Fries, burgers, cola: a typical fast-food menu – sold by the millions – is served on a tray with lots of paper. The roll wrapped or in a cardboard container, drinks in cardboard cups. The top-selling chain McDonald’s alone produces more than 30,000 tons of paper and 10,000 tons of lightweight packaging waste every year (figures from 2021). More than three million Germans visit the branches at least once a week. The chains themselves save primarily on plastic, “which harms the environment” – combined with media campaigns that line the way to more sustainability. After all, investors are also paying more and more attention to this.

Since April 2023, McDonald’s Germany has dispensed with plastic lids for all drinks and replaced them with cardboard lids for out-of-home consumption. The goal is to save 560 tons of plastic per year. Paper is also available for iced coffee and smoothies. Lettuce has only been sold in paper boxes since 2021. And in accordance with the reusable obligation that has been imposed by law since January, reusable containers are also available for cold and hot drinks and ice cream. But for the most part, system catering relies on paper and its recycling for a green balance sheet: Inside, tray stations encourage the separation of recyclables – and outside, too, more take-away disposable tableware is to be given a second life via pilot projects.

A new EU regulation now threatens not only to thwart this anti-littering strategy. Brussels’ plans against Europe’s garbage mountains can easily be seen as a frontal attack on the core model of the fast-food business. The quickly served and quickly disposed of mass tableware made of paper is threatened with a ban by 2030 – at least in the four walls of fast-food restaurants. The change in the EU packaging regulation presented at the end of 2022 would affect about half the business of take-aways like Burger King.

Brussels would like to reduce the need for raw materials – and wants to replace such “superfluous packaging” as French fries trays and burger boxes with reusable solutions, then made of plastic, glass or ceramics. Because most of the primary raw materials are used for packaging material, it is said: 40 percent of plastics and 50 percent of paper in the EU. The previous directive has not succeeded in reducing the environmental damage from packaging in 30 years. Too many sleeves are superfluous or end up in the trash, misleading labels make clean separation difficult. The amendment aims to reduce the volume by 37 percent through greater reuse and recycling – based on a scenario of doing nothing.

Paper and cardboard made up around 40 percent of the almost 80 million tons of packaging waste in the EU in 2020, plastic just under 20 percent. Of the approximately 80 percent of the waste collected for recycling (return rate), 64 percent was recycled – with the recycling rate for paper packaging at 81.5 percent, according to Eurostat, being far higher than that for plastic packaging at 37.6 percent. Every year, European citizens accumulate 178 kilograms of packaging waste per capita. Paper is in the lead with more than 70 kilos, plastic and glass with around 35 kilos each – the trend has been pointing upwards again since 2017, which has probably influenced the new weighting in Brussels in favor of reusable.

Antonio D’Amato, on the other hand, does not see waste in paper waste. “Waste proves to be a valuable resource if it is managed in an efficient process and recycled in a closed-loop system,” says the CEO of the Italian Seda Group. Paper and cardboard could now be economically recycled up to 25 times, he emphasizes – if the valuable material is continuously recycled. The Neapolitan also chairs the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA), spearheading the paper packaging industry’s lobby against the Brussels project.

The bags, cups, folding boxes and round tins from the European market leader Seda – for example for muesli, ice cream, frozen spinach or coffee – are primarily made of paper and cardboard. Since they come into direct contact with food, hygiene standards and product protection require a thin plastic coating, which can be recycled in waste paper. Eight billion paper cups per year are the most important product of the owner-managed medium-sized company with a turnover of around 800 million euros. Seda emphasizes that the renewable raw material comes exclusively from sustainably certified forestry in the northern hemisphere, primarily in Europe and North America.

An alliance of convenience has formed around the European association EPPA, Seda and their most important customers from fast food and catering companies – including chains such as Starbucks and Tchibo – which is now up in arms against the EU Commission’s plan. His central message: A nonsensical ban would only put more plastic into circulation and increase environmental damage. As in the beverage trade over disposable PET and reusable glass bottles, a fierce culture war is also unfolding over what is the most environmentally friendly packaging for solid food.

The Seda boss places the amendment and its ban on disposable tableware in restaurants in the realm of pure ideology. Hasn’t the previous cooperation between EU institutions, member states and industry produced the world’s most sustainable circular economy – and made a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions? Seda has also continuously invested in innovations and novel paper-based materials to replace plastic in food packaging wherever possible. The high proportion of paper in today’s materials has the simple reason that it can be recycled in the most sustainable way.

D’Amato now sees a radical departure from this path in the Commission’s proposal. “We risk jeopardizing the achievements of the last three decades. Ideologically motivated, the multi-use approach threatens to undermine recycling, particularly when it comes to food packaging.” In addition to such fundamental objections, the disposable manufacturers bring forward scientific evidence on environmental protection, especially for fast-food restaurants, and warn against going the wrong way, with reference to studies and reports on the life cycle assessment of food and beverage containers. However, individual actors in Brussels would give “quite amazing answers” to such studies, according to D’Amato, in the sense of: “We don’t care about scientific findings, we have a political goal!”

