Joachim Quoden of EXPRA spoke to Mission Circular about the critical convenor of circularity for (flexible) packaging – EPR schemes
Joachim Quoden has been involved in extended producer responsibility (EPR) for almost as long as the concept has existed. In the early 1990s he was finishing off his legal education and by chance, came to work on environmental programmes for the German federal government. “There, I was infected by EPR,” he says. “After leaving the environment ministry, I worked for the German Green Dot scheme, which was the first EPR system for packaging in the world.”
Although Swiss architect Walter Stahel had begun sketching out the first iterations of what would become known as the circular economy as early as the 1970s, it would take several decades before the idea would take off in earnest. Today, EPR, which sees companies subsidising and partly even organising waste recovery and recycling programmes for the goods they put out on the market, is a key lever in realising a circular economy. And in regards to flexible packaging, with its unique challenges, EPR is a valuable mechanism in the mix of strategies to increase rates of collection. “EPR systems are quite important for bringing the vision of circularity for packaging into reality,” says Quoden.
“Industry has accepted that we have to bring circularity to packaging. And I think it’s a global understanding. 26 companies within the Consumer Goods Forum have declared that they will support EPR solutions and circularity, in all the countries where they have operations. This [kind of commitment] was unthinkable five years ago.”
Having spent nearly three decades deeply involved in the EPR concept, he has seen it evolve, becoming more encompassing of all types of materials, and not just limited to households. “In the past, members concentrated on establishing a collection system for households. But now, in more and more countries you’ll find separate collection in offices, leisure centres, fitness studios, train stations etc. Our job is to ensure that wherever people are using packaging, there’s a separate collection for it.”
And in terms of real action, he feels we’re in a crucial phase, citing revisions in the EU’s Waste Framework Directive that will see collection rates rise significantly. Recycling targets for plastic packaging, for example, have more than doubled, from 22.5% to 50% by 2025. “We have extremely high, ambitious targets now.”
Another “game-changer” is alterations in how recycling volumes are now measured, being weighed further down the line than they previously were, after various processing has been done. “So you have higher targets, and the targets are more difficult to achieve because the measurement point is different.” Arguably a good thing as far as capturing as much value as possible from packaging.
A third legislative development is around new, minimum requirements for EPR systems. For example, governments will need to better enforce the schemes and they will be more structured, explains Quoden, with more transparency, and financial security built in. With the effect that, “We will have more reliable partners, which was not the case in all the countries up to now.”
Good news all around. So much so that if we were to plot progress towards achieving a circular economy for flexibles on a scale of one to 10, in one year’s time, we might be at a seven, he says. Except it’s never as simple as that.
“The Commission was mandated within the same legislation, to come up with guidelines to help member states implement these laws nationally, and to ensure that they are doing it more or less the same. And we are still waiting for these guidelines.” Countries such as Greece, Romania and Bulgaria are struggling, he says.
But the deadline for reaching the recycling targets, in any case, is not until 2025, so all is not lost. He likens it to the five stages of grief. “First you refuse it, then you ignore it, then you are crying… And I think we are in the last stage, we are trying our best [to tackle] these new developments.”
He feels there is often a disjunct between the policymakers in Brussels and the people dealing with implementation of those policies at ground level. In this sense, the targets are almost too ambitious, where some member states are left with little chance of fulfilling them within official timelines. “The Commission is progressing incredibly quickly.”
Luckily, organisations like CEFLEX exist to provide support and resources, to help members see through legislative and voluntary commitments. And happily, Quoden feels that on the whole, a sea change is underway, and not just within Europe. “Industry has accepted that we have to bring circularity to packaging. And I think it’s a global understanding. 26 companies within the Consumer Goods Forum have declared that they will support EPR solutions and circularity, in all the countries where they have operations. This [kind of commitment] was unthinkable five years ago.”
And as far as widespread collection of flexible packaging is concerned, things are looking promising. “The gap is closing in Europe very soon. And so, at minimum, collection is ensured. Now we have to solve the next steps which are to adapt the sorting plants and then of course to find markets for it. But collection should be all over Europe soon.”
For Quoden personally, being witness to such a progression has meant that in 28 years there’s never been a dull moment. “It was never boring, because there were always very interesting and challenging things happening. And we were all very enthusiastic with the new Waste Framework Directive and Packaging Directive.”
So, it’s not quite job done, but for the role that EPR plays in higher rates of collection for flexibles, the future is bright.
Joachim Quoden, EXPRA