No time to waste: we need a sustainable packaging transformation

A new project from Altroconsumo will boost consumer involvement in building a low-waste, high-reuse packaging system

Europe is part of a global packaging waste crisis which is having a serious impact on the world’s resources and ecosystems.

According to Eurostat, 80 million tons of packaging waste is created in Europe each year, making up over a third (36%) of all municipal solid waste.

But this is not just a waste problem. Packaging is a huge user of virgin materials – 40% of plastic and 50% of paper used in the EU is used for packaging. The production and disposal of packaging contributes to pollution, overexploitation of natural resources and loss of biodiversity.

Packing waste is hard to recycle

Added to this is a worrying growth in non-recyclable packaging, that is difficult to separate out for reuse and recycling. Recycling systems often fail to deliver, because they don’t have the right processes for collection, sorting and recycling are not available in practice or are not cost-effective, or the output product is not of sufficient quality to satisfy end market demand for secondary raw materials. Consumers might be diligent about putting out their packaging, but it doesn’t always end up where they expect.

Circular economy action plan to target packaging waste

This all adds up to a packing market failure, which has led to new, corrective rules are being brought in via the proposed Regulation on Packaging and Packaging Waste, which replaces the current 1994 directive and aims to “create a well-functioning market for secondary raw materials, increasing the use of recycled plastic through binding targets”.

The proposal has targets to:

  • Reduce packaging waste by 15% by 2040 (compared to 2018)
  • Make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030

There are some strong interventions outlined by the European Commission including: banning disposable containers for fruit, vegetables and detergents; introducing mandatory deposit schemes for plastic bottles and cans; and making sure companies offer consumers things like takeaway meals or drinks in reusable or refillable containers.

There will also be new obligations on the amount of recycled content in plastic packaging and encouraging simpler, less complex blends of materials to make recycling easier. However, recycling must go hand in hand with reuse: both are vital approaches that make the packaging supply chain more circular and reduce consumption of virgin raw materials.

Consumer leverage: demanding better packaging

The task for the supply side and packaging industry is made clear by these new EU rules – but what can consumers do to signal their desire for better packaging to the market while the transition to a better packaging future develops? How can consumers help close the loop by choosing the most sustainable packaging?

This is where a new project called ‘Choose bulk or recyclable’ (Sceglilo sfuso o riciclabile) delivered by Euroconsumers’ Altroconsumo comes in. Funded by the Italian Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy, the project will explore what information and motivation consumers need to play an empowered role in the new, improved packaging supply chain.


There’s a lot of things consumers can do, but not much information about how to do it. The project will fix this by testing out what practical messaging strategies will work best for consumers to help them make sense of packaging choices.

Luisa Crisigiovanni, EU Grants Program Manager & Consumer Policy Expert, Euroconsumers

Use less, use longer, reuse as much as possible 

The main aim of the project is to promote information and training of many different types of consumers, with five key messages to raise awareness of how to reduce their packaging footprint:  

  • Reuse: reusing packaging several times will reduce impact, as more outlets offer reusable packing, can consumers close the loop by bringing back containers to be refilled?
  • Benefits of small behavioural changes: planning out fresh grocery shopping to buy only what you need, buying store supplies in bulk, and choosing seasonal food will all reduce packaging and food waste.
  • Recycling: recycling is not the whole answer, but what can be recycled and how?
  • Simplicity of use and disposal: for example, don’t waste water washing out packaging, flatten and separate items to reduce the volume.
  • Understanding labeling and identifying misleading communications: which environmental symbols are really meaningful and trustworthy? What do the new apps and QR codes tell Italian consumers?

Experimenting with consumer networks

To get to the most impactful messages, Altroconsumo will carry out different types of innovative research: firstly by consulting on the obstacles and barriers to more sustainable choices related to packaging. This will be followed by experiential research with young consumers, co-delivered with the Packaging Innovation Observatory at the University of Bologna. This will experiment with the best ways to de-mystify complex information about packaging reuse and recycling. The Altroconsumo Makers platform, a community of consumer change-makers, will also take part in a collaborative quiz to build up their knowledge and awareness through games. 

All of this rich information will feed into developing the most effective messages which will then be delivered through multi-channel communications including websites, social media, webinars, media work, videos and public events etc.  

This includes engaging with students from the University Institute of Languages and Communication (IULM) in Milan to help create and plan a digital campaign, testing out the best materials, tools and voices to reach audiences. 

The team at Altroconsumo will also test out exactly how easy it is for consumers’ to exercise their rights in the Italian Climate Decree of 2019 to reuse their own packaging in restaurants and shops. They will work with the social enterprise ‘Mercato Circolare’ or Circular Market on a large-scale consumer experiment in five major Italian cities. 

Finally, to bring home the impact of packaging waste on the oceans, local Altroconsumo staff will organize a waste collection on the beaches of Puglia with Archeoplastica.

All of the learning from this array of innovative approaches will be captured and shared in two main ways – firstly to the public at the Milan Triennale in the spring of 2024.

And secondly, at a final event hosted by Italian thinktank I-Com – the Institute for Competitiveness. This will amplify the results of the project, to maximize its impact on consumers and reach new segments of the public and institutions on methods, experiences, good practices, recommendations and guidelines.

‘Choose bulk or recyclable’ (Sceglilo sfuso o riciclabile) is funded by the Italian Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy. “Finanziato dal MIMIT D.M.6/5/2022 art. 5″ with Altroconsumo Association.