Recycling Of Packaging Yields Environmental Gains

December 09, 1998

The sorting of packaging waste at source and recycling can lead to increased transport. But in terms of the environment, advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The recycling of packaging is good for the environment and saves resources, not least energy. This is the conclusion of a report from the Swedish EPA to the Swedish government, evaluating producer responsibility for packaging. It can even be more advantageous in environmental terms to transport packaging from the very north to the south of Sweden.

Producer responsibility was introduced in Sweden in 1994. This has led to an increase in recycled packaging by more than 140,000 tons in recent years. Even if packaging waste, as such, is a minor environmental problem, the focus on packaging has generated other positive effects for environmental protection in Sweden, according to Swedish EPA.

"It is important to encourage the reuse of packaging, as the environmental gains are considerable", says Swedish EPA investigator Erik Westin. "We should share our experiences in view of the forthcoming revision of the EC Packaging Directive, and press for further measures to stimulate reuse".

The issue of transport of discarded packaging has been discussed at large. But the investigation shows that even if householders use the car more to reach recycling stations, overall transport has not increased significantly. Manufacture using recycled materials is much less energy intensive than production from new raw materials. The environmental benefits from energy saving far outweigh any losses in connection with increased transport.

Waste flows in society are small compared with the total flow of materials. Waste movements account for just 1,2% of all transport by truck, packaging being an even smaller part.

Fuel from landfill sites
"The environmental gains from recycling rigid polythene are surprisingly large," according to Erik Westin. "Recycling of paper and cardboard packaging is better than incinerating, but the total environmental gain is not particularly great. Recycling has positive environmental effects on landfill sites, since more active efforts are made to find substitute fuels for incineration plants among other types of combustible waste that would otherwise have become landfill. Landfill is clearly the worst alternative from an environmental point of view. This applies to all types of materials," he explains.

Recycling saves energy
The packaging manufacturing process requires a great deal of energy. The energy saving is greatest for recycled aluminium, which only requires one-twentieth of the energy needed to manufacture new packaging from raw material.

"The energy gain is often so significant that it is advantageous in environmental terms to transport collected packaging long distances for recycling, even as far as from the far north of Sweden to the far south. This applies to all types of packaging investigated," he adds.

One adverse effect, however, is that litter has increased in places and the aesthetic appeal of some areas has declined. Producers, contractors, local authorities and others involved are now trying to find solutions to this problem.
Report no 4983, "Producentansvar för förpackningar -för miljöns skull", only summary and conclusions in English.

For further information, please contact:
Erik Westin 46-8-698-1620,
Inger Klöfver,46-8-698-1339,

Press office:
Anna Bonta-Anger, 46-8-698-1084,
Suzanne Kolare, 46-8-698-1697,

Swedish Environmental Protection Agency

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