In just over three months, you can easily contribute to reducing littering and promoting the circular economy. All you need to do is say, “I want my food in a reusable container” the next time you visit a fast-food establishment. It shouldn’t be more complicated than that because, by law, all such establishments must offer alternatives to single-use packaging for food and beverages starting from January 1, 2024. Well, not all of them, of course; there are exceptions that prove the rule, but we’ll come back to those a little later and start from the beginning.
EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive Becomes Swedish Regulation
The background to these new rules is the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive, which was adopted on June 5, 2019. The directive aims to reduce the environmental impact of certain plastics. In Sweden, it is implemented through Regulation (2021:996) on Single-Use Products (in Swedish), which goes further and includes for example also requirements for those providing drinks or fast food in disposable cups or containers, even if the packaging is not solely made of plastic.
In Sweden, the goal is to reduce the consumption of single-use cups and containers by 50 percent by 2026.
Fast food is defined in the regulation as food that:
- Is intended to be eaten immediately on the premises or taken to be eaten shortly after the sale at another location,
- Is intended to be eaten from the packaging, and
- Is ready to eat without further cooking, heating, or other preparation by the consumer.
Which actors and materials on the market are covered?
On New Year’s Day in 2024, sections 17-23 of the Swedish regulation will come into effect. In practice, these sections stipulate that reusable alternatives to single-use packaging must be offered by those who sell fast food and beverages. New Year’s Day is synonymous with pizza for many, and rightly so, as Swedes indulge in pizza on this day. According to Foodora, approximately four pizzas are sold per second when we collectively, and at least temporarily, forget our New Year’s resolutions. However, we are unlikely to see many reusable pizza boxes on this day. That’s because if fast food or beverages are provided in packaging made solely of cardboard, they are exempt from these requirements.
Worth noting is that many paper cups and take-away containers have a thin plastic lining on the inside and are therefore not covered by the exemption. Another exception is that sales outlets selling fewer than 150 single-use cups and/or single-use food containers per day are not subject to the regulation.
Despite these exceptions, thousands of grocery stores, kiosks, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, festivals, and arenas will be subject to the new rules.
What Will Be the Visible Effects of the New Rules?
Even if you don’t regularly delve into various EU directives, you have most likely noticed various effects of these in recent years. Disposable cutlery and straws, which were previously typically made of plastic, are now commonly made of other materials such as wood and paper. If you’ve bought a drink in a PET bottle recently, you have probably noticed another change that is a direct consequence of EU legislation. The small plastic cap is no longer in your hand after you unscrew it; instead, it now often remains on the bottle. This is a rule from the EU directive that many producers have already started to comply with, even though the legislation only comes into force in July next year. . The highly debated plastic bag tax, which Climate and Environment Minister Romina Pourmokhtari (L) recently announced will be abolished in November 2024, is not, however, a result of the Single-Use Plastics Directive but was introduced to meet the goals of another EU directive – the Packaging Directive.
Regardless of what one may think about the plastic tax or caps on PET bottles, the idea behind such legislation is to change the behavior of producers and consumers so that we use resources much more efficiently.
Plastic lids that stays on – one of several direct effects of the EU:s directive. Photo: iStock
How Well-Prepared Is the Industry?
There are signals suggesting that the industry is surprisingly unprepared for these transformative changes. Few (or none?) of the major food industry players seem to want to take the lead in this transition. This is problematic, but also to some extent understandable. Let’s delve into why.
Through the Returnable project, run by Axfoundation and Chalmers Industriteknik together with several major players in the grocery retail industry, we have learned a lot about the challenges of building sustainable circular systems for reusable products. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to circular systems and return logistics is that it requires significant cross-system infrastructural investments in centralized laundry facilities, tracking solutions, and IT systems, which typically take time to implement. Larger companies may choose to have their own system for ensuring that the company’s packaging is returned, cleaned, and reused. For many smaller players, however, it may be tough to bear the initial investment required to establish a reuse system.
In addition to the physical space and other resources required, it is clear that there is a significant need for external actors to handle the circulation of cups and containers. There are a number of actors, of varying sizes, that provide services to meet some or all of the needs and requirements of such a system. Among the more established actors in Sweden are Panter and Vytal. An inspiring city-wide example can be found in Seattle, USA. There, the city, along with a large number of partners, has come together to create ReuseSeattle, a circular system with a central laundry and a network of connected sales outlets that gradually spreads throughout the city. There are lessons to be learned here.
There is a significant need for external actors to handle the circulation of cups and containers. Photo: iStock.com/Xsandra
But January 1st is Coming Soon, So Why Not Just Go for It?
In addition to the reasons mentioned for the slow transition, there is another variable to consider. More legislation is on the way from the EU. As mentioned at the outset, the Swedish regulation on single-use products goes further than the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive, which only covers single-use products made of plastic. This will change when the current Packaging Directive is replaced by a new Packaging Regulation (in Swedish). When the new regulation is adopted, it will replace all or parts of the Swedish framework (in Swedish) that takes effect next year. The final proposal is expected to be published on October 2nd, and presented to the EU Parliament. This will be followed by trilogue discussions between the EU Parliament, the Council, and the Commission, and then the new Packaging Regulation can come into force no earlier than the first quarter of 2025.
However, the proposal is not yet set in stone, and there have been objections from various quarters, which could lead to protracted negotiations. Critics point out that many of the provisions lack a scientific basis, and there is a risk that the overall environmental benefit may be negative. As an example, a report by McKinsey & Company compares how reusable plastic containers (made from polypropylene) and single-use paper containers affect the economy, climate, and the environment. The report’s models struggle to balance the equation because the production, transportation, and washing of reusable containers generate significant greenhouse gas emissions. The report’s conclusion is that highly efficient rotation systems and a large number of rotations per container, up to 200 (in Swedish), are needed to achieve positive net climate effects compared to a system based on single-use containers.
There is also sharp criticism that a plastic ban results in increased production and consumption of various types of paper packaging. In a recently published report by a consortium of environmental organizations, led by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), it is pointed out that paper packaging is the single largest source of packaging waste in the EU. With 32.7 million tons of waste in 2020, paper packaging accounts for more waste than the two next categories of packaging waste, plastic and glass, combined.
Different consultative bodies argue for various exceptions from the regulation, and there is therefore uncertainty about what the final long-term rules will be for packaging and single-use products. From this perspective, it is understandable that businesses are somewhat cautious, as they do not want to make significant investments in a system that may change within a few years.
But fundamentally, it is positive that significant steps are now being taken towards a more circular economy, leaving behind the outdated take-make-waste mentality. Major changes are often complex and painful, but I am convinced that in the near future, we will look at single-use packaging made from fossil fuel with astonishment.
The future is circular, so start embracing it now, one take-away meal at a time.
Three Practical Actions to Take:
- Consumers: Pop the question – can I get a reusable container, please? Start now. It never hurts to ask one too many times.
- Sales outlets: The sooner you start transitioning from a linear to a circular flow, the better. Put demands on your packaging supplier and collaborate with others to find efficient circular systems.
- Decision-makers: Examine what actions the municipality, region, and state can take to facilitate the transition. Remove obstacles that make it difficult for businesses and consumers to do the right thing.