Verónica Martínez | Fundació ENT
According to the data reported by Ecoembes, 1,17 million tons of light packaging (including plastic, metals, and beverage cartons) were placed into the Spanish market in 2018. From that according to ENT Environment & Management (2021a) only 0,62 million tons were separately collected and only 0,50 million tons were sorted to be recycled. The latter is far away from the amount that will be effectively reprocessed by recyclers. For example, PET recyclers can only recycle 45-50% of the material included in the PET bales (offered in Spain) to obtain food-grade recycled PET (CIDEC, 2021).
We can find multiple causes for this low performance. An obvious one is the poor sorting activities carried out by citizens and large waste producers. After more than 20 years of yellow containers in Spain, there are still many waste generators who do not know that all light packaging (regardless of the material) should be thrown away in the yellow container, except the compostable packaging that should be thrown away with the organic waste. Either they don’t know the sorting guidelines or they know them but don’t apply them.
However, this is not the sole cause of problem, the production of such packaging is also an important cause of the problem. Most producers seem to have a lack of understanding about (or/and interest in) how the waste generated by their product is managed once placed in the market. The latter does not refer to the theoretical recycling potential of the packaging materials of the product but about the real management of the whole packaging in the place where it is sold. For example, even if PET can theoretically be 100% recyclable, a bottle mainly made of PET will never be completely recycled, because not all the bottle is PET, and depending on the design it may not be well sorted in the sorting or recycling plants (ENT Environment & Management, 2021b).
Something similar happens with compostable packaging, even if this type of packaging is biodegradable in specific conditions, it may easily end up not being biodegraded. If consumers throw such packaging in the yellow container, it will end up in a sorting plant for light packaging that may be separated as a residue or end up in a plastic bale becoming a potential problem for the recyclers. Conversely, if consumers throw the packaging into the organic waste bin, it will go to a biowaste treatment plant where often they cannot yet process compostable packaging together with the food waste and may also separate it as residue as other plastic impurities. Without this practical knowledge about the end-of-life of a product it is impossible to design packaging with lower environmental impacts over the whole life cycle than conventional packaging.
This way of individual acting (both by generators and producers) without caring about the impacts of their activities downstream, has been working in the lineal economy but it clearly hinders the transition towards a circular economy. For a circular economy to occur, a systemic change is needed in society and all the life-cycle stages of a product should be involved in the change and work together for the system to succeed. Two initiatives working at different scales demonstrate that collaboration between actors for circularity is coming.
First, there is the EU’s mandate of including 25% of recycled PET in beverage bottles by 2025 and 30% of recycled plastic in all plastic beverage bottles included in the Single-Used Plastic Directive. For this target to be met all actors should work together. Recyclers depend on what producers place on the market, producers depend on what recyclers place on the market and in between there are waste producers and Public Administrations with their collection and sorting activities.
However, it should be mentioned that even if the recycled content of a product is important, with or without EU obligation, the recyclability of a product is (at least) as important as its recycled content because this will allow the product to be recycled after its use. Giving more importance to the recycled content than to the recyclability of the product can hinder the long-term circularity of materials (being able to recycle the material into the same product more than once). For example, some shampoo or milk producers have changed their packaging from HDPE to rPET but have used additives to ensure the opacity of the rPET which makes this rPET not any longer recyclable into another bottle. Opaque rPET cannot be recycled again (in the best cases it will be downcycled into other products). The same happens when rPET is inked with strong colours.
Recyclability is the key aspect of the second initiative, el “sello de reciclabilidad” (the “recyclability label”). This initiative is a clear example of a collaboration between producers and recyclers to increase the real recyclability of products. It first evaluates the real recyclability of a packaging product in the place where the product is sold, and it is a powerful tool to address the lack of understanding of the waste management of the products (mentioned above). Producers get a label with the degree of real recyclability of their product to be added to their product. However, the publication of the degree of real recyclability is not likely to be adopted by producers (and be useful for consumers) until misleading slogans (such as 100% recyclable) are forbidden.
Not only producers can act for the circularity of the packaging placed in the market. For example, consumers could question the content of the slogans written on some labels and skip purchasing products with obvious misleading advertisements. Consumers could also apply the waste hierarchy principle to all their purchase choice where prevention and reuse are the top priorities. Recyclers could set clear guidelines about what can be recycled (not downcycled) and (if possible) establishing agreements with producers that respect such guidelines to guarantee the long-term circularity of the material. Public Administrations could regulate for ambitious high-quality collection and sorting as well as forbidding misleading slogans.
CIDEC, 2021. R-PET la mejor solución para garantizar la circularidad de los envases.
ENT Environment & Management., 2021a. Estudio sobre la viabilidad técnica y ambiental de la implantación de un Sistema de Depósito, Devolución y Retorno (SDDR) en España. Report for TRAGSATEC, Vilanova i la Geltrú (Barcelona). The report can be found as annex (from page 490) in the link https://www.miteco.gob.es/es/calidad-y-evaluacion-ambiental/participacion-publica/210929espana_sddr_ttecent_miterd_web_tcm30-531126.pdf
ENT Environment & Management, 2021b. Anàlisi de les necessitats d’R+D+I en nous materials per a envasos de begudes. The report can be found in: http://mediambient.gencat.cat/web/.content/home/ambits_dactuacio/empresa_i_produccio_sostenible/economia_verda/INTERREG/210601-Informe-R-D-I-plastics-1.pdf
 Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.