Plastics and packaging laws in the European Union

1. What is the general legislative framework regulating packaging and plastics waste?

General waste management controls in the EU that apply to packaging and plastics waste are found largely in the following measures:

  • Directive 2008/98/EC as amended (the Waste Framework Directive), which sets out a legal framework for dealing with waste and includes, in particular, the definitions of waste, recycling and recovery; end-of-waste criteria; the polluter-pays principle; the concept of waste hierarchy; and the concept of extended producer responsibility (“EPR”).
  • Directive 94/62/EC as amended (the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive), which aims to harmonise the management of packaging waste and prevent or reduce the impact of packaging and packaging waste including by setting recovery and recycling targets.

In December 2015, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan for a Circular Economy.  It identified plastics as a key priority and committed itself to ‘prepare a strategy addressing the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain and taking into account their entire life-cycle’.

The Commission adopted the Plastics Strategy in January 2018, which set out its vision for a circular plastics economy, made commitments for action at EU level and recommended measures to national authorities and industry. The Plastics Strategy includes the goal of making recycling profitable for business.

In May 2018, Directive (EU) 2018/851 was passed (the Revised Waste Framework Directive). This amended the Waste Framework Directive by, for example, introducing general minimum requirements for EPR schemes and outlining the measures that Member States are required to take to prevent waste generation. More generally, the Revised Waste Framework Directive updated the rules for waste management in the EU.

The Commission has set out that new rules on packaging will be developed to improve the recyclability of plastics used on the market and increase the demand for recycled plastic content. It is noted that with more plastic being collected, improved and scaled up recycling facilities should be set up, alongside a better and standardised system for the separate collection and sorting of waste across the EU.

The European Green Deal was presented in December 2019 and set out a roadmap for no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 framing its ambition on economic growth decoupled from resource use. The Commission stated that it would follow up on the Plastics Strategy and focus on implementing new legislation, including targets and measures for tackling over-packaging and waste generation, legal requirements to boost the market of secondary raw materials with mandatory recycled content, requirements to ensure that all packaging in the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable manner by 2030 and introduce a regulatory framework for biodegradable and bio based plastics.

The Commission confirmed in the New Circular Economy Action Plan in March 2020 that it will review the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to reinforce the mandatory essential requirements for packaging and consider other measures focusing on waste reduction, the design of packaging and the complexity of packaging materials. It stated that it will also develop a policy framework on the sourcing, labelling and use of bio-based plastics and the use of biodegradable plastics. In February 2021, the European Parliament voted in favour of adopting the New Circular Economy Action Plan, while also calling on the Commission to direct funding towards circular economy initiatives, propose binding EU targets for 2030 to reduce material and consumption footprints, and propose product-specific and/or sector-specific binding targets for recycled content.

The Commission will also propose a sustainable product policy legislative initiative. This initiative will prioritise specific product groups, including electronics, ICT, furniture and high impact intermediary products such as steel and cement.

2. Are there any measures (existing or expected) in respect of single-use plastics?

Directive (EU) 2019/904 (the Single-Use Plastics Directive) was adopted on 5 June 2019 to target the 10 single-use plastic products reportedly most often found on Europe's beaches and seas.

The Directive sets out targets for the separate collection of plastics for recycling (a 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2029 (and 77% by 2025)) which can be achieved through deposit return schemes or separate collection targets for extended producer responsibility schemes.

Other measures under the Single-Use Plastics Directive include:

  • plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, balloon sticks and all products made from oxo-degradable plastics will be banned in the EU from 3 July 2021;
  • tethered bottle caps for plastic bottles will become mandatory on 3 July 2024;
  • PET drinks bottles will be required to contain at least 25% recycled plastic from 2025 and 30% recycled plastic from 2030; and

On 31 May 2021 the Commission published guidelines on the interpretation and implementation of the Single-Use Plastics Directive. The guidelines, which were prepared in accordance with Article 12 of the Directive, explain the key definitions used in the Directive and provides examples of products which would fall within and outside of its scope. The guidelines are non-exhaustive and not legally binding. The Commission’s position as to which products would be subject to the ban outlined in the Single-Use Plastic Directive has attracted some criticism from industry. The Commission is also preparing a number of implementing measures which will build on the guidelines and help ensure that there is a harmonised approach to the implementation of the Directive across the EU.

On 17 December 2020, the Commission published Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/2151, setting out rules on harmonised marking specifications for single-use plastic products listed in Part D (including sanity products, wet wipes, tobacco products and beverage cups) of the Single-Use Plastics Directive. Minor changes were made on 5 March 2021 to address linguistic issues. The Regulation enters into force on 3 July 2021.

In February 2021, the European Parliament called on the Commission to consider taking further action, such as amending the Single-Use Plastics Directive, to ensure that single use plastics are replaced with reusable products where possible. The Commission was also urged to develop standards for reusable packaging and substitutes for single-use packaging, tableware and cutlery.