While advocates of the amendment promise annual savings in water and harmful greenhouse gases (GHG) in the volume of Croatia’s footprint, the team counters with paper packaging, the trend towards reusable products produces greater environmental damage over the lifecycle from production to disposal – measured in terms of GHG, water consumption and the cumulative energy consumption as the main ecological criteria. “Current life cycle analyzes of single-use and reusable packaging in fast-food restaurants show that the CO2 footprint of reusable packaging is twice as high as that of paper-based single-use packaging,” says the Seda CEO, “water consumption is even three times as high”.

This is based on the findings of the Danish consulting institute Ramboll, which describes itself as independent and also advises the EU Commission on other matters. Specially commissioned by paper packers and tailored to processes in fast-food restaurants, the study compares the use of paper cutlery and plastic cutlery, focusing on the effort involved in collecting, rinsing and drying the latter. She relies on more recent data on paper processing, which has not yet been included in other studies. A report by Kearney on the informal eating sector (IEO) in out-of-home consumption also speaks out against reuse as the ideal way to circularity.

In the other camp, a study by Fraunhofer experts (2022) commissioned by the Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (SIM) came to the conclusion that, for example, “reusable cups perform slightly better on average than disposable ones”, with different circulation numbers and materials in the collection and rinsing processes had been considered. Prior to that, a 2019 study by the Federal Environment Agency (2019) concluded that the use of plastic cups has lower GHG emissions – if a minimum circulation number is achieved through take-back logistics and consumer behavior and flushed with green electricity.

In France, what the EU is planning on a large scale is being practiced on a small scale. Paris imposed a 2020 ban on paper dishes in about 40,000 fast food outlets, which has been in effect since the beginning of the year. Although photos of brand new fries boxes made of red plastic circulated early on, the implementation is apparently slow: After two years of preparation, 90 percent of the more than 1,300 branches are covered with reusable dishes, McDonald’s said in May. The rest should be compliant by the end of 2023 after the completion of conversion work. According to official figures, 20 billion disposable containers were thrown away in France’s fast food restaurants last year.

From the point of view of the paper manufacturer D’Amato, “the example of France shows how it should not be done”. In practice, the multiple-use obligation has proven to be ineffective. For example, fast-food chains would have to switch from paper cups weighing 10 grams to plastic cups weighing 120 grams, which would then only be rinsed 20 to 25 times. A functioning recycling system does not exist, the containers are often taken away – and probably disposed of carelessly. In addition, with a view to hygiene, takeaways in particular, which serve up to one hundred meals per hour, must be asked whether reusable dishes are properly cleaned and dried.

Extrapolated to Europe, the company boss puts the conversion costs – for retrofitting with dishwashers or for logistical collection systems – “all in all at 15 to 20 billion euros”. Tens of thousands of franchisees would have additional costs for energy and water. This is not without consequences for prices. “All the leading fast-food chains see the changeover as economically unacceptable,” complains the entrepreneur, who is more in favor of a regulation like the one recently adopted in Germany.

Since January, snack bars and restaurants in Germany have had to have reusable containers available as an alternative to disposable containers made of cardboard or plastic for food and drinks to take away and for delivery. It is not yet known how this will be accepted.

As hard as it is fought to preserve cardboard culture in the “eat-in” of fast-food chains, the paper cup clearly remains the top nuisance in the “littering” hierarchy. Manufacturers know this too – and are therefore promoting a higher collection rate in order to avoid bans. The recycling rate for paper waste is considerable – around 80 percent in Germany. But this is mainly thanks to private households. From the public space, where the rubbish bins overflow, the recycling rate is far lower.

According to the German Environmental Aid, an incredible 320,000 coffee-to-go cups are consumed every hour in Germany. The Fraunhofer study, for example, only assumes a return rate of 57 percent for disposable cups in the recycling systems, because waste from public waste paper baskets is usually thermally disposed of as residual waste. With various campaigns, the packaging industry and fast food chains are already trying to get their “eat-in” customers to separate discarded food from their trays in order to improve the recycling rate to 100 percent.

Special containers should also encourage people to correctly dispose of cardboard containers outside the restaurants at littering hotspots. In Fulda, for example, a pilot project was sponsored by the municipality to collect and recycle sorted waste. This should be rolled out further, says Andreas Helbig, spokesman for the Pro-S-Pack association, which includes the supply chain of the food service industry. “The raw material is long-fiber pulp and it is valuable. We want the fibers back.”

Packaging lobbyist D’Amato also says that instead of complaining that people are littering everything, it is “just as important and imperative to improve the infrastructure for waste separation”. The EU Commission interferes in many aspects of life – but EU-wide uniform color standards for the separation of recyclables would not come to mind. “It would be a simple step to educate European consumers and more effective than new bans.”

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