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How to design foodservice packaging to comply with global regulation

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimate that over 25 billion single-use cups are used every year in the USA. High volume on-the-go packaging items like cups, with low recycling rates and high litter prevalence, makes packaging a big target for regulators.

We take a look at the key themes impacting the food service sector and businesses around the world can prepare.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) + Packaging Taxes

Understanding the impact of increasing regulatory fees and taxes is vital when making packaging changes. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is policy based on the polluter pays principle that shifts the cost of waste management for packaging onto the entities placing packaged goods on the market. It aims to incentivise producers to use easily recyclable packaging formats to keep more high-quality material in circulation, reducing the need for landfill and ‘Energy From Waste’. EPR is now live or in development in nations on every continent, making a global roll out seem inevitable as governments tackle the packaging waste crisis.
EPR is ‘eco-modulated’ in many countries, meaning businesses pay more for packaging that is more expensive to dispose of. Recyclable packaging attracts lower fees than non-recyclable or complex packaging. Future plans involve increasing eco-modulation to incorporate factors like carbon, biodiversity, and reusability.
Packaging taxes are being introduced by governments to incentivise the use of post-consumer recycled content and promote reusable alternatives. These financial mechanisms aim to disincentivise hard-to-recycle and wasteful packaging, while encouraging more responsible formats.
“How can we lower our packaging fees?” is a question we are regularly asked by clients who are increasingly using cost-modelling and eco-modulation rates to supplement their data for strategy development.

The takeaway food and beverage sector has been a particular target for policymakers in Europe

Use Less

Placing less packaging on the market each year aligns with the Circular Economy principle of keeping resources in circulation for longer. However, excessive light-weighting can create problems for recyclers who have minimum standards for packaging materials to ensure suitability, and the ability to survive the recycling process. A simpler metric is to use less packaging annually. This is where reuse and refill comes into play.
The takeaway food and beverage sector has been a particular target for policymakers in Europe. Here there is mandated reuse for dine-in (e.g. France) and take-out (e.g. Germany) for key single-use plastic pack formats with no fibre-only alternatives, such as hot takeaway cups.
This legislation stems from consumption reduction targets in the Single-Use Plastic Directive. The Commission’s own draft Impact Assessment concludes that reusable packaging in efficient systems is environmentally advantageous over single-use.
The initial draft for the proposed European Union Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) suggests the following targets for reuse in the food-service sector:
  • Takeaway beverages, 20% of all sales in reusable packaging by 2030, 80% by 2040
  • Takeaway food 10% by 2030, 40% by 2040
More clarity on these targets is expected in November.
To prepare for reuse mandates in new markets, businesses should have a clear packaging strategy that includes reusable alternatives, ready to go when legislation requires it.

The draft PPWR proposes that all packaging in EU markets must be designed for recycling by 2030 and recyclable at scale by 2035

Function over Form

Every packaging component must serve a technical purpose. Removing unnecessary components is a theme seen in newer eco-design regulations where there are stricter requirements, such as China. In the proposed PPWR, businesses would need to justify that their packaging is the minimum amount required for key formats. When searching for alternatives to your current packaging, start by asking: What components are critical to the safe delivery and consumption of the product? And what items are not critical and can be removed completely?
An audit of your packaging can identify high-impact pack formats. Work with your packaging suppliers – they may have new and more efficient alternatives.

Recyclable Packaging

While mandates for reusable packaging targets are more prevalent in the food service sector, recyclability is also a significant concern. The draft PPWR proposes that all packaging in EU markets must be designed for recycling by 2030 and recyclable at scale by 2035. Placing packaging on the market that is not recyclable poses a higher reputational risk as consumers seek clarity about what goes in what bin. This is particularly challenging for wax-coated or greaseproof paper, food-contaminated napkins and containers, and foil-lined flexible plastic.
Use the deadlines as strategic markers to work with your suppliers to develop packaging that is compatible with recycling infrastructure in practice at scale, and minimises contamination from food and drink.

Beyond Recycling: Carbon, Chemicals, and Nature

As with all sustainability discussions, the long-term impact on the planet is a key consideration. We have seen how citizens and policymakers are waking up to the health and biodiversity impacts of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This has led to the proposal for EUwide PFAS restriction, as well as state-by-state PFAS bans in the USA.
Carbon is also a global concern. Packaging’s carbon footprint will only increase year over year as we move into new packaging formats, all of which will come with new challenges and consumption increases.
A final concern bubbling away in the background of policymaker’s minds is the impact of paper. The new EU Deforestation Regulation and its analogues being developed globally aims to reduce the impact of materials such as paper. With 417 million metric tonnes of paper and paper board produced globally in 2021, and over 22 million hectares of forest lost in 2022, the impacts on biodiversity and nature are mounting.
Hasty and reactive changes to packaging policy can be wasteful both financially and materially. Adjustments should be carefully considered. It can be time consuming and likely to require significant internal buy-in, especially for reuse. Designing packaging with these challenges in mind from the start is the best way to reduce impact, avoid fines, and maintain consumer confidence.