Packaging is not an end in itself
More packaging waste is to be recycled in the future. Guido Aufdemkamp, Executive Director at Flexible Packaging Europe, believes that both industry and consumers have a duty. It depends on both of them whether the required recycling quotas can be met.
As of 2019, the new Packaging Act will apply, according to which initially 58.5 percent of packaging plastics will have to be recycled, and from 2022 onwards 63 percent. Is this a realistic target, given that the current recycling rate in this area is around 50 percent?
The new quotas are certainly a challenge for the entire value chain, but not unrealistic! A frequently forgotten principle still applies – without proper collection there can be no recycling! The new Packaging Act therefore also stipulates that the newly created Central Office and the dual waste disposal systems should once again focus more on educating end consumers. A recent survey by the German Packaging Institute showed that the majority of German citizens do not feel sufficiently informed. The proportion was particularly high among younger people – for whom the time when specific information was available was simply too long ago.
How can consumers, who end up with most of the packaging waste, be motivated to pass it on for recycling? For example, will there soon be a deposit system payable on disposable packaging for shampoo and liquid detergent bottles, or drastic penalties for waste separation errors?
As already mentioned, consumers can only be motivated via rational information. This can be achieved, for example, by the municipal waste disposal companies via appropriate flyers, or via broader communication – not necessarily conventional advertising – such as background discussions with the media.
In our opinion, extending the deposit system on disposable packaging to further packaging types – an idea that was actually voiced at one time – is more likely to lead to counter-reactions or rejection by consumers. In principle, it must be borne in mind that a disposable packaging deposit payable for certain and possibly easily recyclable packaging will concentrate the costs of the dual waste disposal system on the packagings remaining there. Consequently the licence fees would increase overall! Penalties for waste separation errors also require intensive monitoring in order to be effective, which would of course lead to considerable expense. Rational information is probably cheaper and would lead to at least similar results.
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With over 18 million tonnes a year, Germany is the world champion in packaging waste. In an article in the FAZ newspaper, Maria Krautzberger, President of the Federal Environment Agency, therefore demanded that we should “avoid waste, already in the production phase if possible, by dispensing with unnecessary and unnecessarily material-intensive packaging”. Instead, however, Germany is focusing above all on recycling. Why?
First of all, according to recently published GVM figures, the recycling of all packaging reaches a level of 96.5%. 79% of this consists of material recycling. In the plastics sector, which includes most of the flexible packaging, the recycling rates are 94.8 percent and 50.6 percent respectively. So we are already quite well advanced in Germany. In addition, we are working on increasing material recycling and improving the quality of the resulting materials.
However, it should be borne in mind that the volume of packaging to be disposed of is primarily related to our habits. Modern food trade is simply impossible without packaging! Consumers – myself included – want a wide choice, convenience, and constant availability, but at the same time without any environmental pollution. Packaging is not an end in itself! It is primarily intended to protect packaged goods such as foods. These normally require significantly more production resources than the actual packaging. This means that the packaging itself is an investment in the protection of food. Incidentally, fillers and bottlers refrain from using unnecessary packaging already for reasons of cost.
Yet one must always look at the entire life cycle of a product in order to really evaluate the task of the packaging. The plastic film around a cucumber is probably the most frequently cited example of allegedly unnecessary packaging. Without the film, however, the cucumber spoils much more quickly, which ultimately leads to a worse overall environmental balance, as resources were used for the production and marketing of the cucumber. The next task is to collect all the packaging. Only then can the packaging be recycled!
Are the manufacturers and the trade taking action themselves in this respect?
Yes, there is the Europe-wide initiative CEFLEX, in which the entire value chain – from raw material producers, via processors and brand owners through to the recyclers and waste disposal firms – has set itself the goal of establishing an infrastructure for collecting, sorting and recycling flexible packagings by 2025. The CEFLEX consortium is working actively on this.
Which areas are already working to reduce packaging materials? And how effective is this?
Avoidance is already being carried out in many areas. Various packaging materials, such as glass and plastics, have already become much thinner. In the case of flexible packaging, the basic concept is in any case to minimize the amount of packaging material used. Films made of plastics, paper and aluminium are combined in such a way as to benefit from the cumulative material properties. The reduced use of materials and energy along the entire supply chain leads to lower environmental pollution. A key feature of flexible packaging is its low packaging-to-product ratio. This is about 5 to 10 times lower than alternative solutions. To mention a figure – packaging all foods in flexible packaging would save 26 million tonnes of packaging material per year in the EU.
Is this opportunity recognized and is there any intention of actually exploiting this enormous savings potential?
Well, that is, of course, an extreme scenario. Moreover certain products will never be offered in flexible packaging because they would then no longer be as attractive in terms of convenience or marketability. Just one example – for various reasons, a fine Bordeaux will still be served in a bottle and not in a bag.
In Japan, KAO has long been able to reduce the amount of packaging plastic for its products by around 900,000 tonnes a year by introducing thin refill bags. Is this evidently quite effective waste reduction method already an issue here?
The use of flexible packaging for refillable portions is also on the rise here. From a hygiene point of view, however, this has so far mainly been suitable for the sector of domestic and personal hygiene. For example, Henkel and other manufacturers are already using comparable products. However, such flexible packaging must also function well and not least be accepted by consumers. Such bags definitely offer a way of avoiding waste.
Will it really be possible to actually achieve the recycling quotas required by the new Packaging Act in Germany, in whatever way?
Yes, I am confident that this can be done!