Around 19 million tonnes of packaging waste was generated in 2019 in Germany alone – more than ever before. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the rubbish heap has only continued to grow. One of the reasons was the increased use of takeaway packaging, such as cups for coffee to go or plastic bowls. But the call for alternatives is growing louder: almost 3/4 of consumers place importance on sustainable packaging solutions, as a study by the management consultancy Simon-Kucher shows.
However, there is no precise definition of sustainable packaging. Many factors play a role, for example the use of recycled and recyclable materials in its production, as well as a low total CO2 footprint – from manufacturing through to disposal. A bag made from renewable resources, for instance, isn’t necessarily sustainable when the material is produced overseas and transported halfway around the globe.
‘Blanket demands like “Paper, not plastic!” don’t help,’ says Carolina Schweig, who works at her engineering office outside Hamburg to develop sustainable packaging concepts. ‘The point is to choose the appropriate material with the greatest benefit and the least environmental impact, according to the product and purpose.’ The first steps in the right direction, in her view: ‘Everyone should ask themselves if the packaging is really necessary. If it is, can it be made smaller, thinner or lighter? Is it recyclable? Is there a viable reusable solution instead?’
Future resource loop: bringing it full circle
In March 2020, the European Commission presented an action plan for the circular economy. It is intended to contribute to making Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050.The goal is to help to drive the change away from a throwaway society to one of more reuse, repair and recycling. Sustainable products are to become the norm, and the EU wants to develop and implement ecological standards for packaging as well.
Green packaging draws customers
To boost packaging recycling, the European Union is accelerating the circular economy (see info box). In Germany, a new packaging law is intended to lead to more sustainability. For example, it requires larger food service companies to additionally offer returnable packaging for takeaway meals from 2023. Schweig encourages restaurant owners ‘to join forces to set up networks for reusable packaging.’ She is convinced that ‘restaurateurs who switch over to sustainable containers can achieve a market profile as pioneers and thereby gain new customers and increase the loyalty of current ones.’ The study by Simon-Kucher, however, points out that at present only 11% of consumers feel adequately informed on the topic of eco-packaging. This suggests that eco-labels like the ‘Blue Angel’, which facilitate customers’ orientation, are all the more important.
METRO uses designations like ‘plastic-free’ to draw attention to the subject. Since 2014, the wholesale specialist has been working actively to increase sustainable packaging in its own brands. In addition, METRO has aligned itself with the New Plastics Economy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and, as a result, avoided almost 500 tonnes of plastic packaging in 2019/2020 alone. And it has further ambitious goals. By 2025, for example, 100% of plastic packaging is to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.
Some examples from different METRO countries:
No plastic for organic lemons:
the International Trading Office in Valencia, Spain, procures fresh fruit and vegetables for METRO from around the world. METRO Chef organic lemons come to store displays in plastic-free packaging – which is labelled accordingly, to draw attention to its environmental benefit.
Cellulose instead of plastic:
METRO uses renewable materials in the near-food range, too. For example, METRO Spain has eliminated plastic from its METRO Chef napkin packaging, switching to cellulose instead.
Green packaging for green herbs:
since April 2019, 282.5 tonnes of plastic has been saved in the packaging for METRO Chef fresh herbs by replacing it with paperboard or paper or by minimising the plastic volume. The pack aging consists mainly of paper from responsible sources (FSC-certified). In some packages, plastic remains necessary for quality assurance and to maintain a good shelf life, but has been reduced.
Office supplies and stationery packaged in paper:
from highlighters to glue sticks to scissors – 140 articles of the METRO own brands Aro and Sigma are now being packed in paper. This has allowed the use of plastic to be reduced by 14 tonnes in less than 1 year.
Biodegradable bags for organic carrots:
METRO Chef organic carrots are packed in compostable bags. The product is part of the organic food assortment of METRO Austria.
The road map for the future is called METRO sCore. That means growth – on the basis of a sustainability strategy that sets clear emphases. The objective is to be doing business on a climate-neutral basis by the year 2040. METRO is additionally intensifying its efforts to avoid plastic, reduce food waste and expand its range of sustainable products. At its core, the strategy is to consistently act with a future orientation, both in internal business operations and in cooperation with suppliers and customers.