Packaging materials are one of the largest contributors to municipal solid waste generation. In this paper, we evaluate the material impacts of packaging policy in The Netherlands, focusing on the role of material efficiency (or waste prevention). Since 1991, five different policies have been implemented to reduce the environmental impact of packaging. The analysis shows that Dutch packaging policies helped to reduce the total packaging volume until 1999. After 2000, packaging consumption increased more rapidly than the baseline, suggesting that policy measures were not effective. Generally, we see limited attention to material efficiency to reduce packaging material use. For this purpose, we tried to gain more insight in recent activities on material efficiency, by building a database of packaging prevention initiatives. We identified 131 alterations to packaging implemented in the period 2005–2010, of which weight reduction was the predominant approach. More appropriate packaging policy is needed to increase the effectiveness of policies, with special attention to material efficiency.
In order to manage the environmental impact and increasing scarcity of resources, there is a strong need to change the way society produces and consumes materials. Reducing material production and consumption will not only save resources, but also the energy that is required for production and waste processing. This will also result in lower CO2 emissions. Today, the largest flows of material consist of material chains in the built environment, transportation and packaging. In former studies, about 40 per cent of the municipal solid waste in western Europe is estimated to be ascribed to packaging materials [1,2], of which The Netherlands is one of the four biggest packaging consumers .
To enforce waste reduction and a greater responsibility for the environmental impact of packaging for manufacturers and importers in industrialized countries, the European Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste has been implemented by the European Commission. Policy measures described in the European Directive (94/62) aim to reduce or improve the quality of discarded packaging materials hierarchically, which can be divided into five categories (table 1). This waste hierarchy is designed in such a way that moving up the hierarchy subsequently saves money, raw materials and water, and reduces the energy requirements and overall impact on the environment .
The focus of this paper is specifically on evaluating the effectiveness of Dutch packaging policies and waste prevention through packaging prevention. By learning from past experiences, policy targets, measures and systems can be improved. Various countries throughout Europe as well as Australia have used voluntary approaches to limit or reduce waste from packaging, and the nature of the approaches has varied widely. Literature on the effectiveness of voluntary programmes in packaging is limited [7,8].
The paper starts with a brief discussion of Dutch packaging policy history. The evaluation method is described, as well as the theoretical background for the evaluation. The results are presented on the basis of five categories of policy measures. This is followed by a more in-depth discussion of material efficiency in packaging.
2. Packaging policy in The Netherlands
In The Netherlands, a discussion on waste reduction started at the end of the 1970s. Priority material groups were selected, of which synthetic and packaging materials seemingly received the highest priority. In 1988, the Policy Memorandum Prevention and Reuse of Waste Materials set targets for the priority groups (Notitie preventie en hergebruik van afvalstoffen, 1989), which can be considered as the start of a line of policies to reduce packaging and packaging waste in The Netherlands and surrounding countries.
Shortly after the Policy Memorandum, around 300 companies and the government agreed to a voluntary agreement (Packaging Covenant I), which exempted producers and importers from individual company responsibility and potential national waste management. Moreover, the agreement was partly set up to implement the active European Directive on containers of liquids for human consumption (85/339/EEC) that aimed to reduce beverage packaging .
The European Commission also introduced its first Packaging Directive to harmonize packaging regulations among member states, assure high environmental protection levels, guarantee the internal market forces and reduce trade barriers and competition disorders. The implementation of the European Directive in Dutch national regulations was done by introducing the Directive on packaging and packaging waste, which became active on 1 August 1997 . From this point on, five policy periods can be distinguished in Dutch packaging policy history: three voluntary agreements (1991–2005) and two regulatory periods (2006–2012; table 2).
(a) Voluntary agreements (1991–2005)
— Packaging Covenant I (PC I): to stimulate packaging prevention, the target of the first covenant was to reach 3 per cent less packaging newly introduced on the market in 1997 and 10 per cent less packaging material in 2000, both compared with 1986 .
