Do "green" concepts solve the problem of packaging waste?

On average, every consumer in the western world opens about seven product packs a day, be it a bar of chocolate, a can of coke, or an MAP tray with smoked salmon. With that, the packaging has fulfilled its purpose and can be disposed of. This does not only constitute a huge waste of valuable resources and energy but also has a negative influence on the natural CO2 balance. Are “green” packaging concepts a way out of this dilemma?

Over the past three decades the production of packaging materials has risen just about threefold. Most of it is produced for single use after which it is thrown away. Nearly 400 kg of waste are produced in every western European household per year and packaging accounts for a good half of this total: bottles, jars and cans, plastic film and bags, composite materials, foamed and coated trays. Although only about 6% of packaging material is used for fish and meat these foods still contribute towards the constant growth in waste production. In some countries consumers separate their packaging waste carefully to enable renewed usage of resources. With a share of nearly two thirds of waste production glass is the most frequently used packaging material, followed by paper and cardboard (9%), plastics (7%), composite materials (5%), and aluminium (1.4%). Consumers don’t have any real alternative to packaging. With nearly every product and most foods that they buy comes a packaging of more or less elaborate design.

Whether it’s a new barbecue skewer or a herring salad, nearly every product that is traded today is offered in some form of packaging. Packaging protects and maintains product qualities, informs perspective buyers, identifies the product and represents the producer, thereby largely contributing towards the product’s image. Despite this, the packaging should always only be a necessary accessory and never an end in itself because it is only ecologically acceptable as long as the value of its contents with regard to resources and energy is higher than the value of the pack. This is particularly true of sensitive foods in which the packaging often guarantees the completeness, safety and quality of the product. But not only that, for every packaging is also the result of a logistical decision-making process which aims at ensuring that the product reaches the consumer in the best possible condition. And requirements are very high here because during storage and transport, at the wholesaler’s and retailer’s, and ultimately in the consumer’s household the foods are subject to very different conditions.

But packaging types vary. They are differentiated according to their intended use:

Packaging types are differentiated according to their intended use

Transport packaging

A kind of packaging that makes transport easier (mostly a loading unit made up of several individual or multi-unit packages, e.g. stacked on pallets), protects goods from damages, or which is necessary for safety reasons (shrink or stretch film, interlayer and covering film, steel or plastic tape, corrugated fibreboard)

Outer packaging (multi-unit package)

Bundling of several products that can already be individually packed to enable better handling or presentation. Outer packaging often only serves decorative purposes and is not absolutely necessary for reasons of hygiene, durability or for the protection of the products from damage or soiling (e.g. cardboard slipcases for MAP products)
Retail package (single pack) The retail pack is usually the packaging that is around the product when it is sold and it often enables or supports the transfer of the product to the final consumer (smallest standardised sales unit). Disposal of this packaging in generally the responsibility of the consumer.
   
Packaging should fulfill at least three basic functions

Protection

Protection against mechanical strain (pressure, knocks) and climatic influences (heat, cold, damp), assurance of maximum durability

Rationalization

Efficiency and automation of transport-, transhipment- and storage processes, less expensive production

Information

Marking and labelling (barcode) for producer, carrier, trader and end consumer (e.g. inventory control, traceability, durability and sell-by date)


New impetus for environmentally friendly packaging materials

Discounters are particularly packaging-intensive in that they hardly offer any non-packed products. But if packaging is necessary to meet all the requirements of storage, transport and trade (self-service!) then one should at least make sure that the packaging materials do not harm natural resources, that they are produced in an environmentally sound way and that they can be disposed of after use without damaging anything else or, even better, if they can be reused (recycled). The following points define the minimum requirements of such environmentally friendly packaging:

• The packaging material should be safe, i.e. not pose a health risk, and should leave no residues in the food
• Reusable (returnable) concepts must wherever possible be given preference over single use (returnable) packaging (e.g. pallet loan service)
• Packaging effort should be kept to a minimum in order to save resources. Environmental compatibility is more important than the producer’s marketing benefits.
• All used materials must be easily disposable or recyclable. Non-degradable (or slowly degrading) synthetic materials, aluminium or composite materials should as far as possible be avoided.
Up to now, however, where retail products are concerned, consumers have hardly been given the opportunity to choose environmentally compatibly packed foods.

