Housed in the same Parisian building as the ritzy retail store Galerie Lafayette and opposite an opera house, it is an unlikely setting for a non-profit firm dealing with everyday waste. Yet Citeo is one of Europe’s most powerful producer responsibility organisations or PROs, bodies in charge of planning the end-of-life of packaging materials, such as plastic waste. Defined by European and national laws, PROs are often not-for-profit, but are controlled by billion-euro producers. Coca-Cola, Unilever and Nestlé are among Citeo’s shareholders.
PROs charge fees from members. The fees are calculated from the amount of packaging put on the market while selling bottled water, soft drinks or confectionaries. The money is supposed to fund local waste collection and help accelerate recycling processes. But with EU recycling efforts faltering, PROs are facing growing criticism.
Most nations are woefully short of EU recycling targets. More plastic packaging waste is produced in the EU now than a decade ago, and 60 per cent of it is still not recycled.
Some PROs are accused of undercutting the municipalities they help fund, others have allegedly underreported plastic volumes, while thousands of tonnes more plastics remain unaccounted for under PRO-run programmes.
“The problem,” says Flore Berlingen, a former director of Zero Waste France, “is that we privatised waste management policies by handing them over to these organisations. What should be a matter of public policy choices and debates has been gradually delegated.”
Italy’s main PRO, Conai, and its plastic branch Corepla, are also criticised. A waste official in a large Italian city says that “costs for collecting plastic are 2.5 times higher than the contribution received from Corepla”.
An employee at Anci, Italy’s municipalities association, meanwhile, said Conai refused their request to use local funds for waste prevention campaigns. Instead, all money received must be spent on recycling campaigns.
Producers pay little for pollution
And while financial support for municipalities appears to be flatlining, PROs battle for new members by offering low fees.
Based on an average weight (9.8g), producers pay roughly 42 cents in every euro for 100 0.5lt bottles put on the market in Spain, 32 cents in France and just two cents in Italy. This can encourage more plastic production as PRO revenues largely come from plastics entering a market.
Conai is proud to have Europe’s lowest fees. But their domination recently came under threat. It centred on PET plastic, which is the easiest to recycle and found in most of the almost 14 million water bottles sold in Italy each year. In 2022 PET plastic cost producers €150 per tonne with Conai. A year later it nosedived to €20. Now, a competitor, Coripet, is targeting Conai’s members by offering prices of €16 per tonne.
Such low costs are unlikely to encourage producers to make less plastic in the first place. Although recycled plastic in the EU has vastly increased, 93 per cent of all plastic produced globally is still the cheaper virgin variety.
Even if the fees paid or plastic received is lower than desired, this itself can prove advantageous. Largely because some PROs, as the responsible body for data on plastic volume put on the market, help collate national recycling statistics.
If the reported figure is lower than the actual figure, the recycling rate automatically goes up, as it measures how much material is recovered from the total amount put on the market. In the case of plastics, from 2021, the rate also determines the amount of the European plastic tax that states pay to the European budget.
“The volume of plastic packaging put on the market, is not verifiable,” explains a former employee of Conai. “It is based on the self-declarations of those who then have to pay the EPR fee.”
The Balearic Islands’ government, for instance, carried out two studies that question the official reported plastic figures from the Spanish PRO, Ecoembes.
One report stated that in 2016 its members declared that 49,385 tonnes of light packaging was placed on the market, while the analysis of packaging flows along the entire value chain placed that figure at 91,965 tonnes. If the Balearic government’s calculations were true, it would mean that the packaging placed on the market was 86 per cent more than that declared by producers.
“The results of those reports showed that Ecoembes was misleading us with their data,” says report author Vicenç Vidal. “Their data are not at all credible.” Ecoembes, for its part, claims that reports had “serious methodological deficiencies” and that subsequent studies refuted its data.
Conai, the Italian PRO, meanwhile, is actively campaigning against a bottle return scheme proposed in new EU packaging regulation, calling it “an unnecessary duplication of economic and environmental costs”.
In spite of such campaigning, most governments seem content with current EPR systems. However, things might change in the coming years. The 2018 European waste directive means that by the end of 2024, all member-states will have to establish schemes covering “all necessary costs of collection, sorting and recycling”, including littering, which would bring unwanted extra costs for the sector.
Röling says the EPR system should be reformed at its heart: “PROs should be drastically changed to include all relevant stakeholders, municipalities, government representatives, recycling companies, eco-design experts.”
An EPR reform was expected in Brussels for the next waste directive that the Commission will present in the spring. But this is now unlikely to go ahead. With a separate packaging regulation already on the table, policymakers and PROs will be busy enough as it is.
Editor: Chris Matthews