EU Harmonized food packaging legislation is speeding up

Last October, AXON contributed to the 16th European Food and Feed Law Conference by a session on circular economy, waste, packaging law, alternative materials, and the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive. While we were back then still waiting for proposals by the European Commission on packaging (waste) and bioplastics, these long-awaited proposals have now been published. This blogpost discusses the main take-aways from these recent European proposals and provides deeplinks to the texts involved.

Packaging problem
Packaging plays without a doubt a very important role in the placing on the market of food. It protects and preserves food, and therefore contributes to increased shelf life and reduced amounts of food waste. It also offers a way to communicate food information to the consumer. At the same time, packaging, just like anything else we create, leaves an impact on the environment. As communicated in the Green Deal, it is the EU’s ambition to lower our amount of packaging waste as part of the green transition.

In a search to meet the EU’s goals for a circular economy and climate-neutrality by 2050, bio-plastics are emerging on the market as alternatives for conventional plastics. Bio-plastics can bring several advantages such as making packaging production less dependent on fossil fuels and reducing litter as they may dissolve over time. Their use is however not without challenges as discussed in an earlier blogpost. To improve the understanding around these materials and to clarify where bio-plastics can bring genuine environmental benefits, the European Commission recently published a Communication towards other EU bodies on a policy framework for bio-plastics. As is already clear from existing rules on environmental claims, the Commission stresses that generic claims on packaging such as ‘bio-plastic’ should be avoided to stay away from greenwashing and misleading consumers. It furthermore proposes to only label bio-plastic packaging and other products as ‘biobased’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ when it meets certain conditions. The main take-aways for businesses are as follows:


  • specify the exact and measurable share of biobased plastic content in the packaging; and
  • ensure that the biomass is sustainably sourced – priority should be given to the use of organic waste or by-products rather than to primary biomass.


  • specify that biodegradable packaging should not be littered;
  • do not label products covered under the SUP Directive (the scope of which we discussed in more detail here and here) and other short-lived applications and/or litter-prone packaging as biodegradable; and
  • specify how long the product needs to biodegrade, under which circumstances and in what environment.


  • label only industrially compostable plastics that comply with relevant standards – the Commission will request the revision of the European Standard EN 13432:2000 for this purpose;
  • use industrially compostable plastics only if the environmental benefits are higher than their alternatives and if they do not have a negative impact on the quality of the compost, taking into account consumer behavior; and
  • specify the way in which the packaging should be disposed of using pictograms.

The Communication on bio-plastics refers, where relevant, to the Commission proposal for a Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). The aforementioned proposal was also published at the end of last year and is discussed next.

Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation
Before diving into the Commission’s proposal for a PPWR, it is useful to provide some background on the legal framework for packaging waste as guided by the Waste Framework Directive (WFD).

The WFD (currently under revision) introduces the waste hierarchy for waste management, which establishes an order of the preferred disposing route. Waste should in the first place be prevented/reduced. If this is not possible, re-use and thereafter recycling options should be looked into. Only in case this is (or is no longer) an option, energy recovery through incineration or ultimately landfill disposal should be considered. To reduce waste, the WFD also introduces the polluter pays principle and the extended producer responsibility, based on which the waste producer bears financial and/or organizational responsibility for the management of the waste stage at the end of a product’s life cycle.

The proposal for the PPWR is the Commission’s answer to the revision of the current Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), which focuses on reducing, re-using and recycling packaging. The choice of legal instrument (a regulation rather than a directive) should facilitate a harmonized approach across the various EU Member States. The Regulation is however not an easy read. Although it contains only 65 legal articles, it includes many exceptions to the measures it proposes. For companies that want to get a feel of what to expect, we therefore compiled a list of the most important topics addressed in the Commission’s proposal for the PPWR.

  • Requirements for packaging to be recyclable. From 2030, all packaging will have to be ‘designed for recycling’ in accordance with state-of-the-art collection, sorting and recycling processes. As of 2035, packaging must be ‘recycled at scale’, meaning that packaging must be sufficiently and effectively collected, sorted and recycled in practice. Further details on the design for recycling and recycling at scale requirements shall follow by delegated acts adopted by the Commission.
  • Minimum amount of recycled plastic content. From 2030, plastic packaging shall contain certain minimum amounts (depending on the type of packaging) of recycled plastic content. These amounts shall further increase by 2040. Instructions as to the methodology for the calculation and verification of the percentage of recycled content will follow by an implementing act. Where information on the recycled content is communicated on the packaging, harmonized labels shall be used for such.
  • Mandatory industrial composability for certain packaging. Think of coffee and tea bags or other units, sticky labels attached to fruit and vegetables, and very lightweight plastic carrier bags. The list of packaging that need to be industrially compostable may be extended in future. Packaging that could have been designed as re-usable shall not be presented as compostable.
  • Sorting instructions. Labels with information on the material composition shall be applied on packaging to help consumers identifying the appropriate disposal route.
  • Rules on re-use and refill. Certain economic operators in the take-away and beverage sector will be subject to targets on re-use and refill. Re-usable packaging must fulfill a set of criteria, including being part of a system for re-use. Information facilitating re-use must be provided on the packaging via a QR code or otherwise. In case of products offered through refill, end-consumers shall be provided with information to ensure safe and hygienic use of the product.
  • Increased rules for manufacturers to demonstrate compliance. Manufacturers manufacturing packaging under their own name or trademark, or having packaging designed or manufactured for use with their products, are subject to increased rules to demonstrate compliance with the PPWR. Where a manufacturer is supplied with packaging or packaging materials from a third party, such supplier must provide the manufacturer with all information necessary to demonstrate conformity.
  • New roles of economic operators. A system of checks & balances is introduced by giving authorized representatives, importers and distributors specific verification tasks to ensure packaging is placed on the market in accordance with the PPWR.
  • Harmonized criteria for modulated extended producer responsibility fees. Financial contributions to be paid by producers (those making available packaging for the first time in the EU under their own name of trademark) to take responsibility for the management of packaging at their end-of-life shall be modulated based on the recyclability of the packaging and the presence of recycled plastic content.
  • Reduced empty space in e-commerce and other packaging. The weight and volume of packaging shall be minimized as much as possible. The ratio of empty space in e-commerce and other pre-defined packaging in relation to the packaged product(s) shall not exceed 40%.
  • Prohibition on packaging in certain formats and for certain purposes. This mainly concerns certain single-use applications such as in the HORECA sector and for small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables. The list of prohibited packaging is presented in Annex V to the proposed PPWR and can be amended by delegated act.
  • A deposit-return system for single-use plastic beverage bottles and beverage cans. Where these systems do not yet exist for packaging up to 3 liters, such shall be implemented by 2029. For other packaging, Member States are encouraged to voluntarily set up deposit-return or other systems to enable re-use or refill.

Take-away for businesses
As follows from the above, EU food packaging legislation is currently under revision: sustainable packaging will be the new norm. Although the Communication is not and the proposal for the PPWR is not yet binding law, companies involved with food packaging are advised to take the published information serious and to prepare for the enactment of official legislation. This does not only mean staying up-to-date with upcoming legal requirements applicable to the business at stake, but also being ready to involve and control partners in the supply chain through (revised) legal contracts.

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