EU policy support is pivotal to industry’s ability to offer more sustainable packaging and support healthier lifestyles
By Ian Ellington, President of Unesda Soft Drinks Europe and Senior Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer for PepsiCo in Europe
When Unesda, representing the European soft drinks sector, became one of the first signatories of the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices in 2021, it was a natural step in our ongoing journey to provide circular packaging and more beverage choices.
We were pleased to have the opportunity to propose concrete actions to help achieve the objective of the Code: to encourage sustainable and healthier practices in the transition to a more sustainable and healthier food system in Europe. It was extremely encouraging to see so many other stakeholders sign up to the EU Code of Conduct, demonstrating that this initiative can make a real difference. Next, we need to see delivery of what has been promised, as well as more tangible commitments from other sectors. Only collective efforts will deliver widespread improvements.
Our sector is determined to achieve the commitments we made under the Code, even in difficult times. Last year was a particularly turbulent year: the energy crisis stemming from the war in Ukraine has resulted in increased prices and inflationary pressures that have had a considerable impact on our sector. Despite these hurdles, Unesda and its members have remained laser-focused on our Code commitments and have managed to make good strides forward, as demonstrated in our 2022 progress report.
Let’s take a closer look at what our sector has achieved and what policy support will be needed in future.
Reducing sugar in our soft drinks by 7.6% between 2019 and 2022
One of the most meaningful actions we are taking to support healthier lifestyles is to reduce the sugar content in our soft drinks. Unesda is committed to delivering an additional 10% reduction in average added sugars in our soft drinks between 2019 and 2025 in the EU-27 and the UK, building on our past achievements: an average 14.6% sugar reduction between 2015 and 2019 and an average 13.3% sugar reduction between 2000 and 2015.
In 2022, we accelerated our efforts and succeeded in achieving a 7.6% reduction in average added sugars in our soft drinks between 2019 and 2022 across Europe. This represents an additional reduction of 4% percentage points within 1 year (between 2021 and 2022). These successes have been possible largely through the use of low- and no-calorie sweeteners, ingredients that provide our drinks with the taste that consumers expect, yet with no or hardly any calories, enabling them to manage their sugar intake.
It is our ambition to continue these actions, but we need EU public authorities and regulators to help us and our consumers in two fundamental ways:
- Support the use of low- and no-calorie sweeteners, based on sound scientific evidence, and recognise their important role in achieving public health objectives, including reducing overweight and obesity. The recent update of the Nutri-Score algorithm for beverages, for example, is a worrying example of how dietary recommendations must not be based on weak science. This risks causing public distrust in ingredients that are safe and play an important role in helping consumers reduce their sugar intake. It also undermines our sector’s sugar reduction efforts, which aim to respond to public health concerns.
- Develop evidence-based dietary recommendations that do not denigrate or discriminate against ingredients approved as safe for use by health authorities.
Striving to deliver fully circular beverage packaging
As we reflect on the progress we have made on our circularity commitments, it becomes even clearer that a supportive EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation is crucial.
Efficient and well-designed collection schemes are indispensable to help us increase the collection rates of our packaging and fulfill our commitment to achieve 90% collection of all our packaging (PET bottles, glass bottles and aluminium cans). Deposit Return Systems (DRS) have proven to be one of the most efficient collection schemes. In 2021, the 12 existing DRS in Europe reported an average collection rate of 90%. Clearly, this indicates that we need a wider roll-out of well-designed DRS in Europe.
When it comes to our recycling efforts, it is encouraging to see that, even in 2022, Unesda corporate members managed to slightly increase the amount of recycled plastic content in PET bottles. The increasing prices of recycled PET and the challenges faced by our sector to access the necessary amount of feedstock for recycling have made it difficult for us to deliver more. To accelerate our recycled content actions, we need the EU to prioritise high-quality recycling by granting our sector a fair access right to the feedstock for recycling issued from our beverage PET bottles. This is the only way to ensure that our plastic bottles are recycled into new beverage packaging in a closed-loop system, preventing it from being downcycled into non-food applications.
Unesda is also working towards reducing the carbon footprint of its packaging and increasing the use of reusable packaging and systems enabling refill. Between 2021 and 2022, two of Unesda’s major corporate members reported an average increase of 3% in returnable refillable bottles. In parallel, they have made efforts to offer more systems enabling refill, such as at-home dispensers. These innovative refill solutions have a role to play in reducing the amount of beverage packaging and encouraging consumers towards new, convenient and more sustainable ways to consume our products. If the EU is serious about ensuring a realistic transition to more reusable and refill solutions, it should:
- provide flexibility to beverage manufacturers to invest in the packaging mix that makes the most sense from an environmental, economic, and consumer perspective.
- consider all available reusable and refill options for the achievement of the reuse and refill targets in EU and national legislation, supported by an appropriate calculation methodology.
My two-year mandate as President of Unesda is nearing its end and we will move into a new phase of leadership as of July, but we will continue to follow a clear course: we will remain unwavering in our commitment to deliver positive change insofar as EU policies permit. We will also continue to engage constructively with EU policymakers to ensure policy stability and coherence.
Finally, I would like to thank all of our industry colleagues for their unceasing efforts to help our sector to make further progress and contribute meaningfully to a more sustainable and healthier food system for European consumers.