Packaging materials made of synthetics such as polystyrene or PVC are often considered particularly damaging to the environment because they are not easily degradable and because poisonous substances are emitted (e.g. dioxins) during their incineration. Even polyethylene plastic bags are not quite as harmless as people used to think. The bright colours that are printed on the bags often contain heavy metals which get into the environment when waste is burnt. Modern organic plastics enjoy a considerably better reputation. They are produced from renewable raw materials, such as starch, sugar or cellulose. They have similar usage properties to conventional plastics but reduce dependence on oil and are also ecologically valuable because they improve the natural CO2 balance. Packaging made of paper, carton or cardboard is felt to be even more advantageous because a high percentage (usually over 90%) of the secondary raw material waste paper is used during its production.

Experts warn against rash conclusions, however, because the variety of raw materials used, the technical processing conditions and global production chains often do not allow for simple decisions. Eco balances in favour of paper or certain synthetic packaging are always drawn under very concrete conditions and are thus not transferable to similar materials and usage intentions without further considerations. Even the most environmentally friendly packaging material could have a negative ecological balance if it is designed in Europe, produced in Asia and then transported from there to the western world for single use before undergoing expensive waste disposal treatment.

 

Although only about 6% of packaging material is used for fish and meat these foods still contribute towards the constant growth in waste production.

Not everything that’s possible is also feasible

Changes are not always easy to implement where packaging is concerned. Packaging is usually made to fit exactly the products and the processing lines. As long as everything is running efficiently the producers do not like interfering with these complex systems because every change demands considerable time, work and financial input due to the fact that when the packaging changes so do – as a rule – the filling quantities and product sizes. Nevertheless, remarkable progress was made in this area, too, during the 1990s. A lot of packaging has become noticeably lighter, with cans, for example, now only weighing about half of what they used to. There are refill packs and concentrates, and thinner and yet still tear-resistant film has replaced elaborate transport and service packs. Thirty years ago the hygienic wrapping paper used for foods at the service counter mostly consisted of cellulose paper (60 g/m²) that was coated with a 0.015 mm thick plastic film. Today recycling paper (25 g/m²) with a thickness of 0.007 mm is used instead. This has led to savings of nearly two thirds of packaging material. The modern packaging material requires less storage space, it has become cheaper and even has better usage properties because thin paper is easier to wrap around the products. And all this has been achieved without moist or fatty foods being less well protected than in the past.

Where packaging concepts are concerned, economic aspects often play a disproportionately important role compared to ecological considerations. And this is not always completely wrong, as the example of smoked salmon trays made of aluminium coated composite material shows. The ecological balance of the material is not likely to be very positive but it is ideally suited to the fatty, easily spoilable product. As long as no feasible alternative exists it is thus hardly conceivable that a salmon smoker will voluntarily do without it. Particularly since the production of packaging already now generally has a less negative impact on the environment than the production of the product that it contains. Anyone who spends a lot of money producing food and then has to throw it away because it has spoilt and been rendered unusable due to poor packaging is saving in the wrong place.

 

Life cycle analyses of packaging could optimise usage

The German company Fish & More which was founded over 10 years ago set itself the goal to trade only ecologically faultless fish. Under the brand followfish, for example, it offers sustainably caught (MSC-certified) wild fish and organic fish from aquaculture. The packaging of the products is made of the material Grease Guard, an environmentally friendly, safe barrier carton with a water-based coating. It has the same properties as conventional PE coatings but saves nearly 1 tonne of polyethylene when packaging 1 million fish fingers, for example. Grease Guard consists of 100% recycling carton which DIN EN 13432 rated as compostable, biologically degradable and low-pollutant. The followfish packs are printed with special food-safe colours.

If it used to be enough to draw up an ecological balance for products and their packaging the development today is rather more in the direction of eco design. With this, the focus has moved away from the mere examination of the recyclability of a packaging towards what is called lifecycle management. Eco design is a holistic approach which tries to take into account all the environmental impacts that arise as a result of production, transport and distribution. They are often about ten times higher than the impacts that arise later on during waste treatment. Life cycle analyses or assessments (LCA) should help to optimise packaging design under environmental aspects and reduce negative effects on the environment throughout the whole production chain.

The best solution would, of course, be to do completely without packaging, wherever possible. It would for example be possible to have one’s coffee at the nearest “to go” coffee shop filled into one’s own mug. But of course it’s more convenient to collect the coffee in the usual laminated paper beaker complete with its plastic lid… and then throw it into the rubbish bin just a few minutes later. Changes in behaviour usually start in the mind, especially where avoidance of packaging waste is concerned.