Benefits of recycling packaging "confirmed"

Official Swedish study calls for more national, EU, efforts to promote reuse, recycling

Swedish action to reduce environmental impacts of packaging is proving successful, according to a review by the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency says that recent studies confirm that mechanical recycling should be maximised for all packaging materials. It says that more should be done in Sweden and the EU to promote reusable containers.

The main law governing packaging waste in Sweden is an ordinance passed in 1994. Recycling targets to be achieved by 1997 have mostly been met, according to figures released earlier this year (see table below). The EPA's new review concludes that wider environmental benefits have also been achieved.

An extra 140,000 tonnes of packaging annually has been recycled in recent years, the agency concludes. Simultaneously, the weight of packaging consumed has probably fallen by 20% from 1994 levels. Had reusable packaging been developed more then the reduction would have been even greater, the agency says. But it concludes that the 1994 law has in fact done nothing to support reuse.

Based on new life-cycle analyses of combustible packaging, the EPA concludes that mechanical recycling is environmentally preferable for all packaging types, with the possible exception of laminated cartons. So great is this advantage, it argues, that it would be "more environmentally advantageous" than incineration with energy recovery locally to transport combustible packaging for recycling "from the very north to the south of Sweden" - a distance of 1,500 km.

Transport makes very little difference to packaging's life-cycle environmental impacts, the agency says. Of all Swedish lorry movements, trucks carrying waste account for just 1.2%, and those carrying packaging for even less. Even private car trips to take waste to recycling centres make no significant difference, the agency says.

According to the EPA, the main conclusions of its studies are that reusable packaging should be encouraged, and that all non-reusable packaging should be recycled. It is important, the agency says, that the EU's packaging directive should focus more on measures to stimulate reuse when it is revised.

The Swedish Forest Industries Association contests both findings. "We don't agree with the recommendation for more reuse," Leif Karlsson told ENDS Daily. "Twenty life-cycle analyses say it is not possible to recommend either reuse or one-way packs." The association also objects to the idea of "maximum recycling," arguing instead for a policy of diverting packaging from landfill, leaving it to industry to choose whether to recycle or recover energy.

Percentage of packaging recycled in Sweden
                 1997 targets  1997 levels
Glass                 70           76
Plastic               30          >30*
Paper & Board         30           34
Corrugated board      65           84
Steel                 50           64
Aluminium             50           12
Aluminium cans        90           91
PET bottles           90           78
* material recovery 13

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