Bad old plastic

30. October 2020, Editorial

Plastic has been the subject of fierce debate for years now – but attitudes to it vary greatly throughout Europe. In Austria, everyone’s talking about a deposit scheme for single-use plastic bottles and the topic of plastic is undeniably on politicians’ and the general public’s radar these days. A quick look behind the scenes sheds light on what is actually going on and how other countries are taking the bull by the horns. Climate killer or everyday helper? What's the true face of plastic?


multiple-use products

We live in a plastic world!

Global plastic production has increased more than 20 fold over the past 50 years. According to analysts’ predictions, output is set to quadruple again between now and 2050. The annual consumption figures for Austria paint a pretty bleak picture: more than 1.6 billion bottles and 800 million cans hit the market each year.

In response, the EU parliament sent out a clear signal with its 2019 Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive, which puts our throwaway culture  firmly in the crosshairs. A shift away from single-use towards multiple-use products and systems is the goal that all EU countries must commit to. In concrete terms, this means that a minimum of 77% of plastic drinks bottles must be collected separately and recycled by 2025, with the figure rising to 90% by 2029.  In Austria there are currently around 1.6 billion of these plastic drinks bottles currently in circulation. And around 900,000 tonnes of plastic waste are generated each year, around a third of which is attributable to packaging alone. Every year, around 45,000 tonnes of single-use plastic bottles are sold nationwide. The country still has a way to go to reach the 55% recycling rate set out by the EU for plastic packaging by 2030.

As a result, deposit schemes – which are seen as one of the cheapest and most practical of the available options – are currently the subject of such intense debate. But like everything else, this is just a tiny aspect of a highly complex topic with even more complex solutions.

Why all the fuss?

Austria already has a well-established scheme in place for multi-use bottles for drinks such as beer and mineral water. But no deposit is required at present for single-use PET, aluminium or other glass drinks containers. Its adherents claim that a single-use deposit scheme would lead to less trash finding its way into the natural environment, which is why the introduction of a deposit scheme for PET bottles is currently being debated.

But whether it is single-use or multi-use, there’s no getting away from the fact that deposit schemes are still costly. According to one study, the financial burden of introducing such a system could amount to somewhere in the region of EUR 10,500 a year for each individual point of sale. And retailers would need to factor in an additional hour or two for cleaning, maintenance and processing returns each day. There’s no denying that it’s a big outlay for relatively little return. Consumers, too, will have to accept the additional effort needed on their part to take their plastic bottles back if they want to claim their deposit. That said, studies of 10 EU member states with a combined population of 150 million show that around 80% of materials are, in fact, returned following the introduction of a deposit scheme. Put another way, the proportion of packaging that is simply thrown away without a second thought is reduced to about a fifth of the total.

Different countries, different attitudes to plastic

A look at Germany reveals comparatively high official recycling rates: a 2015 report by Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung mbH (GVM) revealed that fully 93.5% of PET bottles were recycled, and as much as 97.9% of PET deposit bottles. According to the experts, these figures need to be treated with caution as they only relate to deliveries to recycling centres and not the amount of plastic that is actually recycled. So you could say that not everything that glitters is recycled plastic. In spite of this, more and more initiatives are cropping up all over the world to help stem the tide of plastic waste – and not just plastic bottles, either.

This year, Canada took things a step further and banned plastic shopping bags, plastic straws and a host of other plastic products. Single-use cutlery and crockery was also blacklisted. And in the Dominican Republic all single-use plastic items – such as straws and cutlery as well as cups and containers made of polystyrene – were outlawed at the start of 2019.

Istanbul moved to incentivise recycling when it set up smart containers in the city – with consumers rewarded with credits on their public transport passes every time they deposit empty plastic bottles.

The Netherlands hit the headlines with a plastic road: this 30-metre-long bike path in Zwolle was built using 70% recycled plastic, which is the equivalent of around 218,000 plastic cups. Besides being much lighter, meaning that transportation to site causes less pollution, it sheds water much more efficiently than some of the alternatives, meaning a reduced risk of flooding.

But what’s next?

Even though everyone is talking about deposit systems for PET bottles right now, plastic is a much bigger topic, and one that the supermarkets in particular have been focusing on for some time. While plastic packaging has been firmly in their sights for a while, people are also taking to social media to shame excessive use of materials. Greenpeace has triggered a new trend on Twitter with its hashtags #RidiculousPackaging and #BreakFreeFromPlastic. Users can flag up unnecessary packaging with the hashtags, such as shrink-wrapped coconuts and avocados, or peeled whole oranges that are then sold in plastic containers. It’s not like nature could find no suitable way to protect its precious bounty, leaving us with no other choice than to resort to plastic…

So at the Rewe Group, saying no to plastic has been the rallying cry for a long time now. At Billa, Merkur, Penny, Adeg and Sutterlüty, plastic bags are already a thing of the past and biodegradable bags are available for fruit and veg. Made from potato starch, they compost even at low temperatures and stop harmful microplastics from entering the eco-system.

And Ja! Natürlich has been using green packaging since 2011, helping to gradually reduce the volume of waste in the process. The amount of plastic used for organic fruit and veg alone was slashed by 1,000 tonnes . And thanks to natural branding which it introduced in 2016, information is now inscribed directly onto the produce by laser and subsequently sold at supermarkets without any packaging – or any effect on flavour – whatsoever.

Others are going even further than that: over the past few years, packaging-free supermarkets have been popping up in our cities.  These stores either manage without any single-use packaging whatsoever, or in cases where that is not possible, with reusable containers, sometimes offered under their own deposit schemes.

It’s clear that where there’s a will, there’s a way. But everyone has to lend their support so that retailers and consumers alike can take us a step closer to a plastic-free life.

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