A Single Circular Economy: How to fix the Single Market

The Single Market is one of the EU’s greatest achievements, but fragmentation at national level is undermining the implementation of a successful circular economy for packaging. Marta Pacheco reports on how the packaging value chain sector, consumers and policymakers can address this challenge.

By Marta Pacheco

Marta Pacheco is a Communications Consultant, Freelancer, Journalist & Independent Researcher.

21 Oct 2021

If the EU is serious about leading the global sustainability transition, it first needs to implement a single European circular economy within the Single Market. This was one of the key takeaways from a recent event hosted by the MEP Maria Spyraki in partnership with EUROPEN, the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment. A broad range of stakeholders discussed the role the Single Market can play in unlocking the European Green Deal.


Market fragmentation

In recent years, EU Member States have introduced unilateral measures and different requirements on packaging and packaged goods. While many EU countries are doing so to build a circular economy, the current disparity of measures at national level is leading to market fragmentation, hampering EU competitiveness and increasing the financial and administrative burden on SMEs. “We have seen new barriers coming up and they are actually reversing the circular economy trend,” said EUROPEN Managing Director Francesca Stevens opening the debate.

Notwithstanding these issues, these disparate measures are also driving consumer confusion. DG Environment representative Maja Desgrées du Loû said the Commission recognises “this is not an ideal situation”. In fact, the EU executive is currently reviewing legislation in this area with the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) in a bid to “go for more harmonisation”. Stevens welcomed this approach and said that this must be an opportunity to harmonise packaging rules across Europe to address market distortions put in place at national level. The Secretary General of the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), Jérôme Pero, also stressed the importance of the review of the EU rules on packaging, with implications on distribution, saying, “We need supply chains that can adapt, that are fast, that are agile, that are flexible. This requires a harmonised Single Market.”

“I strongly believe that we have to overcome the trade barriers here, and we have to proceed as a Single Market in order to transform our economy in line with the European Green Deal” Maria Spyraki MEP

Illustrating the problems arising from these diverging approaches, Spyraki presented a “bad example” — the implementation of the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive. Despite being an ambitious piece of legislation — introducing plastic reduction and recycled content targets— the MEP cited the poor outcomes found in the European Court of Auditors’ (ECA) implementation assessment. According to the ECA, just €1bn of the €4.4bn allocated under the previous Multiannual Financial Framework was invested in infrastructure used to collect single-use plastics. “We need to engage with people and put pressure on Member States to ensure they use the funds allocated to address circular economy issues,” urged Spyraki.

Another problem with the SUP Directive was its implementation of standards, according to Spyraki. “There was lack of preparation for the Directive, because its guidelines were published just days before its entry into force,” said the MEP. Stevens agreed, saying that a strong and predictable Single Market must be supported by harmonised standards and careful implementation of legislation. It is therefore up to policymakers to ensure that the core principles are present in the main body of legislation before its implementation.

Fixing labelling disparities

Across Europe, particularly in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Slovenia, divergent national labelling initiatives have been put in place. These disparities, Stevens explained, not only do they result in higher production costs, but they also jeopardise the EU’s green targets. This is another issue the Commission has recognised, with du Desgrées du Loû saying: “Labelling is an issue. There are some EU requirements, but it is not a fully harmonised matter at all.” However, the Commission representative defended their current approach saying that there are rules in place to ensure Member States do not diverge too far. Stevens urged the Commission to go further in preventing the exacerbation of market distortions, saying, “There is no harmonised regime in the EU, but there are certain principles enshrined in EU law justifying how far beyond the transposition of law a Member State can go.”

Harmonising the circular economy

Central to the debate is the potential of the Single Market, a basic pillar of the EU, to address these divergences. Despite the Single Market delivering some remarkable benefits thanks to the dismantling of certain trade barriers, further progress is needed to complete it and preserve its integrity, argued Stevens. The problem is not only making sure that we eliminate the remaining barriers but how to prevent new barriers from coming up.”

Spyraki too maintained the importance of overcoming the barriers between Member States and the development of a well-coordinated action. “I strongly believe that we have to overcome the trade barriers here, and we have to proceed as a Single Market in order to transform our economy in line with the European Green Deal”. Stevens agreed, describing the Single Market as “crucial” for the green transition: “This is a core topic that we see going hand in hand with sustainability”. She added that to boost recycling, “We need more flexibility between bordering countries to make sure the materials reach the facilities they are intended for.”

“We don’t need 27 mini-markets, we don’t need 27 circular economies, we need a single circular economy” Francesca Stevens, Managing Director of EUROPEN

Towards a single circular economy  

According to Spyraki, EU Member States need greater incentives to create more profitable business cases for recyclability and waste collection. Such a model should be in place by 2030, if the EU is to meet its circular economy targets. “One of the key issues is how we can raise awareness among consumers on the need to recycle packaging and plastics,” said the MEP. She believes that this will empower consumers to demand more sustainable products. “With the review of the PPWD, we have an opportunity to take some significant steps forward and provide a sustainable future for products and consumers”, said Spyraki. In her concluding remarks, EUROPEN’s Director General called for a single, robust circular economy, saying, “We don’t need 27 mini-markets, we don’t need 27 circular economies, we need a single circular economy”.


This content was commissioned by EUROPEN and produced by Dods

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