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EU must cut litter without undermining growth, jobs and health

14 December 2018
by eub2 -- last modified 14 December 2018

Next week the EU institutions aim to approve a proposal for a Directive to reduce the impact of certain plastics products on the environment. Surprisingly, this also covers paper and cardboard items.


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By Mike Turner

This proposal is not just about plastics. The hidden agenda is constraining Europe's growing on-the-go food and drinks culture by depriving operators of the single use cups and containers that are vital for ensuring food hygiene and protecting public health.

The EU-level work has been dominated by officials from the Commission's environment department, environment ministers and their staff, and members of the European Parliament's environment committee.

Industry, employment, finance, agriculture and health ministries are totally absent from the debate, as are food safety agencies. All seem oblivious to the implications of what is on the table, largely because nobody in government has done the necessary background analysis.

The draft law aims to address understandable public concern about marine pollution. Yet appropriate impact assessment on the proposed measures was deliberately set aside by the European Commission in its rush to issue a proposal in response to Blue Planet II.

This is not the way the EU generally does business. It is resulting in a deeply flawed piece of legislation, hastily negotiated without adequate horizontal scrutiny. This directive will have unintended consequences for growth and employment if implemented as currently framed.

The business of serving food and drinks in the EU is worth about €450 billion today, about 5% of EU GDP, and is growing 5% annually.

Tens of thousands of net new jobs are created year-on-year, often for young people entering the world of work and for those who, for a variety of reasons, might not easily find a job elsewhere. Contrast this with the rest of the agro-food sector where employment is static at best.

The growing on-the-go sector sustains a significant part of the whole food chain – farmers, food companies, coffee shops, restaurants, retailers, vending companies and internet delivery services. With the changes in the retail sector, it is food service that is keeping many town centres alive.

Recyclable purpose-designed cups, containers and other items provide the "infrastructure" to serve food and drinks safely to millions in Europe every day.

Bans and consumer taxes to prevent operators using hygienic recyclable paper and plastics cups and containers – the heart of the EU proposals on single use plastics – will inevitably put a drag on consumer spending on ready-to-eat food and drinks, halting growth in the sector and squeezing out thousands of jobs needlessly – mostly among small operators. This will have a knock-on effect down the chain.

The young people losing their positions may well ask industry and employment ministers why alternative approaches to cutting litter were not tried first.

Promoting greater use of reusable containers brought in by consumers will boost the spread of food borne diseases (like salmonella, E. coli, listeria, campylobacter and food borne viruses that cause acute gastroenteritis), unnecessarily adding burden to public health services.

The global litter crisis is severe and must be urgently addressed. But it is vital that the EU chooses carefully-considered measures that will effect long-term sustainable change without needlessly undermining key sectors of modern service economies.

Food and beverage service packaging should be covered by the EU proposal in a constructive and sustainable manner – not hit with the most draconian measures when the EU's own surveys show that cups and other containers only make up 4 or 5% of beach litter.

Instead, the EU should use this law to set mandatory collection targets for these recyclable food service containers. This is currently proposed for plastic drinks bottles which have a massively bigger litter impact than service packaging. Such action would support the circular economy for single use cups and other containers, create jobs in the recycling sector and help cut litter.

Producers – regardless of the materials they use – must also fund permanent litter prevention campaigns, as already required by the recently revised EU waste directive, so that we change the behaviour that produces litter in the first place.

Government can still act before it is too late and adjust the EU directive to save European jobs and protect public health.

The author is President of Pack2Go Europe, the European association of food & beverage service packaging manufacturers and Managing Director of Graphic Packaging International Foodservice Europe.

Pack2Go Europe is the leading material neutral European association representing the major food & beverage service and convenience packaging manufacturers who provide innovative single use packaging solutions, including cups, numerous pre-formed containers and enclosures, clamshells, carrier bags, napkins, cutlery and straws.

Pack2Go Europe
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