Editor’s Comment

Caught in the Act

Steven Pacitti – editor

As I write this column, the new German Packaging Act (VerpackG) has been in operation for one month. Replacing the former Packaging Ordinance at the turn of the year, the Act requires that every manufacturer of packaged goods in Germany, and all importers and online retailers selling into the country, participate in a dual system and pay license fees.

The idea behind the reformed Act is that so-called first-time packaging producers share the costs of disposal and recycling, and the German government can therefore increase the use of recyclable materials and reduce the distortion of competition. The Central Office Packaging Register (ZSVR) is the government agency tasked with enforcing this mandatory registration process, while anyone putting unlicensed packaging into circulation can face fines in the six-digit euro region.

To clarify the above, companies must report the actual packaging consumption data to the system operator (of the dual system) as well as the ZSVR. In addition to the materials that are subject to licensing such as boxes, cartons and envelopes, this also includes packaging components such as labels, foils, padding and adhesive materials.

It is still early days, but how is VerpackG going so far? And is it proving to be a success? I asked Michelle Carvell, the chief operating officer of consultancy firm Lorax Compliance, for her views on this, as her company has been helping British firms to achieve compliance ahead of the Act’s launch.

She told me that the Act was launched with two main objectives: to focus on companies that were not previously reporting, and to ensure that data collected by the dual system is more accurate and complete.

With regards to the first objective, Carvell considers the scheme to have enjoyed some success, as there has been a marked increase in the awareness of reporting obligations, particularly among smaller e-commerce companies. She also believes that dual reporting, and stringent estimate expectations, are encouraging companies to pay more attention to the data that they submit, which is ultimately improving its accuracy.

However, the implementation of the new Act has not been without its teething problems, with the most unsurprising of those being the significantly bigger administrative burden.

As mentioned earlier, companies must first apply to the ZSVR when registering to the scheme. While this is relatively straightforward, they must also still report to a separate compliance scheme and this, says Carvell, has increased the administrative burden, particularly on those with monthly reporting obligations. Companies are also prohibited from using a third party when reporting to the ZSVR, which has affected businesses with limited internal resource.

Some companies with no prior reporting in place have also encountered problems when providing estimated packaging data, which they do not always have readily available when registering for the first time.

“Estimates have always been required but now, with a low threshold for discrepancy, companies are in danger of paying a penalty if they estimate incorrectly,” points out Carvell. “Companies that experience exceptional growth or decline during the reporting period could also be affected, and it is not yet clear if leniency would be guaranteed with regards to changing business situations.”

Carvell also believes that changes to the classification of household and business products have caused some confusion, with ambiguity surrounding which products could, or could not, end up in a household. To mitigate this, many companies have checked and reclassified their products in accordance with the new product groups.

Overall, success has been reflected in the growing number of registrations, which has increased significantly from a relatively low level of take-up rate since December. The total number, however, remains low. Carvell thinks that a continued effort is needed to ensure that any business subject to the German Packaging Act is aware of its obligations.

Plastics in Packaging did approach Gunda Rachut, chairwoman of the executive board of the ZSVR, for comment, but had not received a response at the time it went to press.

To deposit schemes of a different variety; an interesting piece of research landed on my desk recently from Sweden’s Lund University. Scientists claim to have produced a plastic based on indole, a hydrocarbon molecule present in human faeces. They say it is more durable than regular plastics and other bioplastics and potentially better suited for recycling.

Chemical engineering doctoral student Ping Wang reported that the compound in question is also found in lower concentrations in certain flowering plants and has a more agreeable aroma.

On a technical level, the indole polyesters are stable at up to 99 deg C, which is significantly higher than both PET and PEF, the latter being seen as a future bio-based alternative to the former.

This research coincidentally falls hot on the heels of an Austrian study, which claims that microplastics are widespread in the human food chain and have been found in human faeces. Researchers from the Environment Agency Austria concluded that this study involving eight participants provided evidence that more than half of the world’s population is likely to have microplastics in their faeces.

The question is: Is a plastic that is created from a waste material that already contains plastics the very definition of a circular economy?