There is no future for polystyrene packaging

The French EPS-ban in 2025 shows that replacing this toxic material by alternatives like moulded pulp would be feasible at short-term in other European countries as well

Every year, the French market is getting flooded by 2.2 million tonnes of household, industrial and commercial plastic packaging waste. Polystyrene (PS/EPS/XPS) alone accounts for more than 350,000 tonnes a year, that’s seven per cent of the plastic materials used in all sectors combined. Styrene, the monomer used in the manufacture of polystyrene, is highly toxic. It is classified as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and was recently classified as a “Category 2 Reprotoxicant” by the European Union.

There is a proven risk of monomer leaking into the environment during the manufacturing, transport and storage of primary granules. Critical studies have also pointed to the high presence of styrenic plastics among the microplastics sampled at sea. For example, 3.2% of floating debris in the Mediterranean Sea is polystyrene. This phenomenon of leakage into the environment is also reflected in the migration of styrenic plastics into foodstuffs that get in contact with these polymers. As a result, they are ingested directly by consumers.

In France, household polystyrene packaging is recycled only to a very limited extent of about 3 to 4%. The brittle texture of the material means that it cannot be reused. These plastics still account for 42% of plastics incinerated and 27% of those landfilled. The non-recycled part has been generating a high level of pollution. Not only does it harm the natural environments when released and degrading in nature due to its toxicity. It also interferes with the industrial sorting and recycling of household waste.

Faced with this problem, France has decided to move fast and ban single-use packaging made from styrenic polymers and co-polymers, encouraging those involved in the sector to give preference to alternative materials and bulk over single-use packaging. This ban is part of the French law to Combat Climate Change, adopted on 22 August 2021, which sets a target of 100% recycled plastic by 2025.

Compared with the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, France is taking the lead on doubling down on non-recyclable packaging, as the ban of EPS and XPS will come into effect much earlier than in other European countries. As a matter of fact, the new EU packaging law obligates packaging made of polystyrene to be designed for « material recycling » and recycled « at scale » in a proven operational environment and in an « economically viable manner » not before January 1st, 2030. Only then, packaging that fail to meet these criteria will be banned from the European market. In specific cases, EU Member States can ask for a five-year derogation if they can demonstrate that they are on track to meet these criteria and are able to exceed recycling targets by 5%.

No such exceptions and further delays in France. The law is simple and clear:

„From 1 January 2025, packaging made wholly or partly of styrenic polymers or copolymers that cannot be recycled and are unable to be recycled will be banned.” (Lutte Contre le Dérèglement Climatique, Article 11)

In the face of this law, polystyrene producers and users formally committed to setting up a recycling infrastructure and process that would enable 100% of polystyrene packaging getting collected, sorted and recycled into food-contact-grade products by 2025.

Jimmy Pahun

However, after 3 years, it shows that this target cannot be met. Jimmy Pahun, Member of the French National Assembly, who during the EMPPA workshop on April 30, 2024 presented how he helped to ensure that the EPS ban was transposed into French law: „There is no future for polystyrene, despite the promises of some manufacturers. French legislation provides for it to be banned in 2025 if it is not recycled. It’s now clear that it won’t be. I therefore encourage companies to abandon EPS and replace it with alternative materials that do not harm the environment or human health.“

Confronted with this reality, major food groups in France have already pledged to stop using styrenic polymers and copolymers by 2025. It shows that replacing PS by sustainable materials like natural fibre is feasible at short-term not only in France, but also in other European countries to the benefit of the environment, sustainable businesses and consumer health. Even though the EU Packaging Regulation sets a much later deadline, the French example shows that moving away from EPS rather sooner than later is both feasible and smart, as it would provide for the much-needed planning security and investments in future-proof products and innovative industries like moulded pulp.

Editor: Michael Laermann

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