Cheese makers in France are lobbying against the new rules, which could spell the end of traditional wooden packaging.
Cheesed off at EU recycling regulations, Camembert producers have lobbied to have their packaging excluded from new rules.
French MEPs tabled last-minute amendments on Wednesday to protect the distinctive traditional wooden containers used for the cheese.
First proposed in November 2022, a vote on the recycling regulation is due next week in the European Parliament. Intending to reduce waste, it imposes recycling targets for all packaging from 2030.
These apply to the entire packaging life cycle, from raw materials to final disposal, and constitute a ban on non-recyclable packaging.
According to French newspaper Le Figaro, it would have seen wooden cheese boxes replaced with recycled plastic.
The law is the subject of intense hostile lobbying by a wide array of companies.
Why is Camembert packaging the subject of fierce debate?
As well as being an iconic sight on shop shelves, round wooden boxes provide breathability for soft cheeses like Camembert, which are prone to sweating. Disposing of the packaging remains an issue, however.
While the boxes aren’t likely to be banned under the new rules, they would be subject to new recycling and reuse regulations that could make them prohibitively costly.
“The wooden boxes used to package cheeses like Camembert do not have a dedicated recycling channel, as it would be too expensive to create a logistics chain,” Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, a Normandy MEP from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, told news agency AFP.
Yon-Courtin’s centrist group, Renew Europe, has tabled an amendment calling to spare wooden packaging from the recycling law. This includes boxes containing Camembert, Mont-d’Or, oysters and strawberries, among other items.
An exemption for wax packaging, such as that used for Babybel cheese, has also been proposed.
They are asking the European Commission to produce a report by the end of 2028 to assess the availability of recycling infrastructure for these types of packaging. They also want to know the environmental benefits of being forced to recycle them before being subjected to the new law.
‘An oversight’ on the part of the European Commission
The regulations had already received a green light from the European Parliament’s Environment Committee in October.
Renew Europe’s amendment “should receive a large majority, because it is obviously nobody’s intention to do away with wooden packaging for Camemberts”, assured the chairman of this parliamentary committee, Renew Europe member Pascal Canfin. He denounced it as “an oversight” on the part of the European Commission.
“The difficulty in this particular case of wooden boxes is sorting… it’s economically impossible today,” Michael Matlosz, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Lorraine who supervised a report on recycling by the French Academy of Technologies, told AFP.
“Before asking people to recycle wooden boxes, there’s already a lot to be done about plastic packaging,” argues Jérémy Decerle MEP (Renew Europe), former president of the Jeunes French agricultural union.
‘Rigid, complex and often counterproductive standards’
The draft regulation is due to be debated on Tuesday and a vote will take place on the following day in the European Parliament.
France’s European affairs minister, Laurence Boone, has supported the amendments. He says the law could anger rural voters ahead of next June’s EU elections.
“If you want to caricature Europe before the elections, you start by annoying Camembert producers and their wooden packaging… that makes everyone sit up,” she commented during a meeting with journalists.
“We need to encourage companies to use recyclable packaging [but] we need a little pragmatic realism,” she added.
Camembert-makers are unlikely to give up on the issue either having previously fought a 12-year legal battle over the naming of their product.
Amendments were also tabled by French MEPs François-Xavier Bellamy and Arnaud Danjean of the right-wing EPP group, and by MEP Catherine Griset on behalf of the far-right ID group, to exclude wooden packaging from the scope of the regulations.
“This issue is, above all, symptomatic of the problem posed by this text, which once again introduces rigid, complex and often counterproductive standards,” François-Xavier Bellamy said.
“We are mobilising, for example, to prevent the mandatory deposit system for all plastic bottles in Europe, which would destroy the recycling model in which France and our local authorities have invested massively for many years,” he added.
Not everyone agrees with the exclusion, however.
“The requirement for Camembert’s wooden packaging to be recyclable must remain,” German MEP Delara Burkhardt of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) told AFP.