Carrier bags

The Directive (EU) 2015/720 (the Plastic Bags Directive) amends the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and requires Member States to take action to address the unsustainable consumption and use of lightweight plastic carrier bags. Such measures might include taxes or charges, reduction targets or outright bans. Member States are required to take steps to ensure that individuals do not use more than 90 lightweight plastic bags each year by 31 December 2019, and 40 bags by 31 December 2025. Alternatively, Member States can implement rules to ensure that by 31 December 2018, lightweight carrier bags are not provided for free in shops.

Under the Single-Use Plastics Directive, producers of very lightweight plastic carrier bags must comply with EPR rules. They are also required to bear the cost of awareness campaigns, waste collection and the cleaning up of litter. Producers of lightweight plastic carrier bags must take steps to encourage consumers to reduce plastic bag litter and must provide certain information to consumers on this topic.

3. Are there any (existing or expected) producer responsibility schemes in place for packaging or plastics?

In the Plastics Strategy, national and regional authorities were encouraged to put in place well-designed EPR schemes and/or deposit systems, in particular, for collecting discarded fishing gear and recycling agricultural plastics.

In 2018, the EU strengthened its regulation of EPR through amendments made to the Waste Framework Directive. The legislation now includes general minimum requirements for extended responsibility schemes.

The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive requires EU Member States to ensure that they have EPR schemes up and running for all packaging types by 2024. In 2020 and early 2021 consultations were held on proposals to further revise the Directive to improve packaging design to promote reuse and recycling; increase recycled content in packaging; tackle excessive packaging and reduce packaging waste.

The Single-Use Plastics Directive requires that extended producer responsibility schemes are established for certain types of packaging including takeaway food containers, packets and wrappers, plastic drinks containers and drinks cups including covers and lids. It also requires that the producers of wet wipes, balloons and tobacco products cover certain costs, including those relating to awareness raising measures and cleaning up litter.

In February 2021, the European Parliament urged the Commission to take steps to ensure that all online retailers comply with EPR requirements and contribute financially to the EPR systems in the EU Member States in which they sell their products. The Commission was also encouraged to develop EPR schemes that hold producers accountable for the end-of-life of plastic products.

4. Is there any (existing or expected) deposit return scheme (“DRS”) in place for packaging or plastics?

The Revised Waste Framework Directive encouraged Member States to deploy DRS as a means of preventing waste generation (which the Revised Waste Framework Directive explains is the most efficiency way of improving resource efficiency). The Revised Waste Framework Directive also states that Member States should facilitate innovative models of production and consumption that encourage circularity, citing DRS as an example.

In February 2021 the European Parliament called on the Commission to support the establishment of DRS in Member States. The national DRS schemes would need to be compatible with one another under rules for the EU single market.

5. Are there any (existing or expected) taxes on packaging or plastics?

On 21 July 2020, the European Council announced its agreement on a recovery plan to help repair the economic and social damage brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Included in the recovery plan is a proposal for a new own resource based on non-recycled plastic waste, which was supposed to apply from 1 January 2021. However, the own resources decision has only recently been ratified by each of the Member States. The new own resource was initially proposed by the Commission on 2 May 2018 not as a tax but as a “contribution to the EU budget designed to incentivise member states to increase recycling from plastic waste”. It was proposed for a second time on 27 May 2020 in its communication on ‘the EU budget powering the recovery plan for Europe’.

The levy will be calculated according to the weight of non-recycled plastic packaging waste at a call rate of EUR 0.80 per kilogram. The levy will apply to Member States and the national contributions will be paid into the EU budget. Member States are developing different approaches to how they finance the levy. For example, some may pay the levy from their general budget, whereas others are likely to seek to pass this on through plastic packaging taxes or by recovering the money through extended producer responsibility schemes.

6. Are there any measures (existing or expected) regarding micro-plastics or the use of microbeads in products?

In January 2019, the European Chemicals Agency (“ECHA”) published its proposal for a restriction on micro-plastic particles that are intentionally added to mixtures, used by consumers or professionals, and released into the environment. The proposed EU-wide ban would be made by way of an amendment to the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation (EC) 1907/2006.

A consultation on the proposal ended on 20 September 2019. The ECHA Committee for Risk Assessment and the Committee for Socio-Economic Analysis (RAC and SEAC) have supported the proposal to restrict the use of microplastics. The consolidated opinion of both committees was submitted to the Commission in February 2021. The Commission will decide whether to implement or modify the proposal, taking into account the ECHA’s recommendations.

The Commission has also set out a number of additional measures on microplastics in the new Circular Economy Action Plan published on 11 March 2020, including:

  • developing labelling, standardisation, certification and regulatory measures on unintentional release of microplastics, including measures to increase the capture of microplastics at all relevant stages of products’ lifecycle; and
  • further developing and harmonising methods for measuring unintentionally released microplastics, especially from tyres and textiles, and delivering harmonised data on microplastics concentrations in seawater.

