The European Federation of Bottled Waters (EFBW) has broken fresh ground in the plastics debate by announcing two new commitments on PET recycling: to collect 90% of all PET bottles and include at least 25% recycled PET in new bottles by 2025.
FoodBev had the opportunity to quiz EFBW president Jean-Pierre Deffis about the importance of these new commitments, the European bottled water industry’s track record on PET collection and recycling, and whether the industry is given a harder time than most beverage categories.
When did you begin to draw up an action plan for the industry’s use of rPET?
Our sector has a track record of sustainable resource management, from protecting water sources to helping manage our packaging end-of-life carefully and responsibly.
The industry’s interest for circular economy and recycling is therefore far from being recent. To give you a few examples, EFBW is a founding member of the European PET Bottled Platform (EPBP), a voluntary industry initiative providing design guidelines for recycling and evaluating new bottle packaging solutions and technologies to facilitate recycling. The EFBW has also participated in the EC-funded Polymark project which focused on enabling automatic sorting of food- and non-food contact plastic. Taking a broader view, the bottled water industry’s dedication to optimising its environmental performance is demonstrated through the EFBW’s voluntary participation in the Commission’s work on developing Product Environment Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR).
Additionally, for many years, European producers have spearheaded efforts to establish national recovery and recycling schemes for all packaging, including PET bottles, in partnership with local authorities. Our pledges are only an additional step to strengthen the efforts already underway to accelerate circularity, which are also in line with the EU’s Plastic Strategy.
Was the action plan hastened by more recent events, like revelations about microplastics?
The industry is following the subject of microplastics in the environment closely, but our actions towards accelerating circularity of PET bottles have no connection with this emerging issue.
The plastics industry has received a lot of negative press in recent months. Are you worried that bottled water might suffer from association and lose its halo?
The bottled water industry uses PET, glass or aluminium to package its products. PET in particular is chosen as it is a safe, recyclable and lightweight material that preserves the pristine qualities of natural mineral and spring waters while helping consumers stay hydrated anytime. PET drink bottles already achieve the highest recycling rate of any plastic packaging material in the EU. This is also a reason why non-food sectors are increasing PET use in their products. The key for our industry is that the material we use, is used again as new bottles or other products. We achieve this by working together to promote high collection rates, enhance recycling and prevent this resource from ever ending up as waste in landfills or in our oceans.
The plastics debate at the moment seems fixated on consumers, and whether they discard plastic bottles correctly. Is the industry guilty of passing the buck?
I do not believe that the plastics debate is focusing on consumers and the industry is definitely not passing the blame to them. With respect to the most recent EU initiatives, including the Plastics Strategy, the Commission’s actions have looked at the systems and extending producer’s responsibilities.
However, we recognise we cannot realise our announced pledges alone. Everyone in the chain plays a role and it will take a concerted, coordinated effort from many different actors to increase the collection and recycling of PET drink bottles. With this in mind, the federation has pledged action in four key areas which will consolidate the value chain so that all packaging materials, including PET, are given a second life. Part of that role is for consumers; there the industry will also support initiatives aimed at helping consumers understand the key role they can play in accelerating the circular economy by correctly sorting and disposing of their packaging.
Who is ultimately responsible for addressing post-consumer plastic waste?
PET drink bottles are recyclable. But if they are not collected, they may be part of the unacceptable phenomenon of littering, alongside other discarded items. Empty PET bottles should be viewed as valuable resources, not a waste. Even one bottle ending up as litter is one too many.
Producers are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and are committed to enhancing their recyclability and using materials such as recycled PET to promote circularity. Over the years, our industry has funded recovery and recycling organisations, such as the well-known Green Dot schemes.
Litter prevention is a shared responsibility between industry stakeholders, EU and local policymakers and authorities, and consumers. Here everyone plays a key role.
You’ve pledged to collect 90% of PET bottles and use at least 25% rPET by 2025. How ambitious a pledge is this, and how will you achieve it?
The pledge to collect 90% of all PET bottles by 2025 is indeed ambitious since the level of collection of PET bottles currently varies substantially across the EU. Some member states collect more than 90% of all plastic bottles, while others collect less than 20%. It will need joint efforts by bottled water producers, municipalities, retailers, recyclers, policy-makers and consumers to find the right solution for each market and put the correct infrastructure in place. This will take time. The pledge is therefore an EU average. Clearly, we anticipate some markets may be able to move faster than others.
The pledge on using at least 25% recycled PET in our new bottles by 2025, as an EU average, is no less ambitious. In order to achieve this, bottled water producers require a consistent supply of high-quality recycled material and sorting is key in that respect. Quality is crucial since bottles help to protect the original purity and unique specificities of natural mineral waters, ensuring they remain pure and microbiologically safe. As indicated in the EU’s Plastics Strategy, the European Commission also has an important role to play in authorising the recycling processes that are positively evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and in developing quality standards for recycled plastics.
Do European governments need to do more, and how can the EFBW be supported better?
EU member state authorities have to ensure that each country has an efficient waste management system in place, be it EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) or DRS (Deposit Refund Systems) so that high collection rates and quality sorting can be achieved for all the industry’s recyclable materials, especially PET bottles.
And I would like to stress again that the European Commission is currently working to authorise a number of plastic recycling processes for food-contact applications and to develop harmonised standards for recycled plastics. These actions will help to facilitate rPET uptake by the industry at member state level.
Furthermore, national governments can of course play a key role in putting financial incentives in place that will foster the uptake of recycled instead of virgin packaging materials.
Do you think the bottled water industry is facing an unfair amount of pressure over plastics compared to other beverage categories?
When it comes to plastic waste, all beverage producers have certainly been a focus area of the debate. And this is despite the fact that these sectors contribute disproportionately to high collection rates and recycling of the materials they use.
The bottled water industry is one of the best-in-class pupils. The sector uses PET, glass or aluminium to package its products. All these materials are recyclable and demonstrating considerable and steadily increasing collection and recycling performances.
Do you expect to be able to increase the amount of rPET that the bottled water industry uses on average beyond 2025? If so, how quickly?
The amount of rPET used by producers in new bottles varies across brands and is dependent on a number of factors, such as availability of high-quality recycled materials, local infrastructure, competition for other uses with lower and fewer quality requirements, and the regulatory environment.
By pledging to an average uptake of at least 25% rPET by 2025, EFBW is pushing for the necessary conditions to be in place at national level. This is of course only a first milestone.
As part of our industry’s pledge to enhancing R&D, the industry will be looking into alternative materials that can reduce our oil dependence while enabling environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. We are a driving force and engaged for innovations; it is of course quite difficult to predict the future, but we are encouraged by the motivation of others in the value chain.
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