By Frédéric Simon
(EurActiv) — The signature contoured bottle from Coca-Cola, alongside other designer bottles for whiskey or perfume, could end up being pushed out of the European market under draft EU rules to promote reusable packaging, a move that is causing jitters in the drinks industry.
New EU-wide packaging rules are currently being discussed in Brussels as part of the European Commission’s proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), tabled a year ago.
The law was voted on Tuesday (24 October) in the European Parliament’s environment committee, marking the first step in the procedure before the full House adopts its position in November, setting the stage for crunch talks with EU member states to finalise the law in time for the June European elections.
But industry groups fear the law risks infringing protection of intellectual property rights when it comes to special packaging like branded beverage bottles.
“The risk is that packaged products will start to look the same. Creative designs and iconic shapes will gradually disappear, and commercial value will be squandered because brands can no longer stand out from each other on the shelves,” said FEVE, a trade association representing glass bottle manufacturers.
While glass packaging makers acknowledged efforts by MEPs to recognise proprietary packaging designs “to some extent”, they said the law voted on Tuesday “falls well short” of their expectations.
“We fear this will result in standardised packaging and the gradual demise of brand differentiation,” said Adeline Farrelly, secretary general of FEVE. “We believe this measure restricts creative designs and iconic shapes of bottles,” she added.
Packaging design requirements are currently spelt out in Article 9 of the packaging waste directive, which requires the weight and volume of packaging to be minimised. A number of “performance criteria”, listed in Annex IV, can be used by brands to justify heavier packaging based on criteria like product protection, logistics, or consumer safety.
However, the Commission proposed to delete the ‘consumer acceptance’ and ‘marketing and product presentation’ criteria from the accepted list of performance criteria when it tabled its updated packaging law last year.
Those deletions were upheld in this week’s Parliament vote, meaning iconic glass bottles like the famous Coca-Cola bottle could end up being driven out of the EU market, industry sources said.
“Yes, the iconic Coca-Cola bottle is definitely at risk as well as any many other iconic perfumery, food, spirits bottles if there is a need to use more glass for a specific shape,” said an industry source who asked not to be named.
Coca-Cola’s EU representation in Brussels declined to comment on the vote for the time being, saying they were looking into the implications of the vote.
But glass bottle manufacturers were more outspoken, confirming that designer bottles were clearly at risk from the new regulation.
“This means that design choices that add weight to packaging – unique shapes, patterns, decorations, embossing – will not comply and should not anymore be placed on the market,” said Vanessa Chesnot, head of public affairs at FEVE. “This will strongly impact spirits, perfumes, or any products which are packed in unique packaging, often protected by Intellectual Property Rights,” she told Euractiv in emailed comments.
According to FEVE’s calculations, glass-packed products contribute a value of €250 billion to EU exports – much more than any other packaging material and other sectors.
This is especially the case for spirits like whiskeys or vodka, which come in bottles of different shapes and sizes as part of branding efforts.
“Spirits drinks bottles are not standardised bottles and any mandatory re-use would force our members to give up iconic packaging,” said Sarah Melina, director at Spirits Europe, a trade association representing the spirits industry as well as multinationals like Diageo and Pernod Ricard.
“Indeed, our sector thrives on premium products and brand identity is communicated also to a significant share by the packaging,” she told Euractiv in emailed comments.
The risk, Melina says, is that small producers will be forced out of the European market if they cannot guarantee the minimum re-use share mandated by law. “For them it’s a matter of changing production,” she pointed out.
Activists defend reuse
Green campaigners, for their part, say the EU packaging law doesn’t prohibit design as long as bottles are recyclable and can be reused on a large scale.
“I believe it won’t have a significant impact on Coca-Cola, but it might affect some rather unusual wine and spirit bottles, especially if they incorporate various components made of different materials, which could complicate recycling,” said Janek Vahk from Zero-Waste Europe, an environmental group.
According to research published last month, more standardised packaging is crucial to make glass bottles reusable, and will lower carbon emissions as long as collection, return, and washing systems are efficient.
“It’s not about making them all the same, but about setting a framework for simplicity, scalability, and user-friendliness,” Vakh said.
Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), agrees. For him, standardisation about reuse isn’t about inhibiting aesthetics but about designing a reuse system that works.
“In Belgium we have a thriving artisanal beer market mostly depending on the three designs of beer bottles accepted in the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) system. The stickers on the bottles are immensely artistic and allow clear differentiation between different producers of great products,” he told Euractiv.
Still, brand owners feel they are being robbed of the possibility to distinguish themselves.
“Packaging plays a key role for branded consumer goods,” says AIM, the European brands association. “The design of the packaging, with differentiated volumes and shapes, is in many cases, intrinsically and inseparably linked to the product itself, contributing to immediate identification by the consumer,” it said in a statement released after the Parliament vote.
Lawmakers, according to AIM, should “avoid prescribing maximum limits for the weight and volume of the packaging, as this would de facto lead to a standardisation which undermines brands’ identity and freedom to design packaging”.