Circularity in drinks packaging: the only way forward


It is an obvious fact that drinks packaging, like all packaging, should be collected for recycling whenever possible. After all, keeping raw materials in the chain is fundamental to the transition to a circular economy. Europe sets clear priorities, with sharp objectives. Belgium is playing a pioneering role in setting up efficient systems that will allow us to accomplish these ambitions today. So why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

The European Circular Economy Action Plan states that the irreversible transition to a sustainable industrial model is indispensable for a climate-neutral, competitive economy. We achieve this by, for example, limiting the use of primary (new) raw materials and reducing CO2 emissions. Recycling, with the output of secondary (recycled) raw materials that are brought back into the chain, plays a fundamental role here. The Single Use Plastics Directive therefore imposes a 90% collection rate for plastic beverage bottles by 2029 and states that they must consist of at least 25% recycled material by 2025.

Uniform systems as the key to success

Belgium is already meeting these targets today. In 2020, 92% of all plastic (PET) drinks bottles were collected for recycling. The efficient and user-friendly collection system via the New Blue Bag is the basis for this. Belgium is one of the few countries where a uniform collection system with a uniform sorting message applies throughout the territory.

It is precisely because of this uniformity that Belgium manages to achieve the second objective more quickly. In 2020, 54% of PET recyclate went into new bottles. The cumulative volume of over 11 million people sorting packaging in the same way justifies the investment in five high-tech sorting centres. They can sort transparent PET bottles alone into three qualities: clear, blue and coloured. The high degree of purity guarantees qualitative recycling into food-safe applications. The new PET recycling plant in Couillet, which will recycle the bulk of Belgium's PET bottles from 2023 onwards, will produce recycled PET pellets that will be used in their entirety in the production of new food-contact-safe PET bottles for the Belgian market. This investment is also the result of volume guarantees over a well-defined period.

Higher cost for the same result?

We therefore find it incomprehensible that, despite these results, there are voices calling for the introduction of deposits. After all, in addition to drinks packaging, bottles, and also cans, the New Blue Bag offers a recycling solution for many other types of packaging as well. Packaging that in other countries often ends up in the residual waste, such as jars and foils. Two parallel systems would drive up the cost to society, and thus ultimately to the citizen, without providing a solution for those missing percentages. For indeed, there is some packaging, some drinks bottles, that we are not yet capturing today. These end up in the residual waste, or worse - end up as litter.

Changing consumption patterns are forcing the recycling chain to evolve. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach for efficient outdoor packaging collection. With an effective approach, we set out targeted routes: separate collection in the public domain, pre-sorting to create maximum value from residual waste, reward projects - to name but a few.

Let us not forget that litter is first and foremost the result of an attitude problem. And despite what some may say, there is no miracle solution to this. All actors in the chain must cooperate and take responsibility; the companies, but also the government with an effective enforcement policy.

It would be foolish to undermine the foundations of the existing system now. With investments of nearly €1 billion in Belgian sorting and recycling centres, the circular economy is not a vision of the future but already a reality. It is therefore important to follow this path in order to maintain Belgium's leading position.