A new green EU directive could see circular washing go down the drain

If passed, the law will ban generic claims — from “environmentally-friendly” and “eco” to “natural” and “biodegradable” — from being made without evidence. This is a much-needed step in the right direction, Ana Birliga Sutherland writes.

Regulators are finally cracking down on advertisers making false green claims, in a series of moves dubbed the end of the “greenwashing era”. 

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These claims — from the vague (“all natural”) to the hard-to-verify and seemingly omnipresent (“carbon neutral”)—often mislead increasingly climate-conscious consumers. 

The desire for more environmentally friendly goods is growing rapidly, with nearly 90% of Gen X consumers willing to spend more on sustainable products, compared to 34% in 2020. 

And at the same time, the circular economy — an economic model that designs out waste, cuts material use and keeps materials in the loop for as long as possible — is becoming increasingly mainstream.

This begs the question: as greenwashing is kicked to the kerb, does this allow space for its more insidious cousin — circular washing — to creep in? 

A ban on vague, misleading and unfounded claims is on its way

Keen to profit from consumers’ changing ethos, brands are adding circular claims to their arsenals. 

These can be even more harmful: what’s branded as “circular” isn’t always good for the environment, especially if it features an over-reliance on recycling rather than substantial cuts in material use. 

Advertisers can tend to focus on a single aspect of their product or service, but a holistic approach to circularity is most effective: claims that a product contains recycled materials, for example, may not show the whole picture, drawing attention away from other not-so-circular features.

The EU’s move to tackle greenwashing has drawn attention from proponents and critics alike: the proposal for the new “Green Claims” directive was voted in plenary with a huge majority, setting the foundation for a finalised law in the coming months. 

If passed, it’ll ban generic claims — from “environmentally-friendly” and “eco” to “natural” and “biodegradable” — from being made without evidence, requiring brands to verify their products’ merits through third-party certification schemes. 

This is a much-needed step in the right direction: a 2020 study found that a massive 53% of green claims were vague, misleading or unfounded, with a further 40% entirely unsubstantiated. 

But will the directive take on circular washing — and consequently encourage true circularity as well?

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The Green Claims directive will cover all manner of sins — circular washing included

The proposed directive rides along a wave of initiatives that aims to make “environmentally sustainable products and business models the norm, and not the exception”; complemented by circular design interventions, an upcoming ban on planned obsolescence and another proposed directive on common rules for the repair of goods.

The need to tackle greenwashing has emerged as a priority under the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan and also supports the goals of the European Green Deal — and to this end, the directive succeeds at covering any number of false environmental claims and boasts the much-needed nuance. 

The sustainability of a part does not equal the sustainability of the whole, but certain aspects — recyclability, repairability, and durability, for example — can be featured as benefits, if substantiated. 

The proposed directive highlights the “fast-changing area of environmental claims by means of a single method”, as well as its flaws: rolling out a single method, like environmental footprinting, may not do credit to a product’s genuine performance, whether positive or negative.

Claims omitting hidden trade-offs might mislead consumers

This sentiment has been echoed by environmental NGOs, which have expressed that single environmental scores mustn’t be used to “hide trade-offs”. 

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This is addressed in further detail by the directive, which notes that consumers could be misled if claims point to environmental benefits while omitting the fact that those benefits lead to hidden trade-offs. 

For example, an environmental claim on textiles containing polymer from recycled PET bottles, if the recycled material may be otherwise used within a closed-loop recycling system for food packaging — the more beneficial option from a circular economy perspective. 

While bottle-to-bottle recycling is the ideal, the market for recycled plastic fabrics is growing — and not always first discerning whether higher-value reuse or recycling options are feasible.

The proposed directive calls for nuance in determining products’ environmental — or circular — performance, noting that comparative claims between similar products with different raw materials and production processes must take the most relevant life-cycle stages into account. 

For example: impacts within the agriculture and forestry industries are relevant for bio-based plastics, while oil extraction comes to the fore for fossil-based plastics. 

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While bio-based plastics certainly can be greener than their fossil-based counterparts — particularly in terms of their carbon footprint — concerns about the land-use requirements needed to grow the plants potentially competing with food and feed production and the potential risk of increased monocropping have come to the fore. 

These are the kinds of trade-offs the proposed directive hopes to shine a light on, especially as these claims are rising and are more often than not misleading.

