The European Green Deal: driving change in the bottled water industry
The European Green Deal is the roadmap for a sustainable EU economy. Actions aim to boost the efficient use of resources by shifting towards a circular economy, as well as restore biodiversity and achieve zero net emissions by 2050. So where does the bottled water industry fit into all of this? A dual interview with MEP Kathleen Van Brempt (Belgium, S&D) and Ermis Panagiotopoulos, Sustainability Director of the European Federation of Bottled Waters (EFBW), hashes out whether or not packaging and sustainability can coexist.
What is the European Green Deal and what does it aim to achieve?
KVB: “The European Green Deal is essentially the EU’s comprehensive plan to make the European economy sustainable in order to meet, among other things, the Paris climate targets. The goal is to ensure the entire European economy and society are climate neutral by 2050. Policymakers quickly realised that climate efforts have an impact on virtually all sectors of the economy, but also on the way we live, work and relax. Society will look completely different by 2050. After all, climate measures set a whole chain of changes in motion that are not necessarily directly related to climate. The biodiversity strategy drawn up by the European Commission as part of the Green Deal, for example, is intended to help protect natural resources, but will also lead to drastic reductions in, for example, the use of pesticides or consumption of plastic. The Green Deal therefore goes a lot further than just climate measures. It additionally aims to create a circular economy. If we have less need of natural resources, we can limit the transport of those resources and radically reduce pollution.”
KVB: “The Green Deal goes a lot further than just climate measures.”
EP: “The European Green Deal means different things for different sectors. The common denominator, however, is Europe’s aspiration in becoming climate neutral by 2050. For natural mineral and spring water producers, there are two parts to the story. On the one hand, there is our product, natural mineral water, with very few emissions (single ingredient, bottled at source with no agriculture involved) and on the other, the packaging used to protect the product when delivering it to consumer. European natural mineral and spring water producers market their products in fully recyclable packaging materials, such as PET, glass or aluminium. For the moment, we rely on a significant amount of virgin materials, but this is going to change. We have been a forward looking industry and achieving a circular economy has been our number one priority. When in May 2018 our sector pledged to increase collection rates of PET bottles (90% by 2025) and the amount of recycled PET in bottles to 25% by 2025 (from around 11% today) we were happy to see that the EU, in the Single Use Plastics Directive, set identical targets. In fact, we are one of the very few sectors who can realistically achieve a fully circular economy in the next few years.”
EP: “We are one of the very few sectors who can realistically achieve a fully circular economy in the next few years.”
What are the European Green Deal’s key targets?
KVB: “The main objective is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. That is the climate ambition of the Green Deal. A second major objective concerns the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These cover much more than just climate action, but also include social sustainability goals. These two major principles have been translated into more concrete action plans, each of which pursues objectives in its own right. The list is very long and ambitious. Let me briefly give a few examples. A European climate law will translate the step-by-step reduction of emissions – perhaps 50 to 55 pct by 2030 – into binding legislation. The already proposed Farm to Fork strategy aims to make the entire food chain sustainable, from agriculture, to processing, packaging, transport and even consumers’ diets. Part of this strategy is to halve pesticide use by 2030. Progressively stricter standards will be set for emissions from internal combustion engines with the ultimate goal of a shift to zero emission vehicles. Other means of transport such as shipping and air traffic will also have to contribute to CO2 reduction. For example, as part of its biodiversity strategy, the Commission intends to plant 3 billion trees. Buildings in the EU are responsible for 40 pct of energy consumption and 36 pct of CO2 emissions, which is more than emissions from cars and trucks. Nearly three-quarters of all buildings in the EU are not energy efficient. Some 200 million buildings will have to be renovated in the next 30 years. Important and energy-intensive sectors such as steel production will also have to become climate-neutral through innovative technologies.”
EP: “Natural mineral water sources offer a positive contribution towards biodiversity as their catchment areas are protected.”
EP: “The proposed Farm to Fork strategy is a great example of how everything fits together. It is a strategy focusing on the sustainability of the food chain covering biodiversity, sourcing, packaging and transport. When we are talking about natural mineral and spring waters, we are talking about highly protected catchment areas that enjoy outstanding biodiversity precisely because of their protected state. Producers have been safeguarding catchment areas for as much as hundred years, helping to protect the natural ecosystems through which water flows to reach its natural source. The areas of land surrounding underground water sources are subject to rigorous and extensive environmental protection. The “impluvium” – where rain and snow seep into the soil to then journey underground through layers of rock – is a highly protected zone and can extend up to several thousands of hectares. Producers usually work in partnership with local communities, public authorities and farmers to ensure the protection of the sources. Natural mineral water sources actually offer a positive contribution towards biodiversity as their catchment areas are protected, avoiding external sources of pollution.”
With plastic being a key focus area for both the EU and the EFBW, what does the Green Deal mean for the bottled water industry?
