarvamaa says that increased support for small and medium-sized enterprises, a stronger single market for food and drinks, more straightforward regulation, sustainable finance, and research and innovation will enable packaging sector to scale up.
"The Farm to Fork Strategy should be channeled to support these efforts and minimize any barriers that food chain actors may face in contributing to the overall objective of more sustainable food systems," he emphasizes.
Most promising innovations are in the bioeconomy sector
Sarvamaa believes that the most promising innovations and trends will be seen in the bioeconomy sector. He says the Finnish packaging industry has long been a trendsetter in developing sustainable and renewable packaging materials.
"This of course benefits the whole industry and the EU. It has been a pleasure to witness that in Finland, the largest companies have reshaped their food packaging in a way that uses less plastic or makes use of completely or partially recyclable materials."
At the same time, we are still too dependent on plastic.
"But my answer here is rather about incentives to the plastic industry to innovate than simply get rid of all plastics."
Sarvamaa concludes that the transition to circular economy requires more resources from businesses.
"Fortunately, the EU—through the new LIFE funding program for 2021–2027, which is dedicated exclusively to environment, climate and energy—will continue its support for the transition to a circular economy."