Fight against plastic in retail: Damned cucumber slide
Aldi, Lidl, Rewe: Trade chains outdo each other with heroic deeds of plastic avoidance. But how sustainable is the abandonment of foil, straws and bags really? What should consumers pay attention to?
At least the scruples are clearly recognizable at the vegetable counter of a Hamburg organic supermarket. "These products are unfortunately not yet available in a plastic-free packaging," says the box with the iceberg lettuce wrapped in foil.
Also wild garlic, carrots and peppers are packed in plastic. Anyone who chooses loose vegetables and wants to take a paper bag for that purpose shines blue print on the question: "Do you really need me?"
Although the vast majority of fruits and vegetables in this organic supermarket are unpackaged. But even here you do not manage to get along completely without plastic. In normal supermarkets, consumers still like to grab their plastic bags at the fruit and vegetable counter anyway, as figures from the Federal Ministry for the Environment show. After all, the thin knot bags are no longer everywhere.
Almost all retail chains have discovered the topic of plastic avoidance for themselves. Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, Edeka and Co. outnumber themselves with announcements when sorting out plastic.
The following projects have almost all dealers on their list. Specific targets vary by company:
- Abolition of plastic bags
- Take straws and disposable dishes from the assortment
- To offer fruit and vegetables as loosely as possible
- Reduce plastic consumption in packaging
- Only use recyclable packaging
- Recycling of plastic and films during storage and logistics
With straws and disposable dishes, the chains even want to be ahead of politics. The EU has decided to ban many disposable products from 2021 onwards. Aldi, Lidl and Netto want to report execution already.
So far, the consumption of plastic is steadily increasing. In Germany, plastic waste has almost doubled since 1994, to around six million tonnes per year.
Different strategies for the cucumber
Marcel Kusch / DPA
Knot bag in the supermarket
Although the Germans indulge in a sort of balance with great dedication to the Mülltrennen, but the recycling system can not solve the problem. Because not everything that is recycled automatically comes into useful recycling. "We have no disposal problem," says Henning Wilts, waste expert at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. The problem is what will be made of the recycled material. Only twelve percent of the plastic used in Germany comes from recycling. Conversely, this means that the vast majority of plastic products are still manufactured using petroleum as energy and raw materials.
Technically, a recycling of plastic should actually be feasible, says Wilts. But especially complex plastic compounds are complex to recycle, this plastic is then often simply in the combustion. As an example, environmentalists call composite packages for cheese slices.
"The packaging is the symbol of the throwaway society," says waste expert Wilts. This is one of the reasons why retail chains occupy the topic of plastics in such publicity. How sustainable the strategies of the individual companies actually are, even for experts is difficult to assess. "It's very confusing," Wilts says of the various catalogs of measures and their effects.
An example of this is the cucumber:
- " Aldi releases the cucumber from plastic," announced Aldi Süd proudly. This was possible because the company was able to reduce the moisture loss of cucumbers by shortening transport distances and by not having to store them.
- Lidl, on the other hand, continues to pack the cucumber in foil. It is currently being examined very precisely what consequences the omission of plastic packaging for the durability, freshness and quality of cucumbers have, the discounter announces. "Initial testing has shown that seasonally cucumber-free cucumbers may be at an increased risk for more food losses, depending on seasonality and delivery routes." In plain language: more cucumbers would be sorted out and thrown away. As long as there is no optimal solution, you will save "elsewhere" plastic, says Lidl.
Waste logistics often changes without plastic, says waste expert Wilts. Investigations have shown that it is more sustainable to offer cucumbers from the region without plastic, if not more than six percent are thrown away.
For the consumer it is therefore difficult to assess whether the Aldi cucumber without plastic is really more sustainable, or whether in the end Lidl has fewer rejects through transport, logistics and production and a better CO2 balance.
Marcel Kusch / DPA
Reusable fresh net in a supermarket
Decisive for sustainability are three factors, explains Wilts:
- Where does the product come from?
- How is it produced?
