Natalie Brandweiner talks to Joachim Quoden of the importance of recycled packaging for a greener Europe, and the need for universal regulations.
“Oil prices will increase in the future again, which makes recycling much more attractive from an economical point of view”
-Joachim Quoden – MD, PRO EUROPE
The bid to become green is apparent within every European member state, be it carbon emissions, landfills or food waste. The recycling of packaging and the use of recycled materials within packaging plays an important role not only for business big and small, but for governmental authorities to set the green standard. However, creating universal regulation across the Continent is proving difficult.
PRO EUROPE is the organisation set up to address this. Founded in 1995 by multiple countries - Germany, France, Belgium and Austria - they established themselves as the first four packaging recovery systems in Europe. Creating the foundations for an umbrella organization, it has expanded to having 33 members from 33 countries. Thirty-two are seated in Europe and one is seated in Canada, due to the Canadian system have a similar legislation compared to Europe.
Managing Director Joachim Quoden is responsible for lobbying Brussels, speaking to the commission, Parliament and other stakeholders, as well as networking between the organisation's members and ensuring the best practices are exchanged by organising working groups, workshops and meetings.
In asking what role the food industry plays in improving the amount of recycled packaging that is recycled in Europe, Quoden explains that this is what defines the major difference between a producer responsibility system solution and a tax solution. "In both of these solutions, industry has to pay some money for the packaging," he says, "but producer responsibility means much more. It means constant involvement."
"The big companies mostly do this; it's difficult for the small ones. But the major companies, they have to constantly work on their packaging, often together with us, on an optimisation to avoid over-packaging and so on, and to ensure that the packaging can be recycled later on, perhaps to use recycled materials in making packaging. Nevertheless, we always have to have in mind that packaging is not done just for packaging, but to take care of the product."
A recent study undertaken by the Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP) in the UK highlights the problem of the country's food waste disposal: one third of all the food produced in this country is wasted. "Sometimes we forget hat there was a sense behind the packaging," adds Quoden. The industry is recognising this problem and endeavoring to make it better - major companies and associations, such as CIA and Europens, are working alongside PRO EUROPE with a goal of improving the organisation's common work. The advantage of PRO EUROPE working with these companies is that they are much more involved than certain political parties and much more influential in terms of the packaging recycling business.
He claims that the regulatory environment too often focuses on packaging as a sole problem, citing the media use of it as a "sexy topic". It is an environmental problem but not the biggest problem, and not one that should take dominance. Avoiding packaging and providing means to recycle is highly important, but food waste is a much more pressing issue, and one too often ignored. He notes the number of illegal landfills still existing across Europe, but the rejection of it becoming a high-profile issue. "It's easier to speak in a bad way about packaging than to speak about problems like illegal landfills and dumping."
Public and private attitudes
The attitude towards packaging recycling, and recycling in general, in Europe is changing - interest is becoming much more apparent on an individual level. It is now common for people to separate their packaging and recycle it accordingly; individual contribution to environmental benefits is viewed as a good thing. Public education of the importance of recycled packaging has been costly in both time and funds, but fortunately it has paid off.
Being more environmentally conscious is not only a matter of public interest. In a bid to create a greener image larger commercial bodies are also adopting a pro-recycling approach. But is this an attempt to benefit from favouring public opinion or a real understanding of the company's social commitment? Quoden believes it to be both.
"It's the marketing issue, but I think they understand their social responsibility as well and so they work on this," he explains. "Very often, it's interesting for them from an economic point as well - if they sort their packaging or the waste in the shops, they pay much less than if they ask the waste management company to take it away. So, even from an economic point of view, it's more beneficial for them to behave in a good way."
Quoden continues with the benefits for the environmentally conscious private sphere, adding that there are all kinds of financial benefits for food companies in particular who support the ideals of recycling. Less material equals less packaging, which equals less company spending, so the interest for companies to reduce and optimise packaging is not a new thing. The requirement of them in recent years to pay for waste materials via recovery organisations makes the incentive even greater.
However, recycling is still only a recent phenomenon - costs still remain relatively expensive. One of the reasons for this is land filling, where often the true costs are not paid. "Land filling is often subsidised by tax money because the long-term costs are not involved in the cost per tonnage," explains Quoden. "This helps if you have a landfill ban, like in Germany, or if you have a high gate fee for landfilling. It makes recycling more competitive. On the other side, one and a half years ago, when the prices for oil and petrol were quite high, this had a positive effect for recycling as well. Then it was much more attractive to use the old stuff instead of using new stuff. Oil prices will increase in the future again, which makes recycling much more attractive from an economical point of view.
"This is the good thing from producer responsibility schemes. If the prices for the material are high, then the producer responsibility schemes are lowering their fees. On the other side, if, like at the moment, the prices are low, the income from selling the material is low and we have to increase the fees."
However prices are never constant, unlike taxes, which prove to consistently increase. Even if the costs are going down, the tax stays the same. An advantage of producer responsibility is that if more money can be made from selling the material then the end-cost can be much lower. Recycling is proving to be economically sustainable as well as environmentally.
The individual European governments, as well as the European Union, are reinforcing measures to promote the recycling of packaging and limiting the amount of packaging that is used. Quoden advises that before the quotes of recycled products are increased a deeper look is needed into the figures and a greater analysis of the environmental performance of each of the European countries.
"If you now see the latest implementation of the European Commission, which is a compilation of the answers of the member states, and you see that every member state understands a different thing for the same question, now is the time to have a better understanding of how the member states are implementing it and to ensure that every reported tonnage is a real tonnage.
"We want to harmonise and verify the way we look at things across the entire continent. It's very important that the commission is not only collecting data, but understanding what is behind the data. It's important, for those who are doing real recycling, to ensure that this is the same level playing field all over the Europe."
PRO EUROPE's big priority for the upcoming year is to focus on increasing the demand for recycled material. So far, demand is relied upon from China and India, but a stable demand is also needed from Europe. Quoden notes that this is one of the things that the organisation is requesting from the commission as well as the individual governments, not only to make legislation and oblige the rest of the industry to follow suit, but also to behave in the same way.
"The authorities are one of the biggest purchasers in Europe. If they would commit themselves to green procurement, this would help the whole market. For me it's difficult to understand that someone is asked to behave in a good environmental way, but the same one who is asking is very often not doing this. Not only buying paper with recycled content, but also ensuring that the companies from who I am buying fulfill their environmental obligations.
"Norway is a very good example because there the government has signed an agreement that they just purchase in a green way. They take care that the companies they buy from fulfill their obligations and so on. This is how all the authorities in Europe should behave. Then we could increase the demand for the recycled materials and lower the costs for the industry and the consumer. This is the way forward," he concludes.
The Green Dot is the license symbol of a European network of industry-funded systems for recycling the packaging materials of consumer goods. Consumers who see the logo know that the manufacturer of the product contributes to the cost of recovery and recycling. A green dot licence fee paid by the producers of the products finances the system; fees vary by country and are based on the material used in packaging. The system encourages manufacturers to cut down on packaging as this saves them the cost of licence fees.
Joachim Quoden has been Managing Director for PRO EUROPE since July 2006. In January 2002 he became Secretary General of PRO EUROPE, the umbrella organisation of 28 packaging recovery organisations seated in 27 European countries and in Canada.