Packaging laws and regulations: reducing the environmental impact

7 September 2017



Many packaging regulations have been enacted worldwide and the number is growing. There are over 33 sustainability and environmental protection directives, regulations, targets and programmes in the EU alone that impact on packaging. They originated from concerns over litter, recycling and waste diversion from landfill. Matthew Rogerson finds they are now being supplemented with laws focused on environmental benefits, including prevention of product damage, deterioration, food spoilage and waste.


While life-cycle analysis is an important method for evaluation and comparison of the environmental impact of different products, it is now being recognised that the packaging should be a component of the calculation of the environmental impact of the entire packaged product compared with other alternatives. This will encompass calculations for the use of different packaging types, or no packaging, and include factors such as:

  • emissions to air and water, including carbon dioxide ­
  • energy consumed ­
  • water consumed ­
  • disposal methods/recovery rates.

There are similar challenges with the use of carbon-footprint calculations. A carbon footprint is usually defined as the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by the manufacture and use of a product, including its packaging. It is only meaningful if the packaging is included as part of a total system and the calculation takes account of savings in breakage, waste and spoilage.

The attention placed recently on the environmental impact of packaging, and reduction in materials being landfilled, has inevitably emphasised recycling and recovery, because of the visibility of packaging in industrial and consumer waste.

Packaging waste in Europe is governed by the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive 94/62/EC, as amended by Directive 2004/12/EC. This mandates recycling targets and allowable contents of hazardous materials, such as heavy metal ions. It covers packaging in the EU market and packaging waste, wherever it is used or generated, regardless of the material used.

The directive also defines target figures for recycling for EU member states. For the UK, this was 49% in 2016, and will increase by two percentage points each year until 2020. Historically, there has been difficulty with these targets due to uncertainty about the true volumes of waste on the market, but as recycling targets rise, it will create an impetus for new material recovery technologies, especially for plastics.

Government regulations will continue to play a significant role in the development of packaging sustainability until 2026. In the EU, this includes increases in target recycling figures year by year under the Producer Responsibility Regulations, and eventually the Circular Economy Package that is now being developed.

Food for thought

At a time when many countries are considering their relationships with the EU, Switzerland is seeking greater rationalisation between Swiss food law and EU regulations. This was reflected in the country's new General Food Law Revision, which came into force this May. In a recent white paper on the subject, Antonella di Giampaolo and Valentina Capuano of Leatherhead Food Research discuss the impact of these changes.

Although the Swiss Confederation is not a member of the EU, the bilateral agreement in place between Switzerland and the EU means food products that comply with EU legislation are likely to be acceptable in Switzerland. While the legislation is quite similar, there are some key differences. The authors explain that under the current legislation, “foodstuffs not specifically complying with Swiss technical standards can be placed on the market in Switzerland only if an authorisation is requested". They say this is the so-called 'positive principle'.

"When the latest revision comes into force, this principle will be completely inverted," Capuano says. "As of May 2017, any product that is safe and complies with the Swiss market's food provisions can be cleared. Food that previously required an authorisation will no longer be subject to authorisation.”

For example, a product obtained from milk fat that does not contain the required percentage of fat to be described as ‘butter’, according to the compositional standard, will no longer require an authorisation. "It still cannot be called 'butter', but it may be sold on the Swiss market without authorisation under an appropriate name chosen by the food business operator. The only requirement is that the product name should not be misleading. Two brand new ordinances will be introduced regarding novel food and food supplements, for which authorisation procedures will remain in place,” writes Capuano.

Di Giampaolo covers regulations around pre-packed foods. She writes, “Despite the new revisions aligning Swiss legislation with EU law, the obligation to indicate the country of production in Switzerland exists for all foodstuffs. Furthermore, the indication of origin of the primary ingredient is also mandatory. Where meat is used as a primary ingredient, the indication of origin will be mandatory, according to the new rules, if the amount is equal to or greater than 20% by weight. The new food law revisions will introduce detailed requirements for the characterisation of fishery products − such as fishing area, fishing gear and method of production − as well as the mandatory indication of the use of hormonal or non-hormonal substances that increase the animal's performance. Such information must be provided in the same field of vision as the product name. The food law review will introduce a mandatory nutritional declaration for all pre-packed food, in line with new EU provisions in force from 13 December 2016.”

