Whilst the Danish government has likewise endorsed a circular economy, the transition is still in its early phase and mainly focuses on recycling. From a circular economy perspective, reuse is nevertheless considered capable of preserving a higher value and utility of packaging materials compared to single-use and recycled alternatives. Not only does the reuse of plastic packaging circumvent the energy-intensive step required for recycling, but it may furthermore reduce the number of items entering the waste stream in the first place. Considering the environmental and economic impetus for reuse therefore begs the questions: how can the limited reuse of plastic food packaging in Denmark be changed?
Here two scenarios, based on policy analysis and scientific research. The first overlooking the present policy practice in Denmark, the second highlighting a more inclusive set of measures.
Denmark now: focus on recycling
Denmark’s overarching vision regarding waste handling, found within its two waste management plans, is to limit environmental damages caused by waste through a transition towards a circular economy. Focusing on plastic packaging as a target area, the most recent waste plan contains three initiatives aimed at tackling its adverse environmental impacts: A partnership facilitating collaboration between relevant stakeholders, attempts to alter firm’s packaging choice through inspection campaigns, and R&D subsidies aimed at realizing closed-loop value-chains. However, while recognizing that there has been a limited focus on reusable packaging due to strict product standards, food safety requirements, and high incineration capacities, the government does not establish an objective related to the increase of packaging reuse and provides no concrete suggestions on how reuse may be facilitated in the future.
Of measures already in place, which seek to stimulate producers and consumers to consider the environmental impact of plastic waste, are the deposit-refund system and the packaging tax. In the deposit-refund system, a price is placed on beverage bottles and cans when purchased, which is rebated when returned. To further spur the production of bottles aimed for the deposit-scheme, a packaging tax of €0,01-0,09 is placed on bottles within the system, whilst this tax amounts to €0,02-0,2 on bottles outside the system. In 2014, however, numerous refillable bottles were withdrawn from the system in favor of single-use containers. Today, the Danish deposit-system is only legally obliged to collect bottles for recycling.
In conclusion, current policies addressing plastic waste implies that Danish visions, targets, and policies primarily focus on recycling whilst providing scant attention to its reuse. Considering the multiple barriers currently constraining the production of reusable plastic packaging therefore suggests that Danish legislation in its present form is insufficient for facilitating an increased production of reusable plastic food packaging. The opportunities in terms of limiting environmental impacts whilst realizing economic gains may thus be lost.
Denmark later: design for reuse
In light of the myriad of obstacles facing the increased production of reusable plastic food packaging, a single policy instrument will not succeed in changing the current state. Instead, in my view, future policy intervention necessitates the combination of numerous policy instruments taking into account the following three key areas. Firstly, to overcome barriers related to insufficient technological developments enabling reuse, policies must stimulate investment in design for reuse. A suggested option is the introduction of design requirements such as criteria for reusability, reparability, and durability on specific packaging items. Importantly, such requirements must be accompanied by supplementary measures, which do not simply ensure the elimination of worst-performing products but furthermore incentivize best-performing firms, thus continuously enhancing environmental product performance amongst leaders and laggards alike. Supplementary instruments may include tax allowances for firms promoting reuse or credit schemes rewarding them for each reusable unit produced. Interviewees moreover suggested an expansion of the existing deposit-refund system so it includes additional plastic packaging products aimed for reuse.
Secondly, policies must attempt to limit the complexity of the global value-chains, which is currently characterized by a huge amount of non-standardized items used by countless value-chain actors. Limiting the complexity of the value-chain is crucial in order to enable the creation of infrastructure necessary for circulating reusable packaging. A ban on different plastic items or plastic types may serve to limit the number of plastic types produced and circulated, allow for the production of standardized packaging, and thus enhance the potential of creating reverse logistics systems efficient on a global scale. Such bans would arguably ease the difficult task of creating enabling infrastructure for reuse, such as a deposit-refund system functioning on a European or global scale.
Finally, to successfully circulate reusable packaging, policies must motivate consumers to engage in reuse behavior. Due to Denmark’s long tradition for incinerating waste coupled with previous failures to enhance the waste-separation system in the 1990s, various studies report a limited willingness to separate waste amongst Danes. To overcome this barrier, increased dissemination of information was suggested to assist in changing such ingrained behavioral patterns. Additionally, lowering or removing the value-added tax on reusable packaging may incentivize its production by making it cheaper and thus enable it to compete with more resource-intensive products such as single-use packaging. Apart from stimulating the demand of private consumers, criteria setting in public procurement may be a viable option for increasing the demand for reusable packaging, as public procurement constitutes a high share of total procurement in Denmark.
Importantly, the effectiveness of a national Danish reuse strategy may nevertheless be damped by the absence of similar strategies in other EU countries. Therefore, European member states ought to work towards an aligned EU strategy assisting in addressing the complex global value-chain, level the playing field across the Union, and spur international cooperation between actors. Such European-wide action may facilitate the trajectory towards a circular plastic packaging economy and thus address the plastic waste problem on both national and global scales.
Ida Thange studeerde af aan Maasticht Univeristy op het vak duurzaamheid. Ze schreef een thesis over de productiemogelijkheden van herbruikbaar plastic verpakkingsmateriaal voor voedsel in Denemarken. Ook fungeerde ze als duurzaamheidsconsultant voor The European Space Agency en de Provincie Limburg.