Avoiding packaging is a top priority, as long as it does not increase the environmental footprint of the product (e.g. more food waste with less/different packaging).
All unavoidable packaging should be based on efficient and effective resource management and thus be usable for as long as possible, reusable and recyclable to a high standard.
The material and product design should consistently be such that no toxic effects occur along the value chain and the harmless subsequent use is ensured.
Where it makes sense and is possible, secondary materials or alternatives to fossil-based primary materials should be used.
Bottles made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are among the packaging that has been systematically collected, sorted and recycled the longest in Europe.
In contrast to bottles, hardly any other packaging has been designed to be recyclable, as the conflict between food durability and recyclable packaging design is a major challenge here.
The investments are not economically attractive for recyclers, as the mixed price they achieve for high and low quality recyclates plus the participation fee of the dual systems is not sufficient to finance them.
Another reason for the low use of recyclate is that the only recyclate approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for food packaging, currently polyethylene terephthalate (PET), comes from the single-use deposit system. (As described above)
A circular packaging industry must be thought of in European terms
According to requirements of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), only recyclate from the closed deposit bottle stream may currently be used for food packaging. A drift of secondary material from a functioning cycle into packaging for which there are currently no recycling options must be avoided in the future. In addition, mechanisms and strategies should be worked out for the future on how further recyclates can be permitted as secondary raw materials for food contact.
The following figure shows that in Germany mainly polyethylene (low density polyethylene (LDPE) - and high density polyethylene (HDPE)), polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were processed; they cover about eighty per cent of the total volume. PET in particular is used almost exclusively in packaging.
However, which is the best packaging alternative for their product, case-by-case assessments are not practical. Firstly, a life cycle assessment would have to be carried out for all potential packaging types (and their potential infrastructure).
One of the main obstacles to closing the loop is that too little attention is paid to the recyclability of packaging. In design as well as in production. Composite materials still dominate the market and do not advance the circular economy at all.
Despite increased efforts to make the dual system better known and more comprehensible, the misdirection rate of "post-consumer" packaging waste is high. On the one hand, this reduces the quality of the recyclate, and on the other hand, the dual system loses considerable quantities that could potentially be recycled, but are burned by disposal in residual waste. In future, sorting in households in this country should be carried out entirely according to materials instead of according to the financing of disposal.
Chemical recycling and bio-based plastics can be a solution if they make environmental sense compared to fossil-based virgin materials. To ensure this, energy balances need to be drawn up, emissions checked, health risks analysed and the environmental balance seen on an industrial scale.
But even here, one should analyse beforehand whether this solution is really more sustainable.
We still have a long way to go to achieve a successful circular economy, but companies should address the issue sooner rather than later and upgrade and change their product portfolio accordingly. Changes and regulations will come to further advance the circularity of packaging.