— Packaging Covenant II (PC II): the first prevention and recycling target was relatively easily achieved. Partly owing to these reasons, a new covenant was implemented by the end of 1997, PC II. This covenant aimed to realize the targets and agreements made in the Packaging Directive. The amount of packaging newly on the market in 2001 was allowed to grow by a factor equal to 90 per cent of national income—measured in gross domestic product (GDP)—still using 1986 as the reference year. The covenant stated that producers and importers had to apply the so-called as low as reasonably achievable (‘ALARA’) principle, in order to maximize packaging prevention. PC II included the whole Dutch industry, except for companies that have less than four employees or produce less than 50 tonnes packaging material .
— Packaging Covenant III (PC III): the third covenant was signed on 4 December 2002. The growth of packaging material use was not allowed to exceed more than two-thirds of GDP growth in 2005, compared with the new reference year 1999. It contained targets to accomplish the reduction of litter. The number of bottles and cans was targeted to be reduced by 80 per cent, considering a baseline use of 50 million bottles and cans. Businesses were expected to reduce this number by two-thirds on 1 January 2004 .
(b) Regulatory policy (2006–present)
At the time that PC III was introduced, the government was preparing regulatory measures to safeguard the accomplishment of the packaging targets. The effect of the regulatory measures is said to be very limited .
— Packaging Decree: the government doubted the implementation of a subsequent covenant, but the European Commission eventually pressured to realize the goals set out in the Decree on packaging and paper and board (i.e. the Packaging Decree). Nedvang, a collective organization of producers and importers organizing collection and processing of packaging waste, was assigned as the executive organization to implement the Decree. An important change was that companies became individually responsible for prevention, collection and recycling of their packaging products brought to market (or the so-called ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’). Financial responsibility was introduced in order to realize the ‘polluter pays principle’. However, the fiscal incentives are considered to impact the packaging industry insufficiently to change their production methods considerably by not affecting price-sensitive or change-demanding packaging types (e.g. through the exemption of business-to-business packaging and return-trip packaging, or by applying only tax tariffs on the main component in composites) .
— Framework Agreement: after the implementation of the Packaging Decree, it became obvious that the packaging industry was not able to implement measures to collect and process domestic packaging waste without the cooperation of municipal authorities. Therefore, the packaging industry, the Association of Dutch Communities and the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment (VROM) signed a Framework Agreement on 27 July 2007. The Framework Agreement was only applicable to packaging waste generated by households. Packaging companies need to fulfil the requirements assigned in the Packaging Decree (, Annex 1).
Table 3 provides an overview of all targets set in Dutch packaging policies.
Rouw & Worrell  developed a baseline, based on the concept of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), to evaluate packaging policy results in The Netherlands. The EKC concept argues that material intensity first increases and then starts decreasing after a certain level of development has been reached, while GDP may continue to grow, resulting in a reduced material intensity. This process is called dematerialization or decoupling. Dematerialization refers to the ‘absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials used and/or the quantity of waste generated in the production of a unit of economic output’ . Decoupling means that economic growth and material use are unlocked. The observed trend of the dematerialization process may be ‘distorted’ by material substitution. Owing to (technological) innovations and changing demands, materials replace one another over time. Although the applied EKC depicts the intensity of material use (kg/GDP) over time, it does not necessarily explain the development of absolute material use over time. In fact when the intensity of use declines, absolute material use can still increase, albeit to a smaller extent than GDP growth. For this reason, De Bruyn & Opschoor  distinguish ‘weak dematerialization’, which only implies a decline in the intensity of use, and ‘strong dematerialization’, which also includes a decline in absolute material use. Rouw & Worrell  provide a detailed description of the baseline methodology for packaging consumption in The Netherlands.
