Coffee pods and tea bags targeted in bid to reduce Europe’s ‘growing mountain of waste’

EU wants products to be industrially compostable as Europe struggles with rising volumes of rubbish

The European Commission is targeting plastic tea bags, mini hotel shampoo bottles and coffee pods as part of a plan to curb Europe’s “growing mountain of waste” on Wednesday.

Waste from packaging has increased by 20 per cent over the last decade and is forecast to continue to rise, with about 177kg generated per person in the European Union annually, an amount that is straining the capacity of rubbish systems.

The proposal would ban “unnecessary” packaging such as miniature plastic hotel shampoo bottles, single-use plastic bags for buying fruits and vegetables, and throwaway cutlery in restaurants where customers eat on-site.

“I think everyone has experienced it. You order something online, and it comes in a massive box that’s half empty,” the commission’s climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said as he announced the plans.

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“Or you go to a cafe, and instead of being served on regular plates you get served on single-use containers so you leave behind a mountain of waste. Such overpackaging is a nuisance to us and increasingly damaging to our environment.”

Under the plans, tea bags, stickers on fruit, and filter coffee pods would have to be industrially compostable rather than made of plastic. There would be restrictions placed on over-packaging by setting limits for the empty space allowed in ecommerce parcels, while mandatory “deposit return systems” would be introduced for plastic and aluminium cans, offering customers small refunds for their return. Each EU country would need to commit to a mandatory target of reducing packaging waste by 15 per cent per capita by 2040.

Under the plans, packaging would carry standard symbols that match those on bins to make it clear how each piece should be recycled.

If agreed by the European Parliament and national governments, the Regulation on Packaging and Packaging Waste would also simplify the increasing variety of complex plastics and mixes of materials used in packaging, which can make rubbish more difficult to sort and recycle.

The plans have been subject to intense lobbying by industry groups, who have argued the proposals are unrealistic and damaging in the run-up to their introduction.

The commission calculates that if implemented the proposals would reduce greenhouse gas production by an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of Croatia by 2030, saving an estimated €6.4 billion in environmental and societal costs.

The plan also aims to increase the rate of recycling of packaging to 73 per cent by 2030 while almost halving the amount that goes into landfill to 9.6 per cent.

Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are still dumped in Europe’s landfills, much of it packaging, while more is shipped overseas to countries including India, Egypt, and Indonesia as the EU struggles to process all of its own waste.

In Turkey, the main destination for EU rubbish since China banned plastic waste imports in 2018, environmental and human rights organisations have documented extensive damage to human health and the environment, with European plastic waste found burned in mounds on roadsides and spilling into rivers and fields.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times