EU's battle against greenwashing in recycling claims

25 January, 2024

In the ongoing drive for sustainability, the regulation of recycling claims on packaging remains critical in the European Union. The current lack of explicit provisions raises concerns regarding potential violations of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD) when marketing products as 'recycled' or 'recyclable' without substantiated evidence. With the European Parliament's approval of a UCPD amendment in January 2024 and the progress of the Green Claims Directive, regulatory efforts intensify to combat greenwashing. Amidst evolving standards, companies must enhance diligence in environmental claims to stay aligned with emerging regulations.


How are recycling claims currently regulated in the EU?

Currently there are no explicit provisions regarding the use of recycling claims on pack. However, marketing foods and beverages in packaging labelled as ‘recycled’ or ‘recyclable’ may contravene the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD) if the claims being made on pack cannot be substantiated to a satisfactory level, as determined by the court or administrative authority.

Complaints by BEUC

A report carried out by the BEUC in November 2023, together with ClientEarth and ECOS (Environmental Coalition on Standards) states that some parts of the beverage industry are making misleading claims. The group identifies three key claims of concern:

  • ‘100% recyclable’ – considered ambiguous; it depends on many factors
  • ‘100% recycled’ – perceived as wrongly implying that the entire bottle is made solely from recycled materials
  • Use of green imagery – gives the false impression of environmental neutrality, plastic circularity and a positive environmental impact

Given BEUC’s mission to influence policy and regulatory frameworks, this study has the potential to spark additional discussions and influence amendments to the UCPD.

Current proposals on green claims

The Green Claims Directive (proposed in March 2023) and the proposed amendment to the UCPD both have common objectives to tackle greenwashing. These include:

  • Environmental claim substantiation/communication
  • Rules on environmental labelling schemes
  • Ban of generic environmental claims such as ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘climate neutral’ ‘biodegradable’, or ‘eco’ if they cannot be substantiated
  • Prohibiting misleading claims like ‘made with recycled material’, which implies that the entire product is made with recycled material when in fact only a part of the packaging is made from recycled material

The amendment to the UCPD, first proposed in March 2022, has been reviewed, amended, and ultimately approved by the European Parliament on 17 January 2024; however it has yet to be approved by the Council of Europe, although this is expected to happen swiftly. Once this amendment is finalised, there will be a 24-month deadline for member states to transcribe the directive into national law, and likely an additional 6 months for companies to comply with the rules after that.

The proposed Green Claims Directive is slightly further away from being finalised, and there is still a question mark over exactly when this will happen, i.e., before or after the European elections in 2024.

One thing is for certain, the increasing legislative burden and activity from BEUC in this area will mean more enforcement and more work for companies wanting to market their products based on environmental claims.

How Leatherhead can help

Leatherhead’s team of experts can scrutinise product claims and artwork to assess the potential to mislead consumers about the environmental impact of a product. Additionally, we stay abreast of industry and regulatory updates related to green claims, providing guidance on proactive measures to address misleading eco-labelling.

Our extensive resources include numerous white papers linked to sustainability, and our Annual Trends Report, which delves into industry hot topics. Available as part of the Leatherhead Membership package, these resources ensure you stay well-informed about business-critical regulatory changes globally, supporting your business in navigating the evolving landscape.

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