Recent legislation passed in France banning single-use packaging in fast-food establishments has drawn the attention of policy- makers across Europe. The Parliament partnered with French title Le Trombinoscope and the European Paper Packaging Alliance to host a high-level event in Paris to discuss its impact.
On 10th February 2020, new legislation was adopted in France to promote the circular economy. This Anti-Waste for a Circular Economy legislation (AGEC) focused particularly on the expansion of reusable packaging.
Whilst the intention to end the use of single-use plastic packaging by 2040 was a move that created headlines from the legislation, hidden behind this was a more radical measure: to put an end to single- use packaging in fast food establishments by 1st January 2023. Since then, food establishments in France have had to serve their meals in reusable dishes instead of the former paper-based recyclable packaging.
Despite this measure being in place for four months, the single-use ban was not the subject of an environmental impact study. Without an in depth study or scientific backing behind the legislation, two critical questions are posed by the packaging industry: Is new re-usable plastic packaging more environmentally friendly than its recyclable counterpart? And what about the case of take-away?
As the European Union looks ahead at how the circular economy can become mainstream, the Ramboll Foundation, an independent Danish expert, was commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) to explore these underlying questions. In April, the results of the studies were presented at an exclusive event in Paris, organised by The Parliament and French title Le Trombinoscope.
These studies took place in the form of two lifecycle analyses in Quick-Service Restaurants in Europe. The studies used all forms of packaging covered by law in the European Union, compromising of 24 packaging types for eat-in sales and 17 take-out, with all types of beverages and foods, washing options, recycling rates and tableware taken into account.
Two environmental “hot spots” in the lifecycle of tableware were revealed in the study. The first hotspot identified was the labour-intensive production of paper for single-use tableware. The second hotspot was centred around the resource intensive impact of the washing and drying of reusable tableware, an essential hygiene standard. In most cases, this process requires the returning of the packaging to the place of purchase. On the whole, the studies revealed that reusable tableware consumes 3.4 times more water, emits 2.8 times more CO2 and 2.2 times more fine particles than cardboard tableware use at a European level.
These hygiene standards, as David Schisler, President of Cofepac (the French committee for paper-board packaging) highlighted, “are in the DNA of the single-use sector created precisely to respond to this problem, as their use in hospitals, where single use is the norm today, or during the recent pandemic during which this tableware has enabled restaurants to continue their activity, attests to this. It would not come to the mind of a hospital to return to reuse, but to optimise the end of life”.
For Eric Lelay, Vice-President of EPPA and President of the Fiber and Foodservice Europe-Asia-Oceania branch of Finnish leader Huhtamaki, “seeking ‘the best overall result for their environment’ is not just common sense: it is the European rule laid down in the Waste Directive that life cycle analyses are used to define and it is a constitutional principle recognised by the European Court of Justice. Reducing waste should not result in increasing the impact on the environment: reuse and single use should therefore not be opposed but compared on a case-by-case basis”.
The fact that this paper packaging is replaced by plastic in AGEC legislation raised further concerns for Mr Schisler:
“Paper is the only material that is at the same time renewable, recyclable, effectively recycled and efficient from the point of view of the impact on the environment. Over
the past 20 years, we have succeeded in multiplying the number of paper cycles by 4 without using more wood. And the entire sector is European, from paper to its transformation into packaging, its consumption and its recycling. With the end of paper, it is the great return of plastic a non-renewable and for the moment non-recycled material, which will be extracted outside Europe, and whose packaging will be imported from Asia, except for large brands. A packaging that will have more impact on the environment due to washing and drying”.
Most products developed in the paper- cardboard industry now have an average of 7 lifecycles, with up to 25 cycles for top performers. Jean Hornain, Managing Director of Citéo, the French leader in collection and sorting, therefore sees the paper and cardboard sector as market leaders in the circular economy: “The paper-cardboard sector is precisely exemplary in terms of the circular economy, the transformation chain is entirely European, recycling even having to take on a global dimension”.
With these outcomes in mind, Ramboll’s two life cycle analyses concluded that there remains a very significant benefit in favour of single-use paper-based packaging. The reports act as an important reminder that reuse is not the be all and end all of environmental performance and waste reduction should not be the only indicator of environmental performance. Zero waste does not mean zero impact.
For Marta de Cidrac, French Senator for Yvelines, Vice-President of the Senate Sustainable Development Commission, President of the Circular Economy Study Group and former Rapporteur for Climate Law, questions of waste reduction and ultimate waste still exist:
“We have to push back the ultimate waste and make it as less impacting as possible. This is what recycling does, it is up to local authorities to collect and destroy it. This also applies to single use and reuse.”
Importantly, argued Marta de Cidrac, “the two models, single use versus reuse, can coexist depending on the situation and the impact”. Ms de Cidrac explained that it is therefore important to include a review clause in any legislation, and that in considering its own upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, the European Parliament must take its time to decide on a new goal for recycling and reuse.
“Let’s not get the fight of the circular economy wrong”, explained Huguette Tiegna, MP for Lot and President of the Waste Management, Circular Economy and Green Economy study group at the National Assembly, “from this point of view, the AGEC law aimed to reduce waste, increase reuse and recycling. Reuse finds support amongst young people, and slows down the production of these mountains of waste that has been seen during the strikes. But it is also true that paper is a good material from an environmental point of view. What is important, too, is that the law gives a direction but that it provides for review clauses to continue to move forward together in the right direction”.
Whilst on average the French produce 70 kg of plastic waste per year, totalling 4.8 million tonnes, should we replace paper and its sector with plastic? The question has arisen a little too late but the Ramboll study sheds new light for future discussions.