The tradition of plastic: the road to successful change

Plastic is ‘dangerously useful’. It is convenient and versatile in terms of use, ‘however it is generally also more or less worthless and is harmful to the environment at the end of its lifetime, which is often short,’ said Bernd Günter, an environmental activist and co-founder of the geht ohne e.V. association. In this interview, he provides ideas for the retail sector, the hospitality industry and each individual.

Plastic Bottle

The global waste problem is primarily a plastic problem: ‘Of the 60 million tonnes of plastic produced each year in the EU alone, almost 40% is packaging material,’ says Bernd Günter, citing the current market data provided by PlasticsEurope. Only a very small amount of this plastic is actually reused and most of it is incinerated, sent to landfill or exported instead. The consequence of this is that almost 60 % of the plastic which has ever been produced globally is still in the environment. ‘This adds up to an unimaginable 4.9 billion tonnes, which breaks down very slowly and is turning into one of the biggest environmental issues of our time,’ says Günter.

Plastic: Our Friend and Helper?

Bags, straws, takeaway items, delivery packaging... Plastics are everywhere: ‘Even for plastic bags, the recycling rate is only around 7%, which is not exactly ideal,’ comments Günter. He notes that there have been billions of products made from plastics in our everyday lives for many decades. ‘Everyone is aware of these products and uses (or used) them, even without worrying about it very much for a long time, including in the hospitality industry and in retail.’

Delivery, quality and performance standards throughout the entire food logistics process lead to products being overpackaged. METRO therefore committed to drastically reducing its plastic footprint by 2025 in a statement published in 2018.

plastic bottle

This led to material savings on all product packaging material – paper, glass, metal and plastic – amounting to almost 497 tonnes between 2012 and 2018. In the fiscal year 2018/19 alone, 172 tonnes of plastic packaging have been saved. By 2023, the intention is to save in total 300 tonnes of plastic packaging.

Alternatives, for example the coating process for fruit and vegetables, are also an option for reducing waste.

Conventional plastic packaging is significantly cheaper than other packaging, but the subsequent costs for the environment and our health are incalculable.

Bernd Günter, environmental activist and co-founder of the geht ohne e.V. association
Plastic bags in a trash

The High Price of Cheap Plastic

Packaging alternatives do exist: ‘However, there have been cases in which alternative, competitive packaging materials were available but were not used by the packaging companies due to minor cost factors,’ reports Günter. Ultimately, the price of plastic is believed to be the key factor: ‘Conventional plastic packaging is significantly cheaper than other packaging.’ Why is that? ‘There are 2 significant reasons why conventional plastics are cheap: firstly, plastics are made using the raw materials of oil and chemicals, which have been very cheap for decades and available in abundance, and, secondly, the manufacturing processes have been optimised ever since the 1950s to the extent that plastic can now be produced very efficiently and at very low cost,’ explains the expert.

However, he warns us that the perceived benefits of plastic are deceptive. At the end of the day, he believes the consequences and costs for us which result from plastic waste and the disposal of plastics to be disproportionately high. ‘To be honest, I would even say that the subsequent costs for the environment and our health are incalculable,’ adds Günter. Other reasons for plastic packaging often still being popular include consumer expectations. ‘People often won’t buy fruit and vegetables any more if the products have even the slightest bit of damage or deviate from the standards we are used to,’ comments Günter. Does this mean we primarily need to work on our attitudes as end consumers too?

Time for Change

The expert considers it to be important to rethink and improve the established systems initially. ‘And that can definitely be achieved,’ notes Bernd Günter with confidence. For him and his colleagues at geht ohne e.V., which has its headquarters in Hamburg, it is clear that reducing waste does not start with packaging but, rather, with change and constant development in our lifestyles and consumer behaviour. ‘This presents us all with opportunities and challenges.’ The zero waste approach is an example of this.

People who aim to live a zero waste lifestyle generally focus on shopping in a needs-based way and keeping resource consumption to a minimum and they pay attention to regionality and seasonality when it comes to the products they consume. ‘These people are not trying to make everything perfect overnight by using this approach but they are trying to constantly improve themselves and look for alternatives,’ explains Günter. This approach may also be useful for achieving a holistic solution to the global issue of improving ecosystems, in which the hospitality industry and retail sector play a major role.

In order to meet sustainable environmental protection standards to a significant extent, Günter ultimately believes it is important to achieve a balance when it comes to the actions taken by individual consumers, industry, the retail and wholesale sectors, the hospitality industry, cities, politicians and others. ‘Only in this way is it possible to truly change habits, our culture, mechanisms, products and processes and establish these changes as a societal norm and goal.’

The Future is Digital

Günter and his fellow activists aim to achieve a shift in trends relating to packaging waste and the topic of digitalisation. ‘Networked pallets, intelligent reusable boxes, applications which optimise themselves: in the future, we will have so much information about the location, time, environment, temperature, arrangement and logistics that, as a result, we will be able to significantly reduce and improve the logistics processes, as well as the packaging usage.’ The reusable containers or protective packaging could, for example, be made from very stable, modern plastic, manufactured using raw materials without fossil fuels, processed in such a way that they can be recycled easily or that they break down quickly and made reusable for industrial applications. ‘The solution is therefore also, if not even primarily, a question of design,’ concludes Günter.

METRO’s sustainability strategy

METRO sees packaging as one of the building blocks which make up the complex topic of sustainability. Since October 2018, METRO has been working on gradually phasing out the use of PVC and EPS material for its own brand products and believes in using paper, cardboard and wooden packaging with FSC or PEFC certification. It also aims to reduce its plastic packaging usage by 300 tonnes by September 2023.

More about METRO’s sustainability strategy in our Corporate Responsibility Report.

Tackling Plastic Waste to Make a Change for Good

The METRO Plastic Initiative, launched on World Oceans Day 2021, has 2 key objectives:

1. Joint contributions of METRO and selected suppliers are intended to prevent around 65 million plastic bottles from entering the oceans in the following 12 months while at the same time supporting impoverished communities in coastal regions. This means stopping 1.3 million kilos of plastic waste at source – discarded on land.

2. Using the partnership with selected suppliers and METRO customers to raise awareness and promote the reduction of the use of virgin plastic while at the same time advocating for more sustainable consumption and better recycling to reduce the use of valuable resources and close material loops.

To this end, METRO is working on the one hand with the Canadian social enterprise Plastic Bank, which makes plastic the currency of the ultra-poor in impoverished coastal regions. As collectors, they receive a premium for dropping off discarded plastic waste at their local Plastic Bank and can use it to pay for essential items such as clothing, school fees or food. On the other hand, METRO partners with selected suppliers, each of whom has an ambitious strategy to reduce plastic in their own operations. A recurring promo campaign in METRO stores across 24 countries, accompanied by an omnichannel information campaign, additionally encourages METRO customers to make more sustainable choices when it comes to purchasing decisions, packaging for their own businesses as well as better recycling.

In sum, these 3 pillars of the METRO Plastic Initiative – preventing ocean plastic with Plastic Bank, plastic reduction in packaging, and more conscious purchasing and recycling decisions among customers – are intended to contribute to sustainable change.

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