In February 2021, the European Parliament called on the Commission to take a comprehensive approach to tackling microplastics and adopt a general phase-out of microplastics which are intentionally added to products. In addition, the Commission was urged to introduce new regulations to combat the unintentional release of microplastics into the environment.

7. Are there any (existing or expected) recycling or waste reduction targets in place for packaging or plastics?

The Plastics Strategy included a pledge to ensure that by 2025, ten million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into new products on the EU market. It also set out an objective for all plastic packaging placed on the EU market to be re-usable or easily recycled by 2030.

The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was amended in 2018 by Directive (EC) 2018/852 to include the following targets:

  • recycling targets for municipal waste of 50% by 2020, 55% by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035;
  • recycling targets for all packaging of 65% by 2025 and 70% by 2030;
  • recycling targets for plastics of 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030;
  • recycling targets for specific packaging materials: Paper and cardboard: 85%; Ferrous metals: 80%; Aluminium: 60%; Glass: 75%; Plastic: 55%; and Wood: 30%;
  • a binding landfill target to reduce landfill to maximum of 10% of municipal waste by 2035; and
  • separate collection obligations are strengthened and extended to hazardous household waste (by end 2022), bio-waste (by end 2023), textiles (by end 2025).

In February 2021, the European Parliament called on the Commission to present without delay a legislative proposal which would aim to achieve the goal of making all packaging reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. The Commission has also been urged to analyse the packaging types used in e-commerce to determine how to avoid over-packaging and to endorse the re-use of packaging materials.

The Single Use Plastics Directive includes a number of targets:

  • a separate collection target for plastic bottles of 77% by 2025 and 90% by 2029; and
  • a target to incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET bottles as from 2025 and 30% in all plastic bottles as from 2030.

Regulation (EU) 2020/2017, published on 22 December 2020, has introduced a ban on the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries with the exception of clean plastic waste sent for recycling. The amendments come into effect on 1 January 2021.

The textile sector as a priority sector where potential for circularity is considered to be high and therefore key for the transition towards a more sustainable and circular economy. A consultation on a textile strategy is being held until 4 August 2021.

8. Is the use of recycled materials in food packaging regulated?

There is no current legislative requirement to use recycled plastics in food and cleaning product packaging. However, in anticipation of the expected measures relating to single-use plastics and plastic packaging set out above, many manufacturers are already reviewing their supply chains and are setting sustainability targets regarding the use of recycled plastic in product packaging (including food packaging).

In respect of food contact packaging, Regulation (EU) 10/2011 (as amended) sets out criteria for the composition of new plastic materials intended to come into contact with food. Once these materials have been used, they no longer comply with the Regulation, as they may have been contaminated with other substances.

At an EU level, there is an authorisation procedure for the use of recycled plastic. Regulation (EC) 282/2008 controls the recycling processes for recycled plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with foods, setting specific requirements for such materials to be placed on the market for use.  This means that substances used in individual materials or processes for the production of recycled plastics for food contact must be tested and approved to ensure their harmlessness to health. Materials and objects made partly or entirely of recycled plastic and intended to come into contact with food should be produced only by processes that have been safety assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (“EFSA”) and approved by the Commission. Regulation (EC) No 282/2008 sets out rules for the authorisation of processes for the recycling of such materials.

The New Circular Economy Action Plan states that the Commission will establish rules for the safe recycling into food contact materials of plastic materials other than PET. It also sets out an initiative to substitute single-use packaging, tableware and cutlery for reusable products in food services by 2021.

The European Green Deal sets out overarching objectives of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, with a 55% emissions reduction by 2030 from 1990 levels to be set in law and mainstreaming of sustainability. These aims will inform all EU legislation and policy going forward and the “Fit for 55” Package of proposals to further the objectives of the European Green Deal is expected in July 2021. Areas of focus for the Commission (in addition to those set out above) include:

  • considering legal requirements to boost the market of secondary raw materials with mandatory recycled content;
  • creating an EU model for separate waste collection to simplify waste management for citizens and ensure cleaner secondary materials for businesses;
  • stopping the export of waste outside of the EU and therefore revisit the rules on waste shipments and illegal exports;
  • Food waste and separation of other waste streams including textiles.

By way of example, the Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe, adopted by the Commission on 25 November 2020, sets out a number of proposals relating to sustainability measures for 2020-22, including actions to reducing the size of packaging for medicines. The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety urged the Commission to introduce measures to reduce packaging and container size for medicines in its report from 26 April 2021.

Portrait of Olivia Jamison
Olivia Jamison
Portrait of Siobhan Kahmann
Siobhan Kahmann
Brussels - EU Law Office
Laura Gunn
Agnieszka Skorupińska