Circular economy? Not without the Internal Market!

07 February 2018

Without oversight, the implementation of the circular economy package entails a huge risk of Member States going into different directions and introducing barriers to the internal market, warns Virginia Janssens.

Virginia Janssens is Managing Director at EUROPEN, the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment.

After years of discussion, compromises and trade-offs reflecting many underlying interests, we are now awaiting the officially approved texts of the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP). The packaging supply chain, represented by EUROPEN, has always been a supporter of the European Commission’s ambitions for growth and competiveness as key drivers to transition towards a low-carbon Circular Economy. The Commission has recently been praised globally for the publication of its EU Plastics Strategy as part of the CEP Action Plan.

Those close to the CEP developments may know that EUROPEN, together with 129 other EU and national trade associations, has been campaigning for retaining the Internal Market as the sole legal base for the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD).

While we are relieved that the EU institutions came to an agreement in support of this, there is no rest for the wicked. We are preparing for lots of secondary legislation and for the CEP implementation phase at national level. In parallel, we are getting our collective heads around the implications of the Plastics Strategy and more to come.

All of these developments at EU and national level need to be underpinned by the Internal Market, to preserve harmonisation across the EU member states. Yes, here we are again. It is the same Internal Market mantra, but this time even more important and fragile than ever before. Without EU harmonisation, some measures suggested by the Commission will jeopardise the Internal Market.

Ahead of the CEP’s formal adoption, the Commission already made clear it intends to open up the PPWD again for legal review. Its specific goal is to overhaul the Essential Requirements (ER) in the PPWD to drive recyclability and the uptake of recycled material. In principle, EUROPEN supports a review of the ER. One reason is to ensure that these ER continue to effectively allow packaged goods to enter the entire EU Internal market.

In the Plastic Strategy, the Commission suggests several interventions to improve the recyclability and recycling rate of plastic packaging specifically. Such measures are not necessarily limited to plastics, but might impact all materials, hence all packaging and therefore all packaged goods.

It is rightly acknowledged that “single-use” packaging is required in certain situations to guarantee food hygiene and the health and safety of consumers. Member States are asked to take this into account when developing prevention and reduction measures for packaging. These kind of derogations demonstrate that one size fits all policy tools are difficult for such a diversity of packaging solutions and supply chains for such a wide diversity of products that require different functionalities.

For instance, decreasing the use of plastic bags might be easier than for other packaging types that are intrinsically connected with the product. Moreover, these types of policy solutions may quickly lead to Internal Market distortions.

All these suggestions to Member States should be accompanied by a clear context and a common platform to elaborate on these policy recommendations. Without this oversight, the CEP implementation entails a huge risk of Member States going into different directions and introducing barriers that are not just based on environmental considerations. It is the very reason why the Internal Market was introduced as the sole legal base for the PPWD in the first place, back in 1994. Given the ambition for Europe to remain competitive towards a Circular Economy, the EU’s Internal Market is more needed than ever before.

The Internal Market has brought huge prosperity to European citizens and consumers and is one of the few undisputed EU assets. Whether environmentally driven or prompted by other reasons, policy measures that are not EU-harmonised will jeopardise the scale and ease of doing business to be successful. The same goes for developing and applying environmental innovations.

We can’t stress enough that when addressing packaging, regardless of its material, we are addressing the quasi totality of all packaged goods. To be fully supported and delivered, the transition into a Circular Economy that is truly European, therefore needs to be embedded in a strong Internal Market.