During the second and third Covenant periods, packaging policy targets were coupled to the GDP of the country. This relation is studied to verify whether GDP has a strong relationship with packaging material consumption. GDP has a strong correlation (R2 of 0.97) with packaging consumption in Europe, while population demonstrates a slightly better correlation (R2 of 0.99). The relationship between population and packaging consumption is linear. The relationship between GDP and packaging consumption shows levelling off over time, or in other words, demonstrates a certain degree of decoupling. Other analysed variables, such as GDP/capita, households, number of single households as well as distribution of household sizes, were also evaluated, but showed no statistically significant relationship with packaging consumption or packaging consumption per capita . For example, given the available data, there is no indication that single households consume more packaging materials per person than multi-people households. Based on the slightly better correlation, the baseline for the analysis in this study is based on the population growth of The Netherlands and packaging consumption in the reference year 1986. Figure 1 depicts the actual development of packaging materials against the calculated baseline. Below, we discuss the contribution of material efficiency (prevention), product reuse and recycling as the key factors contributing to a reduction of the primary material inputs in recycling.
Figure 1 demonstrates that packaging use was actually reduced in the period of Covenant I (PC I), which can likely be contributed to the policy intervention. Prevention targets and measures did contribute to this reduction. Note, however, that the packaging consumption measurements of 1991 and 1992 were overestimated . During the following policy periods, packaging consumption increased again to a level higher than in 1993, and deviated from the baseline. Actual consumption decreased and approached the baseline until 1998, and after 1998, consumption grew faster than the baseline. Baselines are also used to analyse the development of separate packaging materials. However, note that the baseline is developed on the basis of total packaging materials. Substitution between materials may contribute to the overall target, but may, for individual materials, result in a consumption increase. It appeared that paper and board consumption shows a similar development as total packaging consumption in The Netherlands. Consumption decreased until 1998 and then increased more rapidly than the baseline. Glass consumption started above the baseline in 1991, but rapidly decreased. After 1995, glass consumption increased up to a point in 2007, where it is near the baseline. Metals consumption (e.g. steel and aluminium) seemed rather stable and developed in line with the baseline. Plastics packaging consumption declined until 1998 and has increased almost unmitigated since. Plastics consumption was below the baseline in 1998, but exceeded the baseline consumption trend from 2004 onwards. During the total period analysed, only for metals, the prevention targets were achieved, while for the other materials, prevention was only achieved during the first (more strict) covenant.
During PC I, prevention has been highly stimulated by setting a target of 3 per cent less new packaging materials on the market in 1997 when compared with 1986 (table 3). A packaging reduction of 527 kt was achieved, which equals an average decline of 2.4 per cent per year. The second target, 10 per cent reduction compared with 1986 was set for 2000 and largely overlapped with the different PC II target. Therefore, the influence of the second prevention target could not be distinguished for this period. The increased packaging consumption from 1998 onwards could be due to a reduced focus on prevention. The prevention target set by PC II is 214 kt higher than during PC I. The target is allowed to be this high because it is coupled to GDP growth, which, given the increase in packaging use in this period, seemed not to contribute to prevention. This target was set to 548 kt higher than PC I, and packaging consumption does not decline. The prevention targets have not been met during any of the policy periods. During the Packaging Decree and Framework Agreement period, no specific prevention targets were set. Both documents only signalled the relevance of using the least possible packaging materials and designing packaging materials in such a way that recovery is enabled .
(b) Product reuse
Although, the reuse of products is preferred over material recycling or recovery in the waste hierarchy, this is decreasingly stimulated by Dutch policies over time. This seems to be partly owing to the costs and efforts of companies to implement infrastructure to recycle the products. Competition and consumer demand force companies to create new packaging, and lose governmental control by enforcing unclear and voluntary regulations are other influencing factors. Some anecdotal evidence supports this trend. For example, 1 and 1.5 l polyethylene terephtelate (PET) bottles with deposit refunds used to be thicker, and were returned in crates from supermarkets, in order to be refilled and re-used for 20–25 times (trips). Currently, PET bottles are recycled as material, incinerated and reprocessed into bottles or other synthetic products. The current policies allow refund systems to be abolished for plastic bottles (reusable or recyclable) if a given target for total plastic recycling will be met. The destimulation of packaging reuse seemingly results in skipping of steps in the adopted hierarchy of waste management options in favour of a lower-quality waste management option.
