Packaging as we know it is changing, does one size fit all?

 Packaging as we know it is changing, does one size fit all?

In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, we give back more than we take, and eliminate the production of waste at the start. We should aim to keep materials in use for as long as possible, delivered with a net-positive impact on the environment and climate.

We are in a time of an unprecedented amount of environmental legislation and are seeing changes more rapidly than ever before, especially in Europe.

The EU Green Deal was presented in 2019 and aims to make Europe the first climate neutral continent. It provides a Climate Action plan for policy areas including energy, climate change, industry and agriculture. As part of the Circular Economy Package, the Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive will be revised. It has been in place since 1994 and was last revised in 2018.

The Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) released a revised proposal in November 2022,  and is not yet final regulation. It establishes requirements for the entire life cycle of packaging; including environmental sustainability and labelling, to allow its placing on the market, as well as for the extended producer responsibility, collection, treatment and recycling of packaging waste.

The aim is to reduce the generation of packaging waste, promote a circular economy for packaging in a cost-efficient way and promote the uptake of recycled content in packaging.

We at Ahlstrom welcome this ambitious proposal and harmonisation across the member states is something that will greatly help optimise waste reduction and transitioning to a circular economy.

The main areas of change in the revision are:

  • All packaging placed on the market should be reusable and/or recyclable by 2030 and recycled at scale by 2035
  • Introduce harmonised assessment and test methodology of design for recycling by material
  • Significantly increase reuse and refill targets
  • Increase substitution of virgin materials with recycled materials
  • Harmonise criteria for eco-modulation of EPR fees
  • Harmonised mandatory symbols on packaging & waste receptacles
  • Mandatory deposit and return schemes
  • Restrict void fill in e-commerce & single use transport packaging

With this in mind, implementation of the measures needs to be carefully considered and science-based for them to be successful and generate the intended impact. One size does not fit all and considering the reality of the packaging value chain and reuse systems in symbiosis can help achieve overall harmonisation and better outcomes

Ahlstrom’s purpose is to Purify and Protect with Every Fiber for a Sustainable World, and the way we see it, the proposal would better enable us to live this purpose and help our customers, with some key amendments. Reuse and recyclability should be complementary alternatives to choose from to achieve the greatest environmental benefits

The full life cycle impact of all packaging products should serve as the basis when choosing between reusable or recyclable packaging. Mandatory reusable targets in takeaway services should only be implemented if based on scientific and material specific data regarding the environmental benefits, the logistics involved, hygiene aspects and the importance of high return and rotation rates, as well as low wastage.

According to a recently published life cycle analysis study, recyclable, paper-based packaging used in the food delivery and takeaway sector offers significant environmental advantages over reusable systems across 12 ‘impact categories’ including climate change, freshwater consumption and resource depletion1. As the industry continues to improve the environmental performance, this will bring further environmental impact savings of packaging in the future.

The paper and board recycling infrastructure is already high-performing and the industry is committed to further improve through setting a 90% voluntary recycling target by 20302. The targets set in PPWR should also be aligned with the Waste Framework Directive, which allows to deviate from the waste hierarchy based on proof of environmental benefits.


Compostable solutions are a viable alternative when dealing with food contamination

Composting plays a key role in reducing the waste to the recovery and landfill stream and is equivalent to recycling in waste hierarchy, in fact it is also called “organic recycling”. Composting allows consumers to not disrupt the recycling stream with food contamination, whilst adding value to the compost stream.

Creating a regulatory approach that allows for multiple end of life scenarios, like recyclable or compostable would be key to enabling a potentially faster pace of change in the market.


Mandatory plastic recycled content targets should only apply to packaging predominantly composed of plastic

Market capacity for high quality plastic recyclates should be balanced prior to recycled content targets applying to all packaging containing plastic. Mandatory recycled targets need to be well gauged, and their technical feasibility assessed with a view to determine viable thresholds and implementation timelines.

Targets should be introduced incrementally as the market develops and should initially only apply to packaging predominantly composed of plastic, as they will be collected and recycled in the plastic fraction. 

The definition of plastic is formulated to include barriers used in fiber composite packaging. These barrier layers only comprise a small fraction of the whole packaging and help reduce the total amount of fossil based plastic materials used. Recycled targets for these barriers are not reconcilable with greater environmental benefit until the plastic recyclate market is developed and alternatives exist. There is a risk that a scenario arises with lack the of necessary quantity and quality of sustainable recycled plastics to meet the proposed threshold.


Utilise the industry knowledge   

The paper and board industry has developed Paper-Based Packaging Recyclability Guidelines3 and Circularity by Design Guidelines4 to support the value chain in the design of paper and board packaging that is recyclable. Collecting and sorting paper as a separate waste stream is an essential prerequisite supporting this process.

Utilising the knowledge from the fiber-based, paper packaging industry, including recyclers is critical to ensure the exchange of expertise allowing measures to be science based and fit for purpose, carefully considering technology, equipment and innovation.

There is still time to have your say on the future of packaging in Europe. Respond to the European Commission’s public consultation that is open until the 24th April here: Reducing packaging waste – review of rules (


This is an insights article from Natasha Chorlton, Manager, Circular Economy and Recyclability



1LCA study on takeaway - EPPA (

2 Cepi, Press release. Available here: Press release: European Commission proposal on packaging and packaging waste could build a world class circularity model where reuse and recycling are complementary   |

3 Cepi, CITPA, ACE, FEFCO (2019). Paper-Based Packaging Recyclability Guidelines. Available here:

4 4evergreen. Circularity by Design Guidelines for Fibre-based packaging. Available here: