In a current study of plastic packaging in the food industry, an initiative of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research highlights the role of consumers in avoiding plastic waste. It also makes recommendations for action.
Packaging plays an important role when buying food. It serves as a source of information, protects the product from spoiling and makes it last longer. A study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (also referred to by the authors as a discussion paper) sheds light on the interactions between consumers and food retailing on the one hand and between disposal companies and consumers on the other.
In the conflict between the need for and usefulness of plastic packaging and the resulting ecological problems, a plastics avoidance project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is also looking for possible ways to reduce the amount of plastic packaging for model products. Although the focus of this project is on consumers, these cannot be considered in isolation: For example, plastic packaging producers attribute their behaviour to the wishes of product manufacturers. They in turn are guided by the wishes of the trade, which in turn points to with the concerns of consumers. “Retailers often find themselves caught between the needs and expectations of society on the one hand and of consumers on the other, which do not always coincide. This interactive process is made more difficult by the fact that for all institutions involved (manufacturers, retailers, consumers, disposal companies) financial considerations often have overriding importance,” according to the study on plastic packaging in the food industry.
In Germany, consumers can be divided into two groups: one, accounting for around 25 per cent, bases their purchasing behaviour on an environmentally and socially ethical consumer attitude. For the other, ethical aspects play hardly any role. According to a representative survey, freshness and price are important criteria for most consumers when buying food. Appropriate packaging can guarantee these, the authors of the study explain. Special plastic packaging is often used which is designed to meet the requirements of the food to be protected. This are usually made from a combination of different materials (multilayer materials), which are a great challenge for recycling companies, since some of the plastics cannot be broken down into their individual components.
Challenges in disposal
With regard to plastic packaging, two central problems arise in disposal which influence each other: On the one hand, there is waste classification, which is the responsibility of consumers, while on the other hand there is the recovery of waste, which is the responsibility of disposal companies and recyclers. Waste separation that is as pure as possible in terms of type is essential for effective recycling, since purity of type is “the central parameter for the recyclability of plastics and the quality of the regranulate or recycled material for sale and use as a substitute for new goods”. “Production of recycled material is therefore only profitable if it can be sold at a ‘reasonable’ price and ‘useful’ products can be made from it. If this is not the case, from a purely economic point of view thermal recycling of plastics from consumer waste and the production of packaging from new plastics (without recycled content) is usually the more sensible way forward,” the discussion paper notes.
In principle, we can say that most consumers in Germany separate their waste, but whether they do it correctly is the decisive question. There are different systems in the municipalities for disposing of waste. Each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages. In the case of collection systems such as the Yellow Bin, the various types of plastic are separated from one another in the corresponding classification plants. The disadvantage of this is that it can lead to incorrect allocation of the plastic waste (misdirected waste), which is estimated to occur in up to 60 per cent of cases.
No uniform recycling concept
The study concludes that the recycling rate in Germany cannot be determined correctly. The figures accordingly fluctuate between 5 and 40 per cent, depending on the basis for calculation. “Summarising, there is no uniformly valid recycling concept and thus no uniform rules in Germany. This inevitably leads to confusion among consumers.” The authors complain that consumers would have to do their own research to avoid misdirecting waste.
A further problem in waste separation is the challenge of precisely identifying or separating the different plastics. There is also the problem that the majority of lightweight packaging consists of a combination of different (plastic) materials (multilayer materials – about two thirds of the sorted plastics at the disposal company), or is contaminated by adhesives or attached labels or other additives. “It is difficult or even impossible – at least with the current technological status of many sorting plants” to break down these mixed plastics into their individual components, or to separate the different types of plastics from each other,.
For this reason, 85 per cent of mixed plastics are currently recycled for energy. In the light of the difficulties mentioned, the disposal and recycling system for plastic packaging is questionable. “Different definitions and an inconsistent understanding of e.g. so-called ‘bioplastics’ also lead to uncertainty among consumers: Biopolymers are defined as plastics that are biobased or biodegradable. They can therefore be produced from fossil raw materials and be biodegradable, be produced from renewable raw materials and be non-biodegradable or be produced from renewable raw materials and be biodegradable.”
Recommendations for action
- The possibilities for consumers to reduce plastic by changing their behaviour are psychologically and socially limited.
- Large packaging is more ecological in terms of packaging technology, as less packaging is required in relation to the product sold. However, this can in turn encourage throwing away food if it is not used up within the shelf life. The ecological cost is higher for food production than for packaging production. A reduction in food losses accordingly tends to reduce the environmental impact even if the packaging requirement is higher.
- For all packaging alternatives, the question arises whether they are better than conventional plastics in terms of the ecological balance sheet.
- The use of plastic packaging is based on the demand and requirements for the foodstuffs packaged in it, the cost-effectiveness of the available packaging materials and technologies, and the political environment. A move towards more ecofriendly packaging solutions will not be possible without pressure in all these areas. Consumers can affect demand and disposal, but in doing this they come up against various limits, which can be too much for them to overcome.
- Finally, the waste management system in Germany as a whole would have to be redesigned so that the contribution of consumers is meaningful. In addition, the plastic packaging problem is only one of many ecological problems, such as global warming, in addition to other ‘everyday problems’ that consumers have to deal with.
- In order to relieve consumers and support them in avoiding plastic (waste), there are different possible options. On the one hand, focused and low-threshold consumer education in both the purchase decision and disposal is important. A so-called ‘plastic index’, which is being developed in the course of a research project of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, could make the purchase decision easier. The ‘plastic index’ can be displayed directly at the point of sale. It takes into consideration packaging quantity, recyclability and the environmental impact of producing the packaging materials (particularly greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of fossil fuels), and summarises this in a comprehensible and transparent rating. In addition, monetary incentives directly at the point of sale can contribute to a change in purchasing behaviour, and also provide orientation (for example, lower prices at the service counter or similar).
- A packaging tax would also have an indirect effect on consumer behaviour. Since ecologically harmful packaging would become more expensive, manufacturers would have to adapt their product or packaging design to offer alternatives, which customers would then have to pay for.
- Increased deposit obligations or monetary incentives for reusable systems would have a similar effect on consumer behaviour and could lead specifically to less plastic in shopping. However, reusable packaging only makes sense if these systems are actually ecologically beneficial.
- In the area of waste management, a standardisation and simplification of the system would relieve the burden. Better and simpler labelling on packaging to indicate how best to dispose of it would also be helpful. In the case of multilayer materials that are difficult to recycle, a surcharge on packaging licensing, as in France, would be possible, so that packaging design would develop in a different direction. Monetary incentives are expected under the new packaging law, which provides for a steering effect (‘bonus-malus system’). A further approach is to investigate whether it might be more profitable to dispose of packaging made of multilayer materials with clear labelling directly in the ‘other waste’ bin instead of laboriously feeding it into a collection process and then ultimately recycling it thermally anyway. Finally, all classification facilities should be state-of-the-art and the disposal system should be adapted to biodegradable plastics.