Unpackaged – an idea reaches its limits

You can’t manage completely without packaging. Dr. Axel Kölle, Head of the ZNU Center for Sustainable Corporate Management at the University of Witten/Herdecke, calls on manufacturers and retailers to do even more for sustainable packaging.

In 2019, with the new packaging law, the regulatory pressure on companies that market packaging in Germany will increase. They are to use eco-friendly, recyclable material, regardless of whether for transport, sales or outer packaging. In addition, by 2022, depending on the material, they are to achieve much higher recycling rates than today. Are manufacturers and retailers prepared for this?

The large corporations are addressing this topic. Many start-ups are also very active here. They see the competitive advantage in trimming products and packaging to sustainability right from the start. It is likely to become more difficult for the broad mass of medium-sized companies that have not so far focused so strongly on the subject of packaging, but have just let things take their course. Many leading medium-sized companies are active in the ZNU’s partner network. They exchange information intensively on entrepreneurial work in the three dimensions of economy, ecology and social affairs and learn from each other’s best-practice solutions. These family-run businesses have long been concerned with developing more sustainable packaging – just think of Ritter Sport chocolate and Brandt Rusks. It is important that every company should not only find its own way in striking a balance between economy and ecology, but also proceed further and not stop, even if it occasionally becomes more expensive. With our ZNU standard for sustainable management, we provide a framework for packaging as well that has proved successful in practice.

Where can adjustments be made, especially for packaging, in order to achieve more sustainability?

To answer this question, it is necessary to take a holistic view of the packaging system and then find your own solution. Climate, water, energy, plastics in general and packaging in particular are currently a key socially relevant issue, as the recent discussion about plastic drinking straws and disposable coffee cups and the associated demand for a ban on such products shows. But packaging has several functions. Depending on what is being packed, it is there to protect goods during transport, to preserve the aroma, to provide customers with information or, of course, also to serve marketing purposes. That is why the Unpackaged idea, which is actually very charming from an ecological point of view, often reaches its limits. Many products that nobody wants to do without would hardly exist if they were completely without packaging. Not everything works like a banana.

What will manufacturers have to watch out for when they develop packaging concepts under the new law in future?

The first step is to clearly define the functions of the packaging, create a hierarchy for them and precisely identify the materials currently used. Once the core function has been established, improvements in terms of sustainability can be initiated. There are always two alternatives to be considered – can the same function be achieved with less material input? In this case, the wall thickness of sales packaging could be reduced, as we have seen with aluminium cans in recent years. Or can the same function be assured by another material with a better ecological balance? Then tinplate would be an alternative to aluminium.

So from the point of view of the new Packaging Act, the decision would depend on how well the material can be collected, sorted and recycled?

That is an important aspect. In packaging decisions, however, I would go one step further and follow up a thorough status quo analysis with a small ecological life cycle assessment along the packaging value chain – both for the existing solution and for possible alternatives. It should cover the whole production process as well as additional materials such as glue or paint. For example, in the case of the beverage can, the question may arise as to whether – irrespective of material savings due to thinner walls – the high energy consumption in aluminium or tinplate processing does not generally tip the balance in favour of plastic bottles – or not when considered under other aspects, such as maybe quality.

So is plastic a sensible packaging material at all in terms of recycling management?

There are technical possibilities through which high-quality granular material can be obtained from recycled plastics, not just inferior raw material as used for the much-cited park benches. Here the legislator would need to improve regulations and permit food packaging to consist of secondary granular material if it is of primary quality. Otherwise, recycling in this area would always remain downcycling. Sometimes it is just a question of colour. Black plastic should actually be banned because the sorting system operating with infrared light does not recognise the material and send it for incineration. However many packers still prefer to keep black trays because they look “so cool”. The subject of printing inks also plays a key role here.

A major problem with sorting and recycling is packaging made of different materials. Will companies have to move away from this?

It is not possible to generalise here. It always depends on the function of the packaging and the question of alternatives. Many cleaning agents, for example, do not require gas today because the plastic bottle is equipped with a pump sprayer. For the environment, doing without gas is good, for the recycler the use of different materials in the pump device right through to a small metal spring represents a nightmare. Often such combinations of different materials cannot be separated properly, and everything ends up in the incinerator, which of course runs counter to the aim of the Packaging Act. This is where everyone involved in the value chain – from raw material suppliers and machinery manufacturers to packaging manufacturers and packers – must cooperate to answer a question. How can the pumping function be achieved with a single mono-material or how can the part be easily dismantled and separated into the various materials?

Would the consumer ideally have to take care of this dismantling when throwing the packaging away by disposing of the spring as metal and the rest of the bottle as plastic waste?

Manufacturers, distributors, waste disposers and recyclers should in fact, do much more to educate consumers, especially about packaging made of different materials. A classic example is the yoghurt pot. Inside, a fine plastic layer protects the yoghurt against loss of aroma and moisture penetration; on the outside thin cardboard is used for stabilisation, and aluminium foil as a lid. Materials that are used sparingly and are of the same type. But if the buyer throws everything away in one piece without separating the aluminium, cardboard and plastic, this will hardly result in recycling. There is an urgent need for education in order to achieve higher recycling rates. The system only works as well as the consumer understands and accepts it. Furthermore, by providing more information and thus showing a sense of responsibility, manufacturers and retailers can also polish their image via the topic of sustainable packaging.

Dr. Axel Kölle researches and teaches Economics at the University of Witten / Herdecke (UW/H). In 2009 he and Dr. Christian Gessner founded the ZNU - Centre for Sustainable Corporate Management.
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