European Parliament
in action
Highlights 1999-2004

Parliament - an overview
Reform of the EU
Citizens' rights
Justice and home affairs
External relations
Environment /
Consumer protection
Environmental liability
Air pollution
Greenhouse gases
Auto Oil II
Electrical waste
Packaging waste
Food safety
Noise pollution
Human tissues and cells
Transport / Regional policy
Agriculture / Fisheries
and monetary policy
Employment and social policy / Women's rights
Internal market / Industry / Energy / Research

EPP-ED PSE Group ELDR GUE/NGL The Greens| European Free Alliance UEN EDD/PDE

Packaging waste - prevention is better than cure

In 2001, with enlargement on the horizon, the EU decided to update the 1994 Packaging Waste Directive designed to prevent packaging waste and encourage ways of salvaging the raw materials found in it. Ambitious new recycling targets were introduced. The European Parliament would have liked the new targets to take effect sooner but it did manage to ensure that the revised legislation places stronger emphasis on prevention.

Packaging waste today accounts for around 20% of the weight and 40% of the volume of municipal refuse, most of which ends up in incinerators or landfill sites. A packaging policy that reduces waste not only contributes to a cleaner environment but can also boost the economy by cutting production costs and even stimulating job creation in the recovery and recycling industries.

The new directive, which came into force in February 2004, allows Member States to decide how to achieve their targets and hence how to divide responsibility for this between industry and public authorities. However, many industries are bound to be affected, since most products are packaged. The strictest targets will apply to packaging containing steel, wood, glass, plastic or paper.

Recycling and recovery

Recycling and recovery are two closely related ways of dealing with packaging waste. Broadly speaking, recycling means reprocessing back to the same or another material (e.g. paper into paper; paper into compost). Recovery is recycling plus energy recovery, for example using waste as fuel in cement kilns.

As regards recycling, the revised legislation calls for a substantial increase in the overall target compared to the 1994 directive, raising the minimum target for each Member State to achieve by 31 December 2008 from 25% to 55% of its total packaging waste. And it sets minimum targets, with the same deadline, for recycling of specific materials found in such waste, i.e. 60% by weight for glass, 60% for paper and board, 50% for metals, 22.5% for plastics and 15% for wood. In addition, the Member States must take steps to encourage the manufacture of packaging and other products using materials extracted from packaging waste.

As regards recovery, the new directive leaves unchanged the minimum target laid down in the 1994 directive. This means that by 31 December 2008, each Member State will be required to recover at least 60% by weight of its packaging waste.

However, the new law clarifies the definition of 'recovery'. It now includes burning packaging waste at incineration plants with energy recovery facilities that extract and use the energy which is a by-product of incineration. The EU Court of Justice had previously ruled that burning of waste could not be counted towards the Packaging Waste Directive's recovery targets but must be regarded purely as waste disposal, even if energy was generated as a result.

To ensure that Member States do not get round the rules by exporting their waste to non-EU countries with lower environmental standards, Parliament inserted a clause into the legislation stipulating that packaging waste exported from the EU can only count towards targets if the exporter can prove that the recovery or recycling operation used meets conditions broadly equivalent to those prescribed by EU law.

Prevention - or the 'greening' of packaging producers

Another of Parliament's achievements was to ensure that the revision of the Packaging Directive also maintained the focus on prevention which was one of the major planks of the 1994 legislation - rather than just setting new recycling targets as the Commission had originally envisaged. As a result of prompting from Parliament, producers will have to take greater responsibility for minimising the environmental impact of their packaging.

MEPs also insisted that the Commission should report by June 2005 on the impact of the directive. The report must look at ways of making packaging waste prevention simpler and more effective and also compare the costs and benefits of re-use versus recycling.

But what counts as packaging?

There have been differing interpretations of the 1994 directive in the various Member States, especially over definitions of packaging. The revised legislation therefore makes a clearer distinction between 'packaging' and 'non-packaging', and lists examples. Sweet boxes and film overwrap around a CD case are regarded as packaging, whereas toolboxes, teabags, wax layers around cheese, sausage skins and flower pots 'intended to stay with the plant throughout its life' are not. MEPs secured a commitment that the list of examples would be reviewed by the Commission, with priority being given to the classification of items such as CD and video cases, flower pots, toilet rolls, sticky labels and wrapping paper. This would give greater clarity in future to the industries concerned.


The new legislation allows a degree of flexibility over recovery and recycling target dates, as some Member States would have difficulty in meeting the targets in the short term. Greece, with its many islands, Ireland, with its rural and mountain areas, and Portugal, where packaging consumption is very low, have all been granted an extension of the 2008 deadlines for recovery and recycling until the end of 2011.

Lastly, it was agreed as a result of pressure from Parliament that the new Member States should be granted extensions to the target dates on the basis of requests they have already lodged: 2012 for Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia; 2013 for Malta; 2014 for Poland and 2015 for Latvia.

Packaging and packaging waste: Dorette Corbey (PES, NL)
Official journal - final acts:
Packaging and packaging waste



  Publishing deadline: 2 April 2004