The caveat: tackling false claims may lead to green — or circular — ’hushing’

Can a good thing go too far? Critics of the directive have honed in on the potential for “greenhushing”: brands deciding not to declare all the sustainable steps they’re taking due to steep costs or even fear of legal pushback for making (unintentional) false claims. 

While the proposed directive does mention protection for SMEs — noting that EU member states should provide adequate information on how to comply, as well as targeted, specialised training and financial support — smaller businesses may stand to lose out without knowledge of the right steps forward. 

While navigating new legislative waters may prove tricky, transparency and willingness to learn will be key along the way.

Additionally, companies should leverage their preparation for the CSRD. Adopted in late 2022, the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive will require nearly 50,000 companies across Europe to report on sustainability, resource use, and circular economy performance. 

Many companies’ sustainability-related data will come to the surface, providing new opportunities for transparency — but also showing where there’s room for improvement. 

Data collected for the CSRD can help companies make informed decisions about what to report and may open them up to attracting new customers and uncovering new ways of doing business. 

It’ll also lay bare businesses’ transgressions, making it more difficult to hide behind false claims.

The EU won’t be a safe haven for unsustainable businesses

While the Directive’s efficacy at quelling greenwashing and circular washing has yet to be seen, its existence in the broader legislative landscape of new EU bills is promising. 

With sustainability reporting requirements just over the horizon (businesses will be required to report on circularity from 2025) and a new ecodesign regulation — which will ban planned obsolescence — receiving broad support in parliament, it seems the EU is shaping a new standard for companies doing business across the continent. 

The next step: making this new standard the new normal.

Ana Birliga Sutherland is Writer and Editor at Circle Economy, a global impact organisation with an international team of experts based in Amsterdam.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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High-quality recycling loops are best for circular economy

On Europe’s journey to a circular economy, high quality recycling is essential. In fact, the recycling of fibre-based packaging constitutes one of the best examples. If you put your used paper products in the right recycling bin, you can count on them making their way to a facility that will recycle those materials so they can be used again many times to make packaging for breakfast cereal, boxes to carry your online deliveries, newspapers, and a whole host of other useful products.

Currently, about 75 percent of the raw materials used for the fibres in our packaging come from recycling. The rest comes from sustainably-managed forests. Our packaging helps keep fossil fuels in the ground, playing its part in making our planet greener. This is why fibre-based materials are widely recognized as one of the most sustainable choices available for packaging.

This is why fibre-based materials are widely recognized as one of the most sustainable choices available for packaging.

The EU’s packaging waste regulation: a key chance to enhance recycling systems

At Fibre Packaging Europe we believe the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) has a key role in making recycling even better. We now have a chance to set an ambitious 90 percent separate collection target for all EU member countries.  Here separate collection means transferring materials from your paper and board bin to the recycling plant. There is no better way to ensure that our packaging reaches recyclers after it has been used, and it will further increase an already-remarkable 81.5 percent recycling rate (Eurostat, 2020), higher by volume than plastic, metal and glass combined.

Where we see a risk in the PPWR is if the regulation gets the definition of ‘high-quality’ recycling twisted by restricting it only to what it calls ‘closed loops’. A closed loop means a cereal box would need to be recycled into another cereal box. When fibres are allowed to be recycled universally into any paper and board application and product, it is effective, it is resource efficient, and it reduces CO2 emissions through avoided transportation (to that cereal box factory). Most importantly, it is a good and simple way to continue increasing recycling rates.


Brought to you by Fibre Packaging Europe

Don’t get the loop twisted: why material loops make most sense for paper

But don’t just take it from us. We spoke to seasoned professionals in the recycling business that Fibre Packaging Europe represents to hear first-hand their thoughts on closed loops, the real challenges recyclers face and what can be done to overcome them.

Does closed-loop recycling have a role to play for fibre-based packaging? John Melia, strategy development and innovation director at DS Smith’s Recycling Division, is very clear on this point. “Closed-loop recycling of paper packaging would make no sense in a mature, well-functioning recycling system built on a thriving market for secondary raw materials. It would bring disruption to the market, reduce the quality and lifespan of fibre, and increase the use of fossil fuels in the supply chain. This would be a significant step back from the high-performing recycling system we have today.” 

