„Everybody Does His Own Thing“

More cooperation, less stubbornness: this is what Sonja Bähr, packaging analyst at Tilisco GmbH Verpackungsmanagement, advises with a view to achieving sustainability goals. The packaging expert explains when deposit and reusable systems make a positive contribution – and when not.

According to plans of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, the mandatory deposit is to be extended in Germany to all beverages in disposable plastic bottles and cans that have not yet charged by a deposit. What problems does this pose in practice?

When it was introduced 18 years ago, the mandatory deposit was primarily an attempt to support the reusable quota. This attempt failed magnificently. Today, the deposit system for disposable PET bottles is successful above all because it makes a single type of recyclable material available again: namely the PET material used for soft drinks and water, from which a PET bottle for the same products can be produced again relatively easily, also from a food law perspective. If the system were to be extended to include all packaging, packaging for juice and milk drinks would have to be sorted out in a separate step, as this is usually a PET material that is equipped with additional barriers. This in turn influences the recycling process. These are usually different materials that can already be sorted out of the „yellow bags“ if there is a high-quality reuse for them.

Of course, we also wonder why a smoothie manufacturer is currently so interested in a one-way deposit. One reason could be that the deposit removes the obligation to license with a dual system and at the same time the bottlers benefit from the so-called deposit slip, i.e. the deposit money that is paid back to the bottlers by the trade if the containers are not returned. This amounts to around 180 million euros annually.

With the amendment of the packaging law, EU requirements are to be implemented in German law. From 2025, at least 25 percent of new PET bottles are to be made of recycled material, and from 2030 30 percent of all new plastic bottles. What stands in the way of this?

In order to be able to meet the requirements of the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive, the material cycles, for example, must not be disrupted. Otherwise we will have a shortage of usable recyclate. In principle, there is still the problem that there is no binding definition of what actually falls under the term „recyclate“. For a functioning recycling economy, however, it is essential to have reliable quality standards.

Some manufacturers now talk about much higher proportions of recycled material and promise to use one hundred percent rPET in their plastic bottles …

In the recovery of PET, the bottle-to-bottle cycle does not work one-to-one. It is not possible to produce exactly one new bottle from a non-refillable PET bottle. From a non-refillable PET bottle, around 75 percent rPET is recovered for a new bottle. The remaining material must also be removed from the cycle, which results in a permanent shortage. The image advantage of a 100 percent rPET bottle is then enjoyed by a few, to the detriment of all the others, who then find it difficult to obtain the required 25 percent. We have to think much more cooperatively if we really want to achieve sustainability goals.

What do you think about plans to replace plastic bags and paper cups in the catering trade with reusable alternatives?

Reusable is good. But not in every case. The Recup system is a very nice example of a standardized offer that can be used by restaurateurs. But if each restaurateur had to come up with his own solution, how would that work? Reusable packaging is only ecologically advantageous if the overall view is right. As a rule, this can only be achieved by using standardized containers and logistics: everyone uses the same packaging and the return, cleaning and reuse is simple and safe. But taking care of this is certainly not the job of a snack bar or restaurant operator.

Reusable packaging becomes absurd when, for example, mineral water at the source or Mexican beer under license in Belgium is first filled into a brand-specific reusable bottle and then distributed throughout Europe before being returned empty. Even the idea of an organic supermarket, that deposit jars of yoghurt are used again for many other products to be bottled by the consumer himself, is not supported by the individual shape and relief branding of individual brands. More sustainable solutions require more cooperation and less self-presentation.

In your opinion, what could help to promote sustainability?

Not greenwashing, but honesty and transparency. Consumers need to be better educated. Instead of pure advertising platitudes in which one material is explained as being much better than another at the expense of another, easily understandable disposal instructions on the packaging would be very helpful. There are still far too few of these and if there are, they are not uniform. Everyone does their own thing and tries to make a name for himself, sometimes with deceptive statements, on the subject of sustainability. This causes confusion among consumers, above all. But if they know exactly what garbage can they have to throw a package into and take it seriously, then the environmental service sector has a lot to gain. It also helps if we take a holistic view of the processes and, in the spirit of a circular economy, make sure that the packaging is well collected, sorted and can be recycled into a reusable material with high-quality reuse right from the technical design stage.

More cooperation, despite economic competition?

We will not achieve important social goals such as sustainability if everyone tries to outdo the others in one way or another. We have to create more understanding for the various aspects that are important for packaging. For example, when we hold a workshop for one of our customers, many departments are at the table. The purchasing department looks at the costs, the marketing department at the differentiation from the competition, the sales department at the conditions of the trade. Production and logistics also have their own „glasses“. All are involved in one way or another in the implementation of the packaging. Together we develop a sustainability strategy that results in a clear requirement profile. In this way, everyone assumes responsibility and viable, future-oriented packaging solutions are created.