When is packaging sustainable?

The concept of sustainability is not clearly defined. It covers various aspects that do not necessarily go hand in hand. The use of renewable resources, a material’s capacity to be recycled, resource conservation in general and carbon footprint reduction are all factors considered to be sustainable.

The whole subject is a minefield, and even experts often have differing views on what the best solutions may be. Businesses thinking about this issue should seek independent advice and consider which criteria are most important to them.

How can a company determine which solution is the right one?

There are some aspects that you need to look out for: raw materials and foods should be produced, processed and composed locally, to save on transport resources. Economic and social responsibility – two other aspects involved in defining sustainability – are a separate discussion altogether.

Monomaterials, in other words packaging made from one single synthetic material, are particularly good from a recycling point of view. You should be able to reuse this material multiple times. A critical mass needs to be reached for recycling to be worthwhile economically. However, we can’t use monomaterials for everything: it depends on the requirements of whatever needs to be packed. They can even have the opposite effect and lead to waste, which would be quite the opposite of sustainability. With foods for example, an extra layer of material often needs to be added as a barrier, to reduce oxygen levels or stabilize the packaging.

Isn’t there a huge amount of packaging we could get rid of?

For many products such as food and pharmaceuticals, it is impossible to reduce the amount any further, as we have high quality and hygiene requirements in Europe. In actual fact, consumer protection and product safety take precedence over sustainability.

There are also social developments that mean the mountain of packaging is getting bigger and bigger: portion sizes are getting smaller, as there are more single households than there used to be. Also the demand for fast food has grown, as we are cooking less at home. But the major driving force at the moment is clearly the rise of e-commerce.

Does sustainable packaging have to cost more than conventional packaging?

No, not necessarily. The Fraunhofer Institute has repeatedly shown opportunities to save on materials, making it less expensive, as reducing the use of materials helps to save on resources and lower the carbon footprint.

Are there even enough raw materials to switch entirely to sustainable packaging made from renewable resources in the years to come?

If we wanted to completely switch to renewable raw materials, it wouldn’t be possible straight away, as we don’t have the material and production capacity for it yet. As for fiber materials that could be made into paperboard and molded pulp trays substancial research is being done into resources made from grass, tomatoes, and various annual plants. However, the manufacturing process should not use the foods themselves, but rather the by-products from food production.

The use of by-products is also being discussed to produce biopolymers, in this case plastics from renewable resources. But the total amount of polymers produced using sustainable resources currently makes up less than 1 percent of all plastic production. It will take more time yet for adequate amounts to become available.

And what about recycled plastics?

At the moment, high-quality recycled plastic is more expensive than new, as a result of the low price of crude oil. Of course, oil, as a finite resource, will not remain this cheap, but until then we need solutions to ensure recycled plastics can compete. That would certainly make it possible to significantly expand capacities.

There is a discrepancy between genuine and perceived sustainability. Could you give us some examples?

There are plenty. Returnable glass bottles, because of their weight, only have a better environmental footprint than single-use bottles provided if they travel no more than 200 kilometers. On the other hand, PET bottle recycling works relatively well. Around 95 percent of bottles returned to stores in Germany are collected and made into new bottles; this system works because only one type of item is collected separately from all other recycling. A slightly different example would be cucumbers from southern Europe: when they are shrink-wrapped in plastic film, they last longer, and there is less food waste. This is where companies and consumers have to ultimately choose what is more important to them: plastic waste prevention or food conservation. Alternatively, people can buy local cucumbers that do not need to be shrink-wrapped in film.

What role does legislation play, in your opinion?

Many countries have established a legal framework for collecting various types of waste that has been sorted. In some areas, there is room for improvement, but it can be seen as positive on the whole.

Policy will fundamentally support sustainability and encourage change through laws and taxes or duties. Within the EU, there are already plans to charge a plastic tax on plastics that are not recycled. There is also talk of a carbon tax. In the long term, conventional packaging will become more expensive, such that sustainability will finally be worthwhile financially for businesses.