(c) Material recycling
Total recycling targets set during PC I were both met (figure 2). However, the second target of PC I was met in the year 1998, when PC II—which handled a higher target of 65 per cent—was already in place. Subsequent targets have never been met. The curve depicts an increasing recycling percentage until 1999, when recycling started to decline and remained equal at 58 per cent. Despite a lower target of 65 per cent for the Packaging Decree, recycling targets were not met. Total recycling by households during the period 1993–2001 fluctuated around 40 per cent (figure 2). Except for the first target (40% in 1995), total recycling targets were not achieved for household packaging wastes. Companies, on the other hand, demonstrated an increasing recycling rate, so that targets during PC I and II were achieved.
5. Prevention in practice (2005–2010)
Based on a separate analysis, we tried to understand better the role that prevention currently plays in increasing material efficiency. We developed a database consisting of 131 alterations for packaging, to understand the type of activities undertaken to improve the material efficiency of packaging. The case studies were constituted of alterations in ‘filled-before-point-of-sale’ packaging for sales, grouping and transport packaging and were collected through public channels (such as packaging journals, newspapers and news sites) and the internal (non-public) prevention measures database of the organization Nedvang. Alterations to constituents and supplementary elements (e.g. staples, glues, closure stickers, sticky labels or attached user guides) have been excluded from the research. In this paper, material efficiency in packaging is defined as the amount of primary material that is needed to fulfil a packaging function . Through quantitative prevention measures, product modifications and appropriate end-of-life measures, the primary use of material can be reduced. Packaging modifications that lead to a weight reduction are assumed to increase the overall efficiency. Although, no life-cycle analyses have been made available to the authors, it is generally accepted that reducing the use of packaging materials and weight enhances the operating efficiencies for manufacturers, such as reduced transport costs, waste costs, lower costs on material, shorter cycle opportunities (‘thinner means faster’) and lower energy use resulting from using less packaging [18,19]. Furthermore, a reduced energy content is also considered as a material efficient choice (e.g. through applying recycled content or specific materials of renewable origin) [20–22].
In the period 2005–2010, the general effort of the industry in The Netherlands has been aimed at prevention, mainly through lightweighting (see figure 3 and table 4 under ‘application frequency’). Prevention is the key to reducing the absolute weight of packaging, which is considered in general as a short-term ‘low-effort’ innovation , but simultaneously it gives the indication that only ‘local optimization’  is implemented (excluding amplified supply chain cooperation). Other concepts that are frequently applied are inclusion of recycled materials or recycling enabling measures, after switching to more renewable sources (‘bio’ in figure 3). Although a dominant concept is found, in general, the industry employs various source reduction concepts simultaneously.
The largest volume packaging materials (plastic (62%) and paper/board (28%)) are most frequently subject to change. The materials glass (4%), metals (4%) and wood (1%) are less frequently represented in figure 3, which might be explained by the fact that wood is a relatively uncommon material for (consumer) packaging, while metals and glass are already part of a well-established prevention system (recycling schemes). A marginal increase in the use of plastic and biodegradable materials has been observed, at the expense of metal, glass and cardboard packaging materials.
Food packaging and transport packaging (also referred to as industrial packaging) have been most frequently subject to packaging optimization (figure 4). The explanation for food packaging is probably due to the relatively large volumes sold and large expenditures required for these types of packaging . Similarly, reducing excessive material is a key method to optimize transport packaging, and hence optimize internal business economics without the need to consider market dynamics.
In terms of material intensity reduction, the results are less clear as actual data on the achieved reduction of primary packaging material are more descriptive than quantitative. Moreover, only 40 per cent of the identified case studies reported on the achieved reduction. Overall, it can be concluded that the most frequently applied concept (lightweighting) achieves the least average reduction in material intensity (24±16%), not differentiating between the type of packaging or material used (table 4).
