The need to ditch our addiction to plastic

Berlin – Grab a quick coffee to go on the way to work, buy a tub of fresh salad at lunch, and for dinner opt for take-out from the local Vietnamese. Sounds like an average day for someone living in a big city, but it takes its toll on the environment. In fact, every day, each person produces around a bucketful of plastic waste.

Now, environmental activists are trying to raise awareness about the impact of all this plastic.

Most consumers know that there’s a link between plastic waste and the pollution of the sea, says Bernhard Bauske, project coordinator for marine litter at the World Wildlife Fund Germany.

389 pieces of trash per 100 metres

People have been deeply affected by the images of suffering creatures, such as whales with their bellies full of plastic bags.

And then there’s the litter on the beaches. A recent study conducted at the North Sea coast by the German Environment Agency (UBA) found an average of 389 pieces of trash per 100 metres – and 90 per cent was made of plastic. Plastic is a material that never decomposes; instead it is broken down into smaller pieces that are invisible to the human eye.

And while many people claim to want to do something, that doesn’t always translate into changing their day-to-day habits.

Since 2016, for example, Germans have had to pay a small fee for plastic bags and, as a result, many carry their own re-useable shopping bags.

Nevertheless, according to the UBA, on average, each person is still using around 45 plastic bags a year. “In 2015 it was 68,” Bauske says. And those statistics don’t include the small plastic bags that are often handed out for free in small fruit-and-vegetable stores.

Stores that don’t use any packaging

One novel approach to all this waste is the phenomenon of stores that don’t use any packaging. However, they are still fairly rare, usually confined to trendy parts of big cities. Customers who bring their own containers to the meat or cheese counter at a normal supermarket still get funny looks.

And many retailers are worried about not meeting the strict food hygiene rules. “We need support and unified regulations here,” Bauske says. “One idea would be a special counter for storing and filling containers.”

According to the UBA, packaging now accounts for over a third (35.2 per cent) of the German processing volume of plastics.

It’s no wonder that the amount of packaging is constantly growing and with it the mountain of waste if you look at the boom in online shopping, on-the-go gastronomy and pre-prepared meals.

Much room for improvement

Demographics also play a role here. There are more single households these days, which means, for example, lots of small pots of yogurt instead of a big one for the family.

Germany is, of course, famed for recycling. Yet its rate of 70 per cent is just the EU average, according to Eurostat figures for 2015. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden were all ahead. However, when it comes to the recycling of packaging, Germany was second only to the Czech Republic, at 46 per cent.

Bauske stills sees room for improvement. He points out that around half of the contents of the recycling bins are still being burned.

“And we are not yet rewarding companies for making packaging more recyclable.”

One method is to lower license fees for packaging. A new German packaging law does this, but it won’t be implemented until 2019.

In Italy or France, charges for packaging already depend on its recyclability.

Are manufacturers responsible?

Bauske welcomes the EU’s recent proposal to ban plastic items such as cutlery, crockery and straws. In Germany alone, around 105,500 tons of plastic were used in 2017 to produce disposable crockery and cutlery, as well as take-away packaging for fast food.

Nevertheless, the proposal won’t have much of a global impact even if it is adopted. For example, in many South East Asian countries, there’s no waste separation or financial incentives for recycling plastics, or sense that the manufacturers are responsible for their products’ environmental impact.

For Bauske, that is really where change needs to happen.

Yet even back in Europe there remain hurdles to overcome when it comes to reducing the mountains of waste. For example, marketing by breweries who want to use a specially designed bottle to attract attention, or soft drink manufacturers who opt for colourful bottles.

Uniform bottles would be much better for recycling, Bauske argues.

“Producers also need to be aware of and consider what waste sorting plants can and cannot process today.”