Issue: September 2022, A perfect circle – How does the circular economy work?


In Focus

More than once

The packaging cycle

The yoghurt in the fridge, the shampoo in the shower, the cheese on the dinner table all have one thing in common: they rarely reach us without some kind of packaging. In 2019, a total of 18.9 million tonnes of packaging waste was generated in Germany alone – an average of around 227 kg per capita. It consists of paper and glass, various types of metal, and plastic – precious raw materials whose extraction and processing have an impact on the environment and climate. How can the consumption of these raw materials be substantially reduced, and how can they be integrated more effectively into a closed loop? Or to rephrase the question: what can be done to improve the circular economy in relation to packaging?

“Packaging performs important functions. It protects products so that food stays fresh, for example,” says Günter Dehoust, a Senior Researcher at the Oeko-Institut. “It is important to use as little packaging as possible and reuse or recycle it wherever we can in order to minimise resource consumption.” In terms of establishing a circular economy, it makes sense to look at the packaging we use, not only due to the large quantities involved. Most packaging is only used for short periods and has a relatively high throughput, so recycling is certainly worthwhile. “Furthermore, since 1991, it has been very easy for consumers to separate their packaging waste and recycle it via the dual system.”

In the current project “Lifecycle assessment of the dual system’s performance in the recycling of packaging”, the Oeko-Institut took a closer look at this system. The study was commissioned by the dual system companies, which organise the collection, sorting and recovery of packaging waste. “We produced a lifecycle assessment of their performance, focusing particularly on the greenhouse gas potential but also on aspects such as energy requirement and terrestrial acidification,” says the Oeko-Institut’s waste management expert. Measured in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental criteria, the recovery of 6.6 million tonnes of packaging waste and production from it of secondary materials and substitute fuels was shown to be beneficial in comparison to the use of primary raw materials and fuels. “In 2020, 297 kg of CO2 equivalents was saved for each tonne of quantity collected, adding up to almost two million tonnes of CO2 equivalents. In addition, a total of four million tonnes of secondary raw materials was fed back into the substance cycle.” The researchers also provide policy recommendations, e.g. on increased recycling of mixed plastics and – specifically aimed at packaging manufacturers – improving the recyclability of this waste fraction.

Positive and negative trends

When it comes to packaging, there are certainly some positive trends, such as the rising proportion of unpackaged goods on sale, or the option of reusable containers. And according to the German Environment Agency (UBA), at least 71.6% of packaging in Germany was recycled in 2019, with particularly high rates achieved for glass (84.1%) and paper/cardboard (89.5%). The figure for plastics was 55.5%. However, the volume of packaging has increased substantially since 1991 – from 15.6 to 18.9 million tonnes. The reasons, says Günter Dehoust, include a rise in online trade, but also the coronavirus pandemic, which encouraged many people to order home deliveries of food, etc.

Less packaging does not necessarily mean a closed loop. “Packaging which uses less material is often difficult to recycle – an example is plastic film, which consists of several layers of different materials. As a general principle, we need to carefully examine and assess each approach. With reusable containers, for example, the inputs required for washing and transport may, in some cases, cancel out the environmental benefit of resource conservation. There are different quality categories with multi-use as well. “If a beverage supplier uses a special type of bottle, this increases the transport distances, which in turn pushes up CO2 emissions.” The Oeko-Institut expert therefore wants all packaged products to be examined in detail so that the pros and cons of the various options can be weighed up.

Perhaps the most effective way to reduce packaging is through pricing. Until 2024, Dr Johannes Betz, a researcher in the Oeko-Institut’s Resources and Transport Division, will be working with several partners on a project for the German Environment Agency which looks at how economic mechanisms can reduce packaging use and boost plastic recycling. “This might include a surcharge on single-use packaging, for example,“ he says. “The money could be used to support the development of recyclates and expand recycling infrastructures.”

The Oeko-Institut is also working on another ongoing project for the German Environment Agency which addresses regulatory options, focusing on Section 21 of the Packaging Act. “This section regulates the licence fees that must be paid by anyone placing packaging on the market. The aim is to achieve an environmental steering effect – particularly with regard to the recyclability of packaging,” Günter Dehoust explains. This section of the Act is due to be revised, so the Oeko-Institut, together with cyclos GmbH and Institut cyclos-HTP GmbH, has drafted recommendations. “An economic mechanism that is fit for purpose could include a special levy on non-recyclable packaging.”

Consumers have a hand in reducing the amount of packaging as well. “We are only human: unfortunately, we are very complacent and the solution that is better for the environment often involves more effort,” he says. “So here too, the starting point must be the price so that consumers and producers choose the more sustainable option.” How might this work? The answer is provided by the “Environmental Consumption Tax for Eco-Friendly Steering of the Beverage Packaging Market” project on behalf of the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). “A tax on beverage packaging could save 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in Germany per year,” says Günter Dehoust. According to the study, which was conducted by the Oeko-Institut in collaboration with Professor Stefan Klinski from Berlin School of Economics and Law (HWR), the tax should initially focus on primary materials. “All forms of packaging would be allocated a specific tax rate based on their environmental impact. This would increase the cost of using resources for packaging. It would create incentives for resource conservation, give a boost to multi-use packaging and promote the use of recycled materials.” According to the project team’s calculations, the tax would result in non-alcoholic soft drinks in one-litre non-refillable PET bottles becoming 62 cents more expensive for the consumer, compared with only seven cents for refillable bottles of the same size if the bottle achieved 18 rotations.

Packaging in South-East Asia

The Oeko-Institut is not only concerned with packaging in Germany; it also shares its wide-ranging project experience and expertise with other countries. With funding from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the researchers are providing support to policy-makers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. “These countries have a massive waste problem, and current measures often focus on recycling, incineration and landfill,” says Senior Researcher Siddharth Prakash. “Additional policy measures and standards that aim to reduce the use of packaging are therefore needed here as well.”

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Sustainable material flows and a circular economy are the main focus of Günter Dehoust’s research. A graduate in Environmental Engineering who has worked in the Oeko-Institut’s Resources and Transport Division for more than 30 years, he develops waste management strategies and provides advice to policy-makers and businesses.

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