Recycling systems based on ‘material loops’, on the other hand, mean that the raw materials we get from recycling processes are used in way that is far more versatile. They can be used to make a wide range of sustainable products that we use every day. The system works, and there is already in Europe a unique, thriving market for secondary raw materials in the fibre-based industry. In 2020, 56 million tons of ‘Paper for Recycling’ collected were transformed into equally high-quality new paper and board products.

If fibres get to the right recyclers, they have the tools to do the job

So how to make a high-quality recycling system even better? It all starts with collection.

“All fibre-based packaging is recyclable if, through collection and sorting, the material is guided to the right type of recycling mill”, explains Michel Willems, European Business Coordinator at Smurfit Kappa Recycling. ‘Separate’ collection systems, ones where non-paper materials such as plastic, metal and glass are collected separately from used paper products, can make it much easier to sort and send the material to the right recycling facilities. When it comes to fibre-based packaging products that are discarded by households, there’s an opportunity to further increase recycling rates.

So how to make a high-quality recycling system even better? It all starts with collection.

As a general principle, the more homogenous a fibre-based waste stream is, the easier it is to find the correct mill to do the recycling. Nonetheless, the great advantage of fibre packaging recycling is that a homogenous waste stream is not an absolute necessity for the majority of paper-based products. Most can easily be collected in the same bin, for example, at home. Such a stream, following standard quality checks, is ready for immediate recycling at many mills throughout Europe”, said Michel.

“Our business is built around reducing the environmental impact of packaging on the planet, improving supply chains for billions of people. We have an excellent, high-performance recycling system for cardboard with the highest recycling rate of any packaging material in Europe. Corrugated board packaging occupies a very special place because it has been the most recycled product forever. We recycle a box a minimum of 25 times in its life. At the end, it just returns to nature. Our environmentally friendly product is 100 percent renewable, recyclable and biodegradable”, added Michel.

For John Melia, this point is far more important to a successful circular economy than looking at changing recycling systems. “The EU should be focusing on what we know will bring rates of paper recycling even higher: better recycling infrastructure including increased segregation of recycling raw materials through separate collection of municipal waste,” he says. “We in the industry are doing our part, but achieving the full potential of the fibre recycling system will only be possible through government policies that focus on what we know will make a difference.”

So, when we look to complete the loop on the circular economy, let’s listen to the recyclers themselves. Let’s build on the high-quality recycling that already exists to build a greener Europe with the packaging products we know are sustainable.



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Helping consumers snack mindfully

Can Buharali, senior director global public affairs at Mondelēz International

Every day, people seeking a healthier lifestyle can encounter different recommendations about what foods and beverages they should have or avoid. However, little guidance may be seen on why and how to eat or drink to get the most out of the eating experience. One approach is shifting the thinking from the what, to the why and how — this approach is called mindful eating.

Rimi Obra-Ratwatte, European lead nutrition strategy at Mondelēz International

As one of the largest snacking companies in the world, we at Mondelēz International embrace the important role we have to play in empowering consumers to snack more mindfully. This is integral to our purpose of ‘helping people to snack right’. 

Snacking is part of everyday living. It can provide fuel for energy or a boost to jump-start your day. It can also simply be a treat. People are looking for snacks that fit their busy lifestyles. They want convenient and delicious snacks they feel good about eating, while also seeking balance when making their snack choices.

Our own extensive consumer data shows that 74 percent of consumers want snacking tips and visual indicators of portion size on pack. Indeed, we believe consumer information needs to be meaningful, actionable, consistent across markets and provide clear portion guidance at the point of purchase and consumption.

Our own extensive consumer data shows that 74 percent of consumers want snacking tips and visual indicators of portion size on pack.

So, what does mindful snacking really mean? 

Over the past eight years we’ve worked with mindful eating experts to develop and validate our global Mindful Snacking program. 

Mindful Snacking is the application of mindfulness to eating and can be practised by anyone, anywhere and by all ages. It can help people to manage their relationship with all food and to do so in moderation.

It is about paying attention to why you want to eat before you choose what to eat.

It is about paying attention to why you want to eat before you choose what to eat. Are you hungry? Are you simply bored, distracted or seeking a break from what you are doing?  

Thinking through your reasons can help you to be more deliberate about what you eat and more conscious about the reason why you want a snack. And it’s also about how you snack, taking your time to taste the flavors and textures, leaving distractions aside, and slowing the pace of eating so that you really enjoy what you’re eating and know when you’re full or satisfied. Tasting the subtlety of the flavors for example in chocolate will allow you to get the most satisfaction out of even a small portion.

