It was clear from the outset that it would be almost impossible to strike a balance between the expectations of the packaging industry and those of groups calling for stricter regulations and rallying against certain derogations contained in the text (such as the removal of the ban on single-use packaging for fresh fruit and vegetables or for products consumed in restaurants). Undoubtedly, the seeds of change are being sown in winter 2023-2024, but what difference will this really make in fifteen years’ time? Below are three potential outcomes.
A return to the deposit system
The delusion of “everything in bulk”, in which packaging, and plastic in particular, simply no longer exist, is a utopian fantasy, whether applied to food for the mass-market or to other sectors such as electronics (packaging is essential for fragile products) or cosmetics (you can’t get your favorite perfume by turning on a tap).
As 2030 draws to a close, and the target to reduce packaging waste by 5% per capita has been cut by half, the entire concept of waste is being called into question: when should packaging be classified as waste in the strict sense of the term? The key, therefore, in both semantic and practical terms, is to eliminate waste, but not packaging. That old chestnut, reusability, is a reality once more, as a result of old practices being revived, or rather expanded upon.
The much-vaunted “deposit system” is back with a vengeance. Already institutionalized in a number of European countries (including Germany, Finland, Denmark and Latvia), it is now becoming widely used throughout the EU, and not just for bottles and glass. Packaging manufacturers are attempting to make most of their packaging “returnable”: jars of anti-wrinkle cream and bottles of perfume will thus be given a second life once empty. The long-term aim is for 70% of the overall volume of packaging sold on the market to be “refillable”. The lid on a pack of bacon cannot be reused, but the container itself can be returned. In addition, polymers are being developed that can self-repair at room temperature, without the need for external stimuli (each molecule has a negative end and a positive end, which are attracted to each other, thus binding the material back together).
This is having a major impact on retailers, since it largely falls upon them to put the necessary infrastructure in place: it does not seem realistic to ask the customers themselves to take products back to recovery points, as it requires them to step too far out of their usual consumption habits.
As 2040 approaches, thinking in terms of “packaging waste” seems increasingly irrelevant: the amount of greenhouse gas produced is now the benchmark measure. Despite falling slightly behind in achieving the ideal objective for 2030 (52 million tons of greenhouse gas produced, compared with a target of 43 million tons), things are back on track in 2040, being close to 35 million tons.
Perfect is the enemy of good
Since 2029, new European projects have been focusing their research on new materials that are much more environmentally friendly and easier to recycle than plastic. Unfortunately, this radical approach, in the short term at least, is far from delivering on its promises. The draft law of November 2023 contained a provision which, while perfectly legitimate, prompted industry players to exercise great caution: the ban on toxic substances such as PFASs. It took decades for these “forever chemicals” (already the subject of a four-year action plan in France in January 2023) to come under scrutiny (the first studies date back to the 2000s, even though PFASs have been widely used in industry since the 1950s).
While, on paper, packaging made from mycelium or tomato skin seemed like the timely solution in 2025, five years later, it hardly seems feasible to switch to large-scale use in all sectors when the question of potential toxicity has still not been addressed. Nothing can be left to chance when it comes to products designed to be ingested or applied to the skin (cosmetics, medicines, etc.).
The packaging industry, working on the assumption that it is less risky to stick with the devil you know, is still optimizing recycling and the quantity of plastic used, but in 2040, the results are in: the mark of 220 kilos in packaging waste per European per year has been passed. So, there is now an anxious wait for the final verdict on “alternative solutions”.
If you want something done right, do it yourself
Numerous measures have thus been put in place to facilitate recycling. First and foremost, there is the obligation, as of 2030, to produce only recyclable packaging. This target, set in the early 2020s, is just about being met as a result of massive EU funding for research, even if the hoped-for 100% objective has not been achieved (a more accurate estimate is around 89%).
Less than ten years later, chemical recycling has become the norm. Aluminum capsules and other emblematic (and newsworthy) types of waste from the 2000s have been completely eradicated, and PET plastic is now used as standard. The majority of packaging is now also compostable, even if this only concerns packaging traditionally made of paper or cardboard. More importantly, the recycling bins installed in towns and cities have been revamped since 2033. Powered by artificial intelligence, these bins can analyze the type of waste put into them; firstly, they help guide individuals, and, secondly, they contain a more precise internal sorting system
Thus, waste for recycling can be pre-compacted and optimized. This also eliminates certain problems associated with production using recycled PET plastics, issues linked to the initial incorrect sorting of waste. By and large, it represents a “high-tech version” of the labels once considered in Brussels. Old smartphones whose electronics have been recovered are used to design these intelligent trash cans, thus ensuring a virtuous cycle. By 2040, the results are in: greenhouse gas emissions resulting from packaging production have returned to the levels of the early 2010s. While other avenues are potentially feasible, recycling seems to have won a key battle.
Quality Director at TEXEN
Eco-design Engineer at TEXEN