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Once a consumer or user has no more use for a packaging, it is disposed of. The manner in which users dispose of their packaging materials has a major impact on the quantitative and qualitative results of the collection, sorting and recycling process.

Waste disposal and collection may occur via specially designed systems or via residual waste - which is a kind of collection system in and of itself. A percentage of packaging materials are not disposed of via any collection system. This is known as “uncontrolled” disposal, i.e. litter.


Packaging waste from households

Generally speaking, there are three different operational collection methods for household packaging waste.

  • Source separation
    In many European countries, packaging waste is collected via source separation. The material can be collected directly from households or from waste disposal facilities such as containers where residents can dispose of their separated waste. Source separation can be stimulated via reverse collection (valuable waste streams are collected from households, while residual waste is disposed of by containers in the neighbourhood) or via Pay as You Throw (PAYT: a collection system with differentiated tariffs and paying for residual waste) or by a combination of these two systems. PAYT is a commonly used incentive in the Netherlands and especially in Belgium; only Brussels does not participate in this scheme. As a result, the city's collection percentages are significantly lower than in the rest of Belgium. Denmark and Germany also utilise a form of PAYT. France and Spain offer citizens no financial incentives to stimulate waste separation.
  • Post separation
    In some European countries, part of the waste material is collected via post separation. This means that the packaging waste is removed from the residual waste stream in a sorting installation. In this manner, valuable materials - which would otherwise be incinerated or landfilled - are preserved. Not all types of waste can be removed from the residual waste stream in the post separation facility. This waste separation method is primarily used for plastic packaging materials, cans and empty beverage cartons for juices and dairy products. Other valuable waste streams, such as organic waste, textile and paper/cardboard are often lost during post separation.
  • Deposit-refund scheme
    Deposit-refund schemes are designed to give consumers a financial incentive to return packaging materials for reuse and recycling. The deposit is a small sum of money that consumers pay when they purchase a product. This sum is (partially) refunded when the empty packaging is returned. Packaging companies - especially those that produce beverages in glass and plastic bottles, are often required to take part in a deposit-refund scheme. These systems make it possible to reuse packaging materials, e.g. glass bottles for beer, soda and mineral water. In the case of plastic PET bottles, the deposit-refund schemes result in a large and clean stream of material that is suitable for recycling.




In recent years, there has been an increased focus on using reward systems for separating packaging materials, cleaning them up or preventing them from ending up as litter. Reward systems offer various incentives to stimulate consumers to take action. Examples include neighbourhood and sports clubs, schools and locally organised clean-up days.

There is much discussion about what collection method yields the highest returns and environmental benefits and what system is the most cost effective. The results differ per situation (high-/low-rise buildings) and per material stream. Furthermore, it turns out that the best results are achieved with a combination of various collection methods.

Packaging waste from businesses

In addition to households, businesses also produce a significant amount of packaging waste. This stream of packaging waste falls under the responsibility of the businesses themselves and it is often collected by commercial waste processing companies (industrial channel). Organisations such as train stations, offices, shops and schools are also classified as “businesses,” even though the composition of their packaging waste may be more akin to that of households. In many cases, the stream of industrial waste has a different composition than the stream of packaging materials that are collected from households. The packaging materials in the industrial waste steam include transport boxes, wrapping film, agricultural films and secondary packaging materials.

One of the main problems with separating industrial waste whose composition is similar to that of household packaging waste is the collection process. Each company is responsible for the collection of its own waste. As a result, an area often has different garbage trucks driving around, all collecting the same waste. There are no scale benefits, which forms an (economic) obstacle for more separated waste collection in the office and retail sector.

Collection of different packaging materials

The different packaging materials can be collected in a variety of ways. In Europe, the method used may differ per country and even per region. The main collection methods are briefly described below.

  • Metal
    Metal packaging materials are collected in two ways: as part of the residual waste stream or via separate collection. Metal in the residual waste stream is taken to a waste incineration facility. Some metal - i.e. the larger steel packaging materials - is removed from the waste stream with magnets. Smaller packaging materials and those made from aluminium are incinerated. Most metal which remains after incineration is removed from the bottom ashes. Many businesses sign a contract with a waste collector for metal packaging materials for which a return system does not exist.

  • Glass
    Many European countries have an efficient glass collection system in place and the material is relatively easy to recycle. Glass in the industrial waste stream mainly comes from businesses in the food-service industry, which (often) make use of a deposit-refund scheme for e.g. soda bottles. Generally, even single-use glass is effectively collected and recycled.
  • Plastic
    Rigid packaging materials made from PET, PE, and PP are collected and recycled throughout most of Europe. This mainly concerns bottles and flasks. After collection and sorting, these materials are used to produce new granulate. To a growing extent, plastic film packaging materials made from PE and PP are also collected and recycled.

    Companies also collect plastic packaging waste from incoming goods that are delivered to them or from their internal processes. One example is the stretch film that is removed from incoming goods. Depending on the agreements made between businesses and their waste collectors, the waste is either sorted by the business itself or by a sorter of industrial waste. The waste is then sent to a recycler.
  • Paper and cardboard
    Paper has a long tradition of collection and recycling. Paper and cardboard are collected from households in a variety of ways, for example via municipal collection services or by sports clubs. Paper and cardboard packaging materials are collected and recycled together with other paper materials. Many businesses sign a contract with a waste collector to pick up their paper packaging materials.
  • Wood
    Wooden packaging materials are used almost exclusively as commercial packaging. Businesses have to make their own arrangements with collection and sorting companies to have their commercial wooden packaging waste collected. There is no separate collection system for wooden packaging waste from households. |

Situation in various countries

The waste stage


The use of packaging materials is subject of European legislation. On 20 December 1994, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union introduced the Directive 94/62/EG (hereinafter: Directive) for packaging materials and packaging waste. This Directive was subsequently revised on 22 May 2018. The goal of this Directive is to limit the use of packaging materials and stimulate recycling, reuse and other useful applications for packaging waste.

All EU Member States are required to implement the Directive in their own national legislation. Every Member State has its own way of doing so. Packforward started to give an overview of the way the different Member States implemented the Directive, but the overview is not completed yet. You can find more information for the Netherlands, information about other countries will follow soon.

Despite the efforts made with regard to collecting, sorting and recycling packaging waste, new raw materials will have to flow into the packaging chain in order to safeguard the quality of the material and compensate for the loss of material in the chain. For a growing number of the new raw materials, steps are being taken towards a circular economy, e.g. by making use of biobased materials.




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