It’s also about how you snack, taking your time to taste the flavors and textures, leaving distractions aside.

Moreover, mindful snacking has been shown to lead to a more positive relationship with food (1) by making more deliberate and conscious food choices, more satisfaction and pleasure from food by savoring with all your senses (2) and being less likely to overeat (3) by paying attention to feelings of satisfaction. 

In fact in some countries such as Germany, Australia and Brazil practices regarding mindful eating are included in national dietary guidelines — that by eating slowly and consciously, there is a greater enjoyment and promotion of the sense of satiation.  

Tasting the subtlety of the flavors for example in chocolate will allow you to get the most satisfaction out of even a small portion.

This approach is also supported by the British Nutrition Foundation, which emphasizes that healthy eating is not only about what we eat, but also how we eat it. Time of day, speed, portion size, our emotional state and the food environment may all influence our relationship with food and healthy eating.

via Mondelēz

Mind your portion?

Scientific research shows that eating mindfully leads to better management of food portions and less tendency to overeat by paying attention to feelings of hunger and satiety (4).  It is about being intentional when choosing a portion according to the emotional and hunger needs in the moment.

Providing visual indicators of portion sizes on packaging can help consumers, especially for products like snacks. Snacks are often consumed in much smaller amounts than per 100g, which is what many food labelling regulations are based on,  so portion size indicators can be used to help educate and guide consumers on appropriate servings. Portion control packaging formats can also be helpful, as individually packaged portions can help support more mindful eating and control calorie consumption.

Providing visual indicators of portion sizes on packaging can help consumers, especially for products like snacks.

What is Mondelēz International doing on mindful snacking?  

At Mondelēz International, we want to educate consumers about how to snack mindfully and inspire satisfying snacking experiences. Satisfying portion sizes and detailed labeling help consumers understand that snacks like chocolate can fit into balanced and mindful lifestyles.

We’re helping people to snack mindfully in many ways.

via Mondelēz
via Mondelēz

We aim to add information on pack across all of our European brands by 2025 and our Snack Mindfully website provides resources, tips and information on mindful snacking. This will empower our consumers by making them more aware of portion sizes through visual images of a portion along with the calories it provides, alongside tips on how to snack mindfully. We have also partnered with renowned mindful eating experts to provide consumer-friendly videos that explain mindful snacking and how to practice it, which are also available on the website. 

And in the U.K., we have piloted QR codes on pack, to provide consumers with further information.  By scanning the QR code on the outer packaging, consumers can access our new online platform https://www.snackingright.com/ which provides information about the company’s global Snacking Made Right programs, including its cocoa sourcing program Cocoa Life, tips on mindful snacking and recycling information. 

How to practice mindful snacking?  

Mindful Snacking is based on six, practical and accessible behaviors that anyone can practice, anytime and anywhere. Taking these behaviors and bringing them to life in the right occasion through our brands is what makes it authentic and real with consumers. Learn more on our website and find out how to practice mindful snacking.   

Sources:
(1) Alberts et al., 2012; Katterman et al., 2014; Hendrickson et al., 2017; Camillieri et al., 2015; Gravel et al., 2014 

(2) Hong et al., 2014; Arch et al., 2016; Cornil & Chandon, 2015; Hetherington et al., 2018 

(3) Oldham-Cooper et al., 2011; Higgs et al., 2011; Mittal et al., 2011; Robinson et al., 2014; Daubenmier et al., 2016 

(4) Gravel et al., 2014; Hong et al., 2014; Arch et al., 2016; Cornil & Chandon, 2015; Oldham-Cooper et al., 2011; Higgs, 2015; Mittal et al., 2011; Higgs et al., 2011, Robinson et al., 2014



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No silver bullet: Ensuring the right packaging solutions for Europe

When most people think of McDonald’s they likely think of quality food, good value and consistently reliable convenient service. But I hope they also think about our values.

At McDonald’s, we care deeply about our impact on the world. Our purpose is to feed and foster local communities. We are always striving to use our influence and scale to make a positive impact on the planet and in the communities we serve across Europe and globally. We are on a journey to help implement and accelerate solutions to keep waste out of nature and valuable materials in use.

Our purpose is to feed and foster local communities.

