Europe plastic taxes may favour PET, pandemic drives packaging demand

Author: Tom Brown


LONDON (ICIS)—Plastics packaging taxes rolling out across Europe are likely to favour polyethylene terephthalate (PET) over other polymers, such as polypropylene for some food and drink applications due to greater ease in sourcing secondary material, a consultant said on Wednesday.

Plastic taxes being introduced by Italy and the UK among others that focus on recycled content are likely to drive some plastics consumption in the packaging sector toward PET due to the mature existing market for non-virgin PET, said Joe Papineschi, director of environmental consultancy Eunomia.

The effects of this are already perceptible in some sectors, he said, noting that the French yoghurt sector is increasingly shifting from polystyrene (PS) to PET packaging due to incentives for recycled content.

The coronavirus pandemic has radically altered consumer demand patterns, Papineschi said, halting the growth of megatrends such as the sharing economy, and completely restructuring plastics packaging demand.

The pandemic has driven a potentially temporary increase in single-use plastic packaging demand due to hygiene concerns, despite consumption of on-the-go items such as water bottles plummeting 70-90% in April before rebounding to an extent since then.

Demand for larger pack sizes driven by the shift to home working rose over the same period, as well as a pronounced shift from high street to online purchasing.

Despite growth in packaging demand driven by a jump in online orders, consumer support for green measures remains strong, Papineschi said, citing a McKinsey survey of 2,000 people in the UK and Germany taken mid-pandemic where two thirds of respondents said that  it  has become even more important to limit the impacts of climate change.

An equal number considered the use of sustainable materials to be an important factor in purchasing decisions, although the importance of environmental factors has not necessarily translated into household habits, he noted.

“One interesting shift being the increase in proportion of consumers saying they are making changes to their lifestyle… [but we] haven’t seen increase in recycling behaviour [we] might have expected,” Papineschi said, speaking at the ICIS PET Value Chain Virtual Conference.

Demand for consumer education remains strong, with survey respondents keen on recyclability as the default for packaging, along with greater clarity on end of life.

The fact that it is not always clear on which packaging options are more or less sustainable can make it difficult for consumers to make informed choices on sustainability, with Papineschi noting strong support among survey respondents for compostable packaging without a great deal of awareness about what that means in practice.

Awareness about the impact of single-use packaging in environmental issues such as ocean waste has led more than half of consumers in the UK and US  reducing consumption of those materials, according to Papineschi, with a wilingness among consumers to pay higher prices for sustainable plastics.

Although large non-governmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund shifting away from campaigns on plastics toward the larger issue of carbon emissions, downward pressure on some plastics is likely to remain due to company commitments to shift away from those materials for packaging, Papineschi said.

Consumer trends and brand commitments are likely to slow PET demand growth in the longer term, despite the current uptick in single-use packaging consumption.

“Brands still seem to be standing by commitments that might see a reduction in consumption of PET packaging, or at least a slowing of growth,” he said.

Petrochemicals industry executives have warned against anti-plastics legislation that drives increased usage of materials with significantly higher carbon footprints, such as glass.

Focus article by Tom Brown.