- How does the customer come to shop?
In the end, for beef, good packaging would be more sustainable if otherwise the meat produced with a high CO2 balance is thrown away. For kiwi and avocado even a bio-seal can not make up for the transport route. And anyone who uses the delivery service or gets fruit salad in a plastic bowl and foil around it by car also does not contribute to environmental protection.
Sustainability therefore demands something from everyone: manufacturers, dealers and consumers.
The trade is usually the focus. Often the transport with plastic is cheaper and more convenient, says waste expert Wilts. "In the first step, the company costs the plastic avoid something." Nevertheless, the use for the trade could be worthwhile. On the one hand, the chains can collect benefits for the customers, on the other hand, they can even turn recycling into a business.
The Schwarz Group, which includes Lidl and Kaufland, is ahead of its competitors. She has taken over the waste management company Tönsmeier and thus fully enters the waste business. Also, the license for its own dual system (the most famous is the Green Dot) has requested the Schwarz Group. If the authorities give the green light, the company can use its own packaging waste more cheaply and this can take over for other fees. Because with the dual system, manufacturers and retailers pay a fee for disposal - and usually convert it to prices. Every consumer in Germany pays around 13 euros for it every year.
Environmental experts are generally positive that the Schwarz Group is also committed to waste management as a source of waste. After all, it is estimated that about one-tenth of the packaging waste in German trade is from Lidl. However, the experts also warn against the fact that the retail group will become even more powerful and could lead its suppliers to handle the packaging disposal via the Schwarz Group as well.
Part of the Lidl strategy is also to increase the use of recyclates. These are recyclable plastic components. According to its own information, the discounter already has a 100% recycled content in the still mineral water of its own brand. This means that each of these water bottles is made entirely from recycled PET, so no new plastic is needed for manufacturing.
Sometimes plastic is the better alternative
Environmental and waste experts are calling for the packaging industry to make progress in the field of recyclates. Here, too, the policy must make clearer targets. Environmentalists are critical of many traders' efforts to resort to plastic substitutes. This often only a picture of naturalness is fooled.
"Paper production is also harmful to the environment," says Katharina Istel from the Nabu Nature Conservation Union. Plastic is sometimes even the environmentally friendly variant. "You do not have to have a guilty conscience if you buy ketchup in a plastic bottle instead of disposable glass," says Istel. For glass, the production is energy intensive, and there are high CO2 emissions during transport. That's why glass is more sustainable only with short delivery routes and reusable systems.
A rule of thumb is also to buy fruit and vegetables loosely and fetch meat, sausage and cheese as possible at the counter.
Also, waste separation makes sense only if it is done consistently. An example is the yoghurt cup with cardboard casing: separate the aluminum lid from the plastic cup and place both in the recycling bin. The cardboard must be in the waste paper. If the three components are not disposed of individually, the packaging goes into incineration.
(Here are tips from Nabu on waste prevention and recycling.)
Istel sees the anti-plastic strategy of retail chains as a lengthy process. "It takes time for the whole range to be scoured."
more on the subject
Even the organic retail chain Alnatura sometimes has to convince its environmentally conscious customers when it comes to packaging. The trader offers the same tomato sauce in the glass and in the composite carton - and explains to the customer at the same time that the carton has a roughly 63 percent lower carbon footprint compared to the glass. Because of the large mass of composite cartons, which are used in total, recycling is worthwhile here for the waste disposal companies. In addition, the paper used comes from sustainable forestry.
Nevertheless, the organic clientele is often more sympathetic to the glass. "We do not want to proselytize our customers, but we want to explain why we do something," says Alnatura spokeswoman Stefanie Neumann. "The most important thing is to protect the product so it does not spoil."
However, packaging changes are often a big investment - especially for manufacturers. Because they have to change their machines. In addition to logistics, customers are also a challenge, says Neumann. For fruits and vegetables, the organic chain must also think carefully about how the product is offered. Some customers find unhealthy loose apples because they may have been touched and covered by multiple customers.