Food safety and food hygiene

Di Giampaolo and Capuano continue by explaining that the review will add changes to food safety and food hygiene. The current ordinance on foreign substances will be repealed, and its content divided into three new ordinances, one on the maximum residue levels of pesticides in food; the second concerning residues of pharmacologically active substances; and the third will be an ordinance on contaminants. This last ordinance will include a combination of Swiss and EU law, with the following general approach − where the maximum levels of contaminant are not covered in EU legislation, but are established in the current Swiss law, then the national provisions will be maintained. The harmonisation of the Swiss provision with EU regulations will also apply to fortified foodstuffs, and food for special groups, such as infant formula. However, Switzerland will keep its current provisions on voluntary fortification of salt, as well as the advertising provisions for such products.

You will still recognise the label, but we have made some improvements to the format.

One of the most important changes will affect the ordinances on compositional standards, mainly in the way they are structured. Several compositional standards, including those on cereals, legumes, vegetable proteins and their derivatives, oil and edible fat, will be introduced into two new ordinances on foodstuffs of animal and non-animal origin. These two ordinances will contain all the current individual compositional standards for the relevant products. The same will happen for a new ordinance on beverages. In this case, all the current compositional standards concerning soft drinks, juices and nectars, alcoholic drinks, wine, spirit drinks and mineral water, that are currently regulated separately, will be grouped together.

US nutrition label

In May 2016, the US FDA announced the new Nutrition Facts Label for packaged foods to reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases, such as obesity and heart disease. The new label will make it easier for consumers to make informed food choices. The FDA published the final rules in the federal register on 27 May 2016.

But what is in it? The new Nutrition Facts Label has a fresh design and reflects current scientific information about nutrition, making it easier for consumers to read and understand, and therefore make informed decisions about their food.

In addition, there are updated serving size and labelling requirements for certain package sizes. By law, serving sizes must be based on the amounts of foods and beverages that people are actually eating, not what they should be eating. How much people eat and drink has changed since the previous serving size requirements were published in 1993. For example, the reference amount used to set a serving of ice cream was previously half a cup but is changing to two thirds of a cup. The reference amount used to set a serving of soda is changing from 227ml to 426ml. Package size can also affect what people eat. So for packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 227ml soda or a 426ml can of soup, the calories and other nutrients must be labelled as one serving, because people will typically consume the product in one sitting.

For certain products that are larger than a single serving, but that could be consumed in one or multiple sittings, manufacturers will have to provide ‘dual column’ labels to indicate the amount of calories and nutrients on a ‘serving’ and 'package or unit' basis. As an example, the label would apply to a large bottle of soda or a tub of ice cream. With dual-column labels, people will be able to easily understand how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package or unit in one go.

In June 2017, the FDA announced its intention to extend the compliance date for the updated Nutrition Facts Label rules. The new compliance date is 26 July 2018, with an additional year to comply for manufacturers with annual food sales of less than $10 million. After careful consideration, the FDA determined that additional time would provide manufacturers covered by the rule with necessary guidance from FDA, and could help them be able to complete and print updated nutrition facts panels for their products before they are expected to be in compliance.

As a result, the FDA intends to extend the compliance dates to provide the additional time for implementation. The framework for the extension will be guided by the desire to give industry more time and decrease costs, balanced with the importance of minimising the transition period during which consumers will see the old and the new versions of the label in the marketplace.

New information

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the changes will make it easier to read labels. “You will still recognise the label, but we have made some improvements to the format to provide significant public health information,” he says.

These changes include highlighting calories, ‘servings per container’ and the ‘serving size’ declaration. This is done by increasing the type size, and putting the number of calories and the ‘serving size’ declaration in bold type.

“A further addition requires manufacturers to declare the actual amount, in addition to the 'percent of daily value', of the mandatory vitamins and minerals in a product,” Gottlieb says. “We have added, ‘Includes Xg Added Sugars’ directly beneath the listing for total sugars’ and we have changed the footnote to better explain the percent daily value. It will now read: 'The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.’”

Gottlieb adds, “In mid-2018, manufacturers will have to comply with key nutrition initiatives. The key dates are as follows: on 18 June 2018, manufacturers must ensure that their products no longer contain partially hydrogenated oils for uses that have not been otherwise authorised by the FDA. By 26 July 2018, manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual food sales will need to comply with the new requirements for the Nutrition Facts Label. On the same date, operators with glass-front vending machines will have to comply with the vending-machine labelling rule.”

He says, "The FDA delayed the compliance date for calorie declaration requirements for certain food products sold from glass-front vending machines, in part to be consistent with the compliance date for the new Nutrition Facts Label requirements. Manufacturers can make changes to front-of-pack labelling for products they supply to vending operators at the same time that they make changes to the Nutrition Facts Label."

Food safety standards are changing across Europe and the US.


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