Saturday, November 27

Food packaging: is plastic-free always more sustainable?

Status: 10/24/2021 2:07 p.m.

The mountains of rubbish are growing, plastic packaging has fallen into disrepute. According to experts, however, unpackaged vegetables in the supermarket are not always the better solution.

By Alexander Dallmus, BR

Almost six million tons of packaging waste are generated in German households every year. This is what the Federal Statistical Office recently determined. Plastic and paper packaging in particular have increased. That is around 72 kilos per head – a record level. The Packaging Act, in force since 2019, should actually prevent a further increase. However, experts assume that the trend in recent years will not change much for the time being.

Doubts have grown as to whether food always has to be packaged at all. Unpackaged stores are in vogue across Germany. Experts, however, are of the opinion: When used correctly, plastic can have a lasting effect. A thin, adapted plastic film also protects, says food chemist Carolin Hauser, who researches sustainable packaging options at the Technical University of Nuremberg: “That means if I save the packaging, but then throw away the food, I’ve used ten times more resources.”

The French forbid shrink-wrapped cucumber

France wants to take a radical path from 2022. No less than 30 types of fruit and vegetables are to be offered step by step without packaging. What initially only applies to less sensitive varieties such as cucumbers, carrots or oranges is to be expanded to include goods such as grapes and berries in the next five years.

Stefan Weist from the supermarket chain Rewe, one of the four dominant trading companies in Germany, is familiar with the topic. As the group department head for fruit and vegetables, he accompanied one of the largest unpackaged tests in more than 600 Rewe stores in southwest Germany in 2019. Only a good half of the groceries are still unpacked today: “With a few things we did a backward roll,” admits Weist. With iceberg lettuce, for example, the experience was “a disaster”. Up to 70 percent less was sold and a lot thrown away, so the conclusion.

Cucumbers are now sold in most German supermarkets without foil. Only a small sticker still marks the organic goods. According to its own information, Rewe sells around 100 million cucumbers a year. Weist estimates that without a plastic cover, around half a percent more goods spoil: “Everyone says that’s not that much. But then let’s talk quickly about 500,000 cucumbers.”

More pressure on manufacturers

Critics complain that many manufacturers do not think the packaging from the end, despite the tightened packaging law – that they do not take enough account of what happens with it. “I often know that packaging is totally oversized,” says researcher Hauser. “But I don’t have to have a thousand layers and barriers around it if it’s not necessary at all.”

Plastic-coated papers or so-called compostable packaging mean that a clear material separation or subsequent processing is virtually impossible. Compostable packaging sounds good, but it is forbidden in the German organic waste bin and must be incinerated. It’s not more sustainable either.

Experts see the waste disposal service providers as having a duty, who would have to tighten the thumbscrews when licensing. You have to promote “good” packaging and punish “bad” financially, says Carolina Schweig, packaging engineer from Ellerbek in Schleswig-Holstein. She advises many large retail companies on packaging: “Then something will change here relatively quickly.”

Many consumers are overwhelmed

When it comes to sorting waste, many consumers often fail because of a simple yogurt cup. Instead of neatly detaching the aluminum lid, plastic body and paper casing from one another, everything ends up in the packaging waste. Basically, the simpler the packaging, the better. And it should be easy too.

For many, a 500 gram box of spaghetti with a window looks more sustainable than a thin plastic bag. But the feeling is probably deceptive: This is due to the so-called grammage, i.e. the packaging weight per square meter. Every gram more during transport has an immediate negative effect on the ecological balance, especially if the goods come from Italy.

A German manufacturer who wraps his spaghetti in plastic should therefore be more sustainable. Especially when the packaging – the pasta is “al dente” – is disposed of in the yellow sack or the yellow bin.

Doubtful macaroni in the glass

But the EU one-way plastic ban, which has been in place since mid-2021, is also producing strange flowers in some cases. It applies to disposable plastic cutlery, plates or plastic drinking straws. The aim of the regulation was to avoid plastics, but not to replace them with other single-use materials – for example, the wood component lignin, sugar cane with PLA (lactic acid molecules) or even bamboo powder. Such drinking straws are therefore also banned in Germany; in Denmark, Italy or Belgium, however, not.

Many cafés and bars have been putting macaroni in their glasses since the plastic ban. Food chemist Hauser thinks this is even less sustainable. “First, it’s a food that we only get to drink,” she says. “Second, ten times more resources are wasted than plastic straws.”

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