During my trip to Europe, I’ve seen some of these solutions in action. While in Brussels I had the opportunity to visit one of our restaurants at the forefront of advancing our circularity goals. McDonald’s is the first major partner of a pioneering initiative ‘The Cup Collective’. It is a great project by Stora Enso and Huhtamaki to collect cardboard beverage and ice cream cups in and around our restaurants and recycle them on an industrial scale into paper fiber. At our busy  restaurant in Brussels-North station, I saw the initiative firsthand. This is a fantastic example of several stakeholders working together to solve a problem through their expertise and innovation.

I know policymakers across the EU are trying to solve many of the greatest challenges we face today, including Europe’s growing packaging waste problem, and we at McDonald’s fully support this, as the example above demonstrates. The problem is, history itself is littered with examples of the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies and laws. I believe the current Packaging and Packaging Waste proposal by the EU is one such regulation. By focusing solely on reusable packaging, we at McDonald’s and many of our partners and competitors in the informal dining out sector believe that Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) will actually be counterproductive to the overall goals of the Green Deal. And we support the goals of the Green Deal, which is why this concerns us.

The informal eating-out sector is particularly complex and is not well understood. We feel the impact study the EU commissioned ahead of the PPWR proposal did not necessarily reflect that as much as it could have. We want such important decisions to be based on science, facts, and evidence, which is why we commissioned a report with the global management consultancy Kearney to assess environmental, economic, hygiene and affordability impacts of various packaging solutions. As a result of this, we firmly believe the proposal will be damaging not only for the environment, but also for the economy, food safety and for consumers.

Of course, the idea of reusing something over and over again as opposed to only once seems like the obvious solution — but it’s more complicated than that. For reuse models to have a positive impact on the environment, consumers need to return the reusables. A reusable cup needs to be returned and reused 50 to 100 times — whether for takeaway or dine-in — to make it environmentally preferable to a single-use paper cup.

Reusables by their very nature also need to be washed every time they’re used. For an industry like ours, serving millions of customers every day, that requires significant energy and water. Europe’s water infrastructure is already under stress, and the Kearney study shows reusable packaging requirements for dine-in restaurants would increase water use — and could require up to 4 billion liters of additional water each year. Washing also requires more energy resulting in increased greenhouse emissions. The study shows that a shift to 100 percent reusable packaging by 2030 would increase greenhouse emissions by up to 50 percent for dine-in and up to 260 percent for takeaway. They also require specialist washing to ensure they meet hygiene standards.

The study shows that a shift to 100 percent reusable packaging by 2030 would increase greenhouse emissions.

When it comes to plastics we are particularly concerned. McDonald’s has made huge progress when it comes to reducing plastic in our supply chain and restaurants. In the European Union, more than 90 percent of our packaging is locally sourced, primarily from European paper packaging suppliers. We are shifting packaging materials to more sustainable alternatives to ensure easier recovery and recycling. 92.8 percent (by weight) of McDonald’s food packaging in Europe is wood fiber and 99.4 percent of that fiber packaging comes from recycled or certified sources.

Worryingly though, the study we commissioned says that reuse models will lead to a sharp increase in plastic materials in Europe.Reuse targets proposed in the PPWR will create four times the amount of plastic packaging waste for dine-in, and 16 times for takeaway. That’s a lot more plastic instead of recyclable paper and cardboard and is the opposite of what the EU wants to achieve.

So, what should be done? Given that Kearney’s data shows recyclable, fiber-based packaging has the greater potential to benefit the environment, economy, food safety and consumers, we believe the EU should pause and conduct a full impact study before moving ahead. The European Commission’s current impact assessment lacks depth and does not consider economic and food safety aspects. Member countries should not unilaterally introduce legislation before this has been assessed to avoid fragmentation of the single market.

We believe the EU should pause and conduct a full impact study before moving ahead.

In dine in and takeaway, we are looking for equivalence of treatment between recycled and recyclable (paper based) single use packaging and reusable tableware. Any legislation should take into account the specific needs of complex business sectors, and the right packaging solutions.

A rush to a solution for a complicated situation will only make the problem worse. I hope that the report McDonald’s commissioned and launched with Kearney will stimulate the policy debate about the mix of solutions needed. Europe has a proud history of collaboration and pragmatism when it comes to solving important problems and challenges, and I am confident we can draw on that when it comes to this particular issue — because there really is no silver bullet when it comes to solving Europe’s packaging problem.

www.nosilverbullet.eu



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