"The Packaging Act of 2019 is already having an effect here [on recycling]. But there is still far too much packaging waste in Germany. More than half of all plastic waste is disposable packaging, and that really bothers many citizens, and it really bothers me personally", remarked Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze on the latest amendment to Germany’s Packaging Act (the Verpackungsgesetz).
In November 2020, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) published a draft law to implement the requirements of the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics Directive and the Waste Directive within the framework of the Packaging Act and other German laws. On 20 January 2021, the revised draft was adopted by the Federal Cabinet. Now the amendment to the Packaging Act must be passed by the federal parliament (Bundestag) and upper house (Bundesrat).
As I have described in previous publications (here and here), the European Union (EU) has set a number of targets in relation to plastic products and extended producer responsibility in recent years, both in 2019 through the Directive (EU) 2019/904 on reducing the impact of certain plastic products on the environment (also known as the "Single-Use Plastic Directive" or "SUP Directive") and in 2018 through the amendment of the Waste Directive (EU) 2008/98/EG for the strengthening of extended producer responsibility (in particular Article 8a).
The new amendment targets the objective of "integrating into national law the new requirements of the EU directives – while maintaining the German environmental and resource protection standards, which in part already go beyond the existing EU law – to the fullest extent possible". This blog contains an overview of three prominent amendments to the Packaging Act introduced by the amendment.
- A stronger collection system for single-use beverage bottles
The amendment requires that single-use plastic beverage bottles be collected separately for recycling (at least 77 % from 1 January 2025 and at least 90 % from 1 January 2029). This measure is in line with Article 9 of the SUP Directive. This amendment fulfils the objectives of promoting more efficient recycling through separate collection, as well as the mitigation of littering, i.e. the polluting and illegal disposal of waste in public spaces. However, disposable beverage cartons such as tetrapacks remain exempt from the mandatory deposit system.
- Minimum proportion of recycled material in single-use plastic beverage bottles
Through the insertion of a new section in the Packaging Act (§ 30a), the amendment stipulates that single-use plastic beverage bottles, which are mainly made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), must contain a mandatory proportion of recycled material. From 1 January 2025 this should be a proportion of at least 25 %, and from 1 January 2030 at least 30 %. Otherwise, the single-use plastic beverage bottles cannot legally be placed on the market. This measure is in line with Article 6(5)(a) of the SUP Directive. Such an obligation has been introduced in for the first time in Germany.
- Reusable food packaging and beverage cups for takeaway/To Go
From January 1, 2023, the final distributors of food packaging and beverage cups made of single-use plastic are obliged to offer the goods offered for sale in single-use packaging in reusable packaging as well, and to enable their return. The reusable packaging cannot be offered on worse terms than the single-use packaging. There is an exemption for small businesses (with a maximum of five employees and 80 square metres of sales area) and certain vending machines that are not open to the general public. Furthermore, the final distributors are obliged to provide the final consumers with relevant information on the return option of the reusable packaging offered by them through readable information boards or signs.
Updating the German Packaging Act in line with EU regulations
As I described in an IASS Policy Brief, policy on plastic and packaging waste management at the EU level has evolved since the original packaging law was formulated in 2017. The amendment to the Packaging Act brings legislation in Germany into line with EU regulations formulated after the Act entered into force in January 2019.
Greater responsibility for disposable beverage packaging
The amendment makes single-use beverage packaging somewhat more sustainable because of the extended deposit obligation as well as the minimum recycled content obligation, which will improve the status quo. This is a welcome change. However, this should not distract from the goal of strengthening reusable systems for beverages. In recent years, the share of reusable bottles has decreased, contrary to the objective of the Packaging Act. The statutory reusable quota for all beverage packaging should, according to the Packaging Act, be at least 70 %. But in 2017, this share was 42 %, 0.7 % lower than that in 2016. It is not expected that this quota will be reached in the near future. The amendment has not further strengthened the 70 % target for reusable beverage packaging by making it a binding target. More effective measures to support reusable beverage packaging systems should form part of future legislation.
Reusable containers in the to-go sector are gaining in importance
The new obligation to use reusable food packaging and beverage cups is important – not only as an example of greater extended producer responsibility in Germany, but also because it offers consumers the choice to select more sustainable packaging. This measure is more ambitious than the existing concrete regulations in the SUP Directive. Reusable containers have already been offered by relatively new start-up companies for two or three years, raising awareness among consumers and legislators and clearly demonstrating the potential of this solution. With these offers now finding a place in the legal framework, we can hope that over time reusable systems will be used more widely in general. Environment Minister Svenja Schulz herself mentioned some of these companies offering reusable containers, such as FairCup, RECUP and REBOWL in her statement, saying: "This new normal of re-use is not so far away."
The draft law is a valuable and important step towards reducing the impact of certain single-use plastic products. To become a pioneer of the circular economy at the European level, Germany needs to plan even more ambitious changes to the Packaging Act, such as binding waste prevention and reuse quotas.