Before implementing new plastic bottle legislation, European Commission should review Finland’s longstanding return scheme

Finnish deposit scheme encourages consumers to return empty bottles and cans for recycling, explains Elsi Katainen.
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By Elsi Katainen

Elsi Katainen (FI, RE) sent a written question to the European Commission on single use plastics

18 Oct 2020

The increasing amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and seas is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time. With such a widespread and global problem, solutions require common legislation.

One achievement of the previous legislature was the conclusion of the Directive 2019/904, which aims to reduce the impact of certain single-use plastic products on Europe’s maritime environment. I will examine this from the perspective of a Member State with a long history of recycling plastic bottles.

Finland is known for its unique deposit-based recycling system. 92 percent of all plastic bottles, together with their caps, are currently recycled. A deposit encourages consumers to return empty bottles and cans for recycling, thus preventing it from ending up in nature or in mixed waste. In return, citizens redeem €280m each year in return pledges.

There are also incentives for companies, as participating in the return system means avoiding packaging tax. First launched in the 1950s with the recycling of glass bottles in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, the system nowadays recycles virtually all glass bottles in Finland. In 1996, the system started to cover aluminium cans, and in 2008 PET-based bottles.

PALPA, the non-profit company in charge of the return system is owned by large retailers and breweries. In January 2020, I asked the European Commission to clarify a specific conflict between Finland’s recycling system and the new requirements of the Directive on single-use plastic. The problem is that the recently approved Directive requires plastic caps and lids to remain attached to the container during use (Article 6).

In Finland, standard practice has been to recycle the cap without attaching it to the bottle. This has not been a problem from recycling perspective; the majority of caps are returned with the bottle. According to product manufacturers, attached caps may increase the use of plastic during manufacturing.

 “With the Directive in force, it is estimated that in Finland alone the amount of plastic used will increase by 5.5-6.0 tonnes”

With the Directive in force, it is estimated that in Finland alone the amount of plastic used will increase by 5.5-6.0 tonnes, as all polycarbonate sheets used in the brewing industry will have to be renewed. There are currently more than five million sheets in Finland. With the new cap type, the amount of plastic used for bottles is expected to increase between 1.5-2.0 tonnes per year.

Ultimately, all these changes would go against the important objective of the Directive. Moreover, product requirements in Article 6 pose challenges for the return system itself; caps attached to the bottles may become stuck in the control gates of the vending machines, as well as the conveyor belts.

Currently, the Commission is working with the beverage industry to develop a standard on attached caps, pursuant to Article 6(3) of the Directive. This standard will, according to the Commission, minimise or even eliminate most of these issues.

I trust that the National Standard Groups working on finding a suitable solution, together with authorities and industry, reach a solid result that supports the objectives of the Directive. If the technical solution needs investments, the EU should play its part. As in the green transition, the forerunners should also be supported to maximise the result of the policy.

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