Do we now have to melt down all beer bottles in the name of sustainability? Just to produce them again in the same form, supplemented by an engraving on the material used and the correct container for packaging waste? The European Commission has now issued a clear no to this, after the German Brewers Association and manufacturers and retailers were already in a frenzy. The supply of the ever-popular hop beverage in the returnable glass bottle is secured for the time being.
But let's take it one step at a time: On November 30, 2022, the EU Commission presented its proposal for a new European Packaging Regulation. It states that reusable beverage bottles must be provided with a "permanently affixed label." This can also happen via removable paper labels, the Commission clarified in June 2023.
Engraving was only a proposal, it then said. A proposal that would have involved replacing the four billion returnable deposit bottles currently in circulation, according to the German Brewers Association. Because until now, labels were common.
Avoid trouble in advance
So what is considered sustainable today can become a potential problem tomorrow. And once a new law or EU regulation has come into force, the worst case scenario is that I have to withdraw the beer from circulation. Many a producer feels blindsided by new legal requirements. However, anyone who wants (or needs) to adapt their production and packaging to a new law needs a certain lead time. "As a rule, such laws are announced with sufficient lead time. At the moment, however, the deadlines are kept very short in order to achieve a quicker effect. The learning of the last decades is that the majority of companies hold back until the pressure is great enough. This is presumably also the reason for interpreting legislative requirements or drafts in a more binding and short-term manner. On the other hand, the lobbying associations are already preparing lawsuits against the laws," says Pacoon Managing Director Peter Désilets.
This advance notice should generally be available to one - as long as one as a company is aware of new legislative proposals in good time and takes appropriate action right away. Acting with foresight is the most important commandment. The EU, for example, is not quick with new laws and regulations, because every new law must first pass through several stages: the proposal by the Commission, the first reading in the European Parliament, the proposal by the European Council, the second reading in the Parliament, finding a compromise in the conciliation procedure, and then the entry into force. From the idea to the law can take months in the fastest case, often even years.
The mills of the legislature
Take the European Union's new packaging law, for example: although the proposal for it was presented last year in 2022, it is not expected to come into force until 2024. Optimistically estimated.
This is not an isolated case, but rather the classic progression of an EU law. So if I as a manufacturer stay up to date with upcoming directives, I can adapt processes and goods to the specifications. Long before the law comes into force and my beverage bottles would become legally questionable for sale, I have wisely safeguarded myself. But how can I make the changeover in compliance with the law?
Mistaken in the interpretation
Knowing that a new legislative proposal exists at all is the obvious and thoroughly complex first step. The fact that legislative tightening and, above all, its interpretation cause uncertainty is more the rule than the exception. The obligations of producers as well as distributors are not always clear.
In order for manufacturers and distributors to recognize the pitfalls of a packaging law, they should have a legally competent partner at their side when monitoring the legal situation. This partner knows about rights and obligations and can answer all questions from bottles to beverage cans.
Convert packaging correctly
After the monitoring, through which I become aware of a new packaging law and its consequences early enough, the actual changeover phase follows. But what is there to consider in the first place?
First of all, the packaging solutions currently in use must be analyzed. How is the packaging disposed of, recycled or reused? To what extent do the types of packaging comply with future guidelines and to what extent do they not? In monitoring, I have at best already established which goals the EU is currently pursuing when it comes to sales packaging, the avoidance of packaging waste and the development of a circular economy.
This means that during the changeover, I can not only take into account legislative proposals that are already on the table, but at the same time ask myself how I can best contribute with my packaging to achieving the goals that have been set. One step ahead again.
Swan song of the waste
The analysis of the status quo is followed by the selection of new packaging concepts and materials that comply with the law and are as sustainable as possible. Paper, cardboard, bio-plastic, reusable - the label perhaps even engraved in the glass instead of glued on. According to the European Commission, the avoidance of waste forms the core of the new packaging directive and is also at the top of the waste hierarchy. And this hierarchy also serves as a good orientation for where packaging is headed.
