Not everything labelled ‘eco’ is actually sustainable

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Supposedly environmentally friendly packaging is often not very recyclable

More and more so-called eco-friendly packaging is appearing on the market. Consumer demand for more sustainability has led many product manufacturers to switch from all-plastic packaging to so-called fibre-based packaging, such as cardboard or paper, which nevertheless also contains plastics. The stupid thing is that these materials, which are marketed as being particularly ecological, perform much worse when it comes to recycling. This can quickly give rise to suspicion of greenwashing.

As the Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Management (Bundesverband Sekundärrohstoffe und Entsorgung, BVSE) in Bonn critically points out, there is currently a trend towards the use of packaging that can only be recycled partially at best. The industry umbrella organisation, which also includes German recycling companies, attributes the trend towards packaging that appears to be paper or cardboard to three factors: the debate on plastic waste, the EU’s single-use plastics directive and the European plastic tax. BVSE complains that all these factors are pushing waste management aimed at waste avoidance and recycling into the background. 

Instead, the association is registering a ‘rapid’ increase in fibre-based packaging containing plastic material – precisely because many companies have switched to paper packaging as a result of the criticism of plastic packaging. Unfortunately, though, this has resulted in them now using plastic-coated composites. 

BVSE laments that such composite packaging consisting of paper or cardboard and plastics is increasingly becoming a problem, and not only for the recycling industry. The trend in composite packaging is clearly at the expense of recycling, explains Gunda Rachut, chair of the Central Agency Packaging Register (Zentrale Stelle Verpackungsregister, ZSVR). Among other things, the foundation monitors the fulfilment of recycling rates as well as the implementation of the goals of the German Packaging Act (VerpackG) in general. Ms Rachut explains the problem with composite packaging: “Recycling becomes limited once the packaging has a plastic coating, even when the packaging consists mainly of paper.” For her, one thing is therefore quite obvious: “From an ecological point of view, recyclable packaging alternatives made of mono-materials are clearly preferable!” In addition, BVSE is of the opinion that both the recycling capacities for fibre-based packaging containing plastics or even aluminium and the demand for products based on the recycled material are clearly limited.

It looks eco-friendly – but it isn’t

So much for being eco-friendly; the seemingly environmentally acceptable packaging alternatives, which are often advertised as being sustainable or even as ‘100% recyclable’, do not in fact offer any ‘green’ added value, which is something consumer protectionists, for example, complain about. Composite packaging made of paper plus additional material can only be recycled partially at best. 

North Rhine-Westphalia’s consumer advice organisation classifies beverage cartons with a ‘waste-paper look’, such as those used for organic milk, as being particularly problematic. As Philip Heldt, an environmental expert at the organisation explains, consumers assume that such packaging should be disposed of as paper. In fact, such beverage cartons are composite materials that have to be disposed of in the yellow bin or bag. Mr Heldt is critical of the fact that such paper-based packaging, which appears to be made from sustainable paper, is intended to give consumers the impression that it has special ecological qualities. He says the positive assessments made by consumers are unjustified and calls it an effective marketing ploy.

The bioplastics myth

The idea that paper is fundamentally better than plastics as a packaging material, as many consumers are led to believe, is also not true. Even Alnatura, the supermarket chain for organic products, debunks the green claim that paper is an ecologically more sensible choice for packaging than plastics as being a myth. The organic products retailer emphasises that compared to plastics, paper packaging offers only limited product protection and requires significantly more energy, water and chemicals for its production. Alnatura also points out that the recycling technology for plastics is continually being developed further and the range of recycled plastics is growing. It quotes the biologist Isabell Kuhl with the unequivocal opinion: “At present, so-called mono-plastics are the most sensible alternative for many products. These can be recycled well, require comparatively little energy and combine excellent packaging properties.”

The situation is similarly ‘mythological’ when it comes to so-called bioplastics, which are falsely portrayed as being more eco-friendly when compared with conventional plastics. Unfortunately, retailers and manufacturers of products made of such plastics have deliberately tried to mislead consumers with labels such as ‘compostable’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘made from renewable raw materials’, says BVSE’s plastics recycling division (Fachverband Kunststoffrecycling). As the association notes, it seems that they are often successful in this. It refers to a representative survey commissioned by Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe, DUH) according to which more than three quarters of German citizens consider packaging made of so-called bioplastics to be more environmentally friendly than packaging made of ‘normal’ plastics. DUH warns of the ‘fatal environmental impact of so-called bioplastics’: because such products are supposedly compostable, they often end up in the organic waste bin and cause problems during disposal. DUH complains that packaging made of so-called degradable bioplastics could even impair the recycling of other plastics.

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