Flexible packaging (e.g. pouch) achieves the largest source reduction potential (85±11%). However, this option seems to have limited application in practice, as well as limited support from packaging experts. Table 4 shows that although food packaging and industrial (transport) packaging have most frequently been subject to packaging modifications, it is actually non-food packaging that demonstrates the largest reductions in material use. Bandwidths are induced per concept or packaging service category, owing to the differing performance criteria , even within similar categories or products. The reductions are only indicative, demonstrating a range of achievable reductions.
By analysing Dutch packaging data, it is assumed that packaging waste numbers are equal to packaging consumption numbers because of the average short lifetime of packaging products (i.e. less than 1 year) . This is a simplification of reality, since the analysis should include a conversion from ‘packaging waste’ to ‘packaging on the market’. The need for this factor is reduced by the improved measuring method since 1997, where ‘packaging newly implemented on the market’ was measured instead of packaging waste. In general, the comparison of Dutch data for the various periods is hindered by varying monitoring systems over the studied period. This resulted in inconsistent measurements, such as in- or exclusion of plastic bags, counting singly or multiply used glass and data corrections afterwards. Furthermore, a range of uncertainties exist in the measurements of Dutch packaging data [9,10]. The determination of the most appropriate variable for the baseline is based on European Union (EU) data, which are only available for the period 1997–2006. Longer time series are needed to improve the baseline. Owing to the uncertainty of 10 per cent in 1986, the baseline is less rigid. A more reliable measurement of base year data could enhance the validity of the baseline method.
Note that the baseline was based on Dutch population growth, as population demonstrates a statistically more robust correlation with packaging waste development. However, GDP also shows a high and statistically robust correlation.
The available information on packaging and packaging material intensity has significantly restricted the assessment of the effect of packaging modifications in The Netherlands. A quantitative evaluation requires a large quantity of information , while the reliability of results depends on the assumptions made and on the quality of the data used . To estimate a reduction potential, certain uniformity in packaging needs to be assumed, but the reality of this is deemed impossible due to the wide range of properties in available products. Furthermore, a detailed analysis towards quantities and materials is difficult , owing to the wide range of required data and lack of consistent, public and free-of-charge accounting in society. Moreover, as combinations of life-cycle stages and packaging materials complicate the system boundaries for packaging statistics, most statistics and impact calculations on packaging are solely based on the manufacturing and disposal stage of the packaging life cycle . These difficulties have also been found in previous studies [1,2,17,23].
The reported packaging modifications at Nedvang (the central organization organizing packaging prevention awareness through campaigning optimization examples) are just a fraction of the collected modification examples by the previous umbrella organization for the packaging producers and importers (Foundation Packaging and Environment (SVM Pact.), in operation during 1991–2006). According to Aarts in SVM Pact. , annually around 2000 plans were collected during the voluntary agreements, showing that producers and importers of packed products had an active interest in reducing packaging waste. The lack of reported examples after the voluntary policy period can be explained by the following.
— Lack of enforcement. Registering a packaging prevention measure is currently voluntary. Packaging placed on the market is automatically compliant with the essential requirements (self-declared compliance), not requiring further reporting unless specifically requested by the enforcement authority .
— Lack of awareness/accounting. Nedvang has only just recently rebooted the prevention examples initiative to demonstrate compliance to the obligation of intents for prevention to the government, albeit with a different approach than SVM Pact. Companies might not be aware of the initiative. Furthermore, although maintaining a packaging administration is obligatory since the enactment of the packaging tax, as part of the Packaging Decree, the main actor with detailed knowledge is often the supplier alone .
— Product differentiation confidentiality. Lack of detail can be deliberate, as packaging composition, weight or weight reduction is seen as sensitive information. (Nieuwen-hoven, cited in SVM Pact ). Even Nedvang has difficulties in collecting and verifying information on packaging modifications once an example is reported. The limited number of available case studies can also be ascribed to long development periods of innovative packaging materials, spanning multiple years (e.g. bioplastics) before they are marketed.