KVB: “It’s all about transitional thinking. One has to look at the whole industrial process in a holistic way in order to make the required adjustments everywhere. In the case of bottled water, this starts at the source and continues, over consumption at the customer’s premises, to the waste flows. One of the first elements, with a very large impact on the ecological footprint, is the location where the water is extracted. Regardless of fine marketing and image, it is complete madness to mine water on one side of the world and then transport it thousands of kilometres by ships or planes running on fossil fuels, to a region that itself has perfectly drinkable water sources. Short chain thinking here is a very first and crucial step, and imported water is out of the question. Next, achieving circular packaging is of course a big challenge.
KVB: “It’s all about transitional thinking. Taking a holistic look at the whole industrial process and making adjustments everywhere.”
EP: “Plastic has no business littering our planet. The problem, however, is not the material itself but waste management as a whole which doesn’t capture what is put in the market. European mineral and spring water producers use PET bottles which are fully recyclable and the most recycled plastics of all, financially contribute to the collection, sorting and recycling of them via Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes, yet are still not collected and recycled in great numbers (59% collection rate for PET in Europe today). That is the reason why in July 2019 EFBW endorsed Deposit Refund System as an efficient way, along well performing EPRs, to reach the 90% collection rate required. None of our producers wants to see any of our products as litter in the environment. PET is a valuable resource and we need it back to achieve a truly circular economy. Current collection rates of beverage PET bottles vary a great deal amongst EU countries. In countries with curbside collection, we see, for example in my native country Greece around 30% of PET bottles collected for recycling, while in France and the UK this goes up to around 57%, and Belgium tops the list at around 85% recovery. In countries with a Deposit Refund System, the collection performance is higher with Germany at 96%, Netherlands 95%, Lithuania 92%, Finland and Denmark at 90%. The problem however is more nuanced than this. You can recycle a PET bottle into polyester for a fleece sweater, but this is a one-time reuse. Instead, we want better collection systems so we can recycle bottles back into bottles.
What message can the business community take from the Green Deal?
KVB: “Contrary to what many citizens think, business leaders respond positively to the Green Deal and take the lead in the transition to a more sustainable model. Of course, there are sectors and companies that are still struggling, but business leaders are well aware that on an unliveable planet, there are no profits to be made. It is now also clear that the cost of inaction – the cost of doing nothing – will be economically and socially infinitely greater than the investments we have to make now. Any company with a vision of the future has every interest in embracing transition thinking. The externalisation of costs, which is largely at the root of the climate problem and other forms of pollution, will have to be overhauled. The Green Deal is the unique opportunity to modernise outdated infrastructure, create new economic opportunities that will generate a lot of extra jobs and win back consumer confidence. Innovation and creativity are key concepts to make the change. The measures will be different for each sector and each company, but today there are sufficient forms of transition management and best practices available to walk new and sustainable economic paths.”
EP: “The technological innovations are there, but we need to push collection rates if we want to meet the increasing demand for rPET.”
EP: “Proper collection and recycling are key elements moving forward and require a multi-stakeholder approach if we want to succeed. The recycling industry is crying out for more material as demand for rPET increases. We need citizens to dispose of their packaging adequately, we need better collection systems in all EU countries and for recycling plants to start using new and improved processes, as well as investment and legislation to drive this forward. Why would you build a new recycling plant in a country where very little material comes in for processing? It makes no business sense. Right now, rPET is more expensive than virgin PET. Looking towards 2025, it is very important to get supply and demand right and make recycled PET more attractive economically. This will lead business leaders to strive to include very high percentages of recycled PET in their bottles and not just satisfy the legal minimum of 25%. The technological innovations are there, but we need to push collection rates first if we want to meet the increasing demand for food grade PET.
In closing, what are the next steps for the Green Deal?
KVB: “COVID-19 has made it very clear how crucial and urgent the Green Deal is. The Commission therefore wants the Recovery Plans to focus on achieving the objectives of the Green Deal quickly and efficiently through forward-looking investments in a sustainable and digital economy that can deliver the resilience of our European economy in a social way. In that respect, work will continue, with the hard lesson we are now learning in mind, on the concrete implementation of the Green Deal through the various planned initiatives. These include the biodiversity strategy, the circular economy, the farm to fork strategy, the review of legislation relating to transport, energy, housing, production, consumption and trade, but also the entire European budget (MFF 2021-2027), including the new recovery funds, the sustainable transit fund and a climate law to keep everyone on their toes and achieve the objectives. The Commission has a tight agenda and a promising level of ambition so far to put necessary proposals on the table. The European Parliament is ready to be a fully fledged and ambitious co-legislator. The business world is demonstrating will and innovative capacity to make the transition happen on the ground. Hopefully Member States will also recognise the seriousness and urgency of the situation, so that together we can make climate neutrality a reality by 2050.”
KVB: “COVID-19 has made it very clear how crucial and urgent the Green Deal is. Recovery Plans focus on achieving its objectives quickly and efficiently through forward-looking investments.”
EP: “The European Green Deal is a comprehensive strategy towards climate neutrality by 2050. We believe that this is not a Herculean task and we have already embarked on making it possible. Natural mineral and spring water producers carefully protect vast areas, around water sources, avoiding thus any kind of pollution. We are also committed to make our packaging fully circular which will pave the way towards emissions reduction. The latter needs cooperation along the full value chain from source to consumer. Our industry is ready to be a catalyst for change and give all its bottles a second life.”