Reusable containers for takeaway food. Less plastic, less material in general. If packaging waste cannot be avoided, choose recyclable variants wherever possible. In short: fulfill your responsibility to protect the environment and take responsibility for the product.
Packaging change that works
Provided all the measures in the new packaging regulation are implemented, greenhouse gas emissions from packaging would fall to 43 million metric tons by 2030 from 66 million metric tons annually, according to the European Commission. With the environment in mind, such laws and directives are not just onerous obligations.
By choosing your packaging, you as a manufacturer make an important contribution to achieving the EU's goals. To find the right types of packaging for your products, the partner at your side not only advises you on the sustainability of the options.
What is financially worthwhile
After all, from a business perspective, it is not only the environmental balance of materials and waste that is important. How high are the costs for the packaging solutions? What are the costs for placing on the market and disposal? What does the changeover mean for our supply chains? The answers to these questions will show you to what extent changes in production can also be financially worthwhile - and to what extent a changeover will result in additional costs in the short term. "Often, companies only look at the environmental aspect of packaging from a 'waste' perspective. We have been trying for years to focus attention on the holistic view. To do this, however, several departments have to be brought on board. Many companies are reluctant to do this because it requires a lot of effort and a good overview. This is where we often come in as project managers, because we have an overview of the effects for all departments," explains Désilets.
In order to meet legal requirements, changes are often unavoidable. In the short term, this causes expenses, but in the long term, sustainable packaging scores points not only with legislators, but also with private end consumers. According to studies, around 70 percent of customers describe themselves as environmentally conscious, and the majority are even prepared to pay more for sustainable products. In case of doubt, the costs of the changeover can be directly compensated for by higher sales and a rising brand image, and thus a higher margin value. A higher-value brand is able to realize a higher margin.
Step by step one step ahead
Whether for analyzing the current packaging, selecting new ones, finding the right partners or mechanical changeovers: as already mentioned, everything takes time. Accordingly, a tightly calculated changeover, especially in competition with other companies, is not exactly advantageous. It means stress for everyone involved. And another important tip for the conversion of production processes all too often falls by the wayside: act step by step.
If you convert only a small number of products at first and let the rest follow later, you can identify problems early on. For this to succeed, it is important to provide comprehensive training for employees. Communicate to everyone in the company why the changes are necessary and what is important with sustainable packaging. "We always offer our customers in-house training for this, true to the motto 'bring the knowledge in-house'. This ensures cost savings in the long term, because expensive consulting services or mistakes are avoided," says Désilets. Experience has taught him a thing or two: "We've been dealing with this topic since 2008. If you want to do it on your own with one or two employees in-house, it will take years to get up to speed. However, an in-house training course can bring all relevant departments up to a uniformly high level of knowledge in a single day. And at a fraction of the cost that a single employee would require."
No hassle with the packaging law
From the Circular Economy 2020 action plan, which deals with the high-quality recycling of packaging, among other things, to the latest Packaging Ordinance: If you don't stay up-to-date, it can be too late for the implementation of adapted packaging in the worst case. With all the consequences that entails - both legally and financially, if goods and packaging can no longer be modified in time and marketing fails.
Together with its partner CERTIFY and expert Norma Stangl from Forschgruen.de, Pacoon offers an overview of guidelines for packaging licensing and labeling in Europe and the United States.
Hop drink in the back of the head
Back to our dilemma from the beginning: the labels of returnable beer bottles. Or other bottled beverages, for that matter. Currently, the EU has clarified that paper labels will fulfill the legal obligations associated with the new packaging regulation for the time being. The life cycle of those bottles already in circulation is thus assured - a returnable glass bottle can be refilled up to 50 times, according to the Federal Environment Agency.
We have seen: It can take years from the time a new law is proposed until it comes into force - or it simply never happens.
So there is usually enough time to adapt the production of packaging to laws that will apply in the future. Those who know what to look for in a changeover have a clear advantage. "We take a long-term view of new concepts. and have some experience there. That's why we can already prepare for them today. And we set intermediate targets so that companies can gain experience before they turn the big wheel. Some things also require a lead time on the market before they become established. Others can be implemented immediately and will last," says Peter Désilets.