As a result, the packaging modifications analysed in this study are a random sample. Actual activities of the packaging industry might therefore deviate from the reflected efforts in this study. Furthermore, from the case studies, it has become clear that mostly examples of product manufacturers were represented. A certain bias is therefore expected within the reported and analysed examples, as some benefit from reporting (e.g. business to consumer companies), whereas others do not (e.g. business to business). This is also discussed in Labatt ; consumer-oriented actors (especially large international corporations), are more concerned about the public image than firms that are not in direct contact with the public. Industry-oriented firms are therefore less inclined to respond to consumer pressure and potential regulatory pressure .
Within the industry, there is resistance against policy aimed at absolute reductions in material use, and hence on weight-based metrics for packaging. The packaging industry does not perceive benchmarking as an appropriate approach, as a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of packaging weight does not necessarily benefit the environment. Packaging weight is considered a trade-off between product specifications and packaging barrier characteristics, and as a trade-off between economics, supply chain dynamics, consumer requirements and consumer wishes. In fact, performance loss due to underperformance of packaging may lead to greater adverse environmental effects than the use of excessive packaging material. Other frequently used arguments opposing weight-based policy are:
— benchmarking may promote only optimization of the end product, excluding the supply chain ;
— examples exist in which an increased weight actually resulted in a lower embodied energy and carbon content in packaging, which can therefore be considered more desirable; and
— the exclusion of the use phase and the embedded energy requirement of the product is often considered as a major shortcoming by experts, as these can influence the absolute carbon or energetic footprint of packaging .
This dilemma to optimize packaging suggests the need for a life-cycle approach. However, owing to a wide variety of available (and growing number of) packaging life-cycle assessment tools and 52 identified indicators , this complicates and intensifies the data accounting obligation  and makes it less feasible to come to sensible results.
7. Conclusions and recommendations
In general, packaging policies in The Netherlands were effective in reducing the total packaging volume until 1998/1999. After 2000, packaging consumption increased at a faster rate than the baseline applied. This suggests that policy measures were not effective in achieving overall policy targets after 2000. More consistent long-term packaging policy measures and targets could improve the effectiveness of policies.
The evaluation above has shown that prevention/material efficiency opportunities seemed to have been effectively implemented in the first policy period. In the following periods, prevention has seemingly received less attention, as concluded from the following arguments:
— the increase in the use of packaging materials compared with the baseline;
— the increasing exemption of industries/companies from the packaging tax;
— the temporary discontinuance of the packaging prevention collection initiative;
— the decrease of transparency in packaging optimization examples; and
— the aversion for weight-based policy and the discussion about what constitutes ‘sustainable’ packaging.
A further in-depth assessment of the implemented packaging source reduction methods and their respective implications to society proved to be inscrutable. The general criticism is a lack of public statistical accounting on the national level and a high level of non-transparency in applied or available packaging modifications. Therefore, based on (i) the level of concealment for various packaging modification indicators, (ii) the lack of available packaging modification examples, and (iii) the disunity between governmental objectives and the views of the industry about packaging waste prevention, it is found to be impossible to quantitatively demonstrate the impact of packaging source reduction in The Netherlands on the national level.
We conclude that without supplementary measures, the future volume of packaging waste will most likely increase. In order to promote packaging prevention, it is recommended that policies are designed to focus on total reduction of environmental impacts through a reduction of material used. This includes designing a transparent metric for the environmental impact of products and product packaging. Hence, it is recommended to develop simple metrics for the environmental impact of packaging or product modifications complementary to the weight focus. Also, improved guidance and enforcement of packaging optimization as well as reporting obligations will help to increase the knowledge of material efficiency in packaging and the effect on society.
One contribution of 15 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Material efficiency: providing material services with less material production’.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.