Do we have to package everything?

Autor: Alexandra Alferi |
Foto: Stephen Wilkes/Gallerystock, Steve Gallagher
Why are so many foodstuffs wrapped in plastic, and what impact does this have on our environment?

There are barely more than a handful of nuts in a bag made of sturdy plastic, while blueberries lie in hard plastic trays next to wrapped cucumbers: foodstuffs and plastic packaging seem to be inseparable in our local supermarkets. But why is this the case? Many consumers are now developing an aversion to the flood of plastics, not least because of the frightening images of rotting sea creatures and of veritable carpets of plastic covering beaches and the open seas. Do these mountains of waste really come from our discarded packaging, and what is actually the point of that packaging? The packaging-machinery manufacturer ROVEMA, which has been part of the Haniel Group since October 2017, can provide some of the answers.

The machinery manufacturer delivers around 350 packaging lines all over the world every year. Most of the total of about 10,000 customers come from the food industry, which wraps large amounts of its products in plastic. This is one reason why each person in Germany produces around 38 kilograms of plastic waste each year – the third-highest figure in the EU. Today, approximately 15 percent of the plastic waste in the sea comes from packaging, and the rest from sources such as microplastics resulting from car tyre wear, cosmetic additives, residues from the washing of textiles and lost fishing nets. Policymakers and consumers seem to agree that there is too much of it. Peter Lökös, Business Development Manager at ROVEMA, puts it like this: “Of course, we find ourselves at the centre of the current debate on reducing packaging waste.”

However, he says, the issue is more complex than it appears at first glance. “Not much of the plastic waste produced in Europe ends up in the sea,” Lökös says. In most industrialised European countries, the treatment of waste is already very advanced. Plastic packaging becomes a particular problem in places that have no functioning waste-management systems, especially in developing countries in Asia. One study found that 90 percent of the mountain of waste floating in the sea is brought there by just ten rivers. Eight of those flow through Asian cities that lack functioning waste-management or recycling systems – but it is precisely in such developing countries that plastic is indispensable, and this forms a vicious circle.

Safety and shelf life

Packaging is what enables foodstuffs to be transported safely in both developing and industrialised countries. It plays a big part in the shelf life of foodstuffs and in reducing food waste. For this very reason, Matthias Mahr, editor in chief and publisher of the Packaging 360° magazine, warns against demonising plastic across the board. “The film around a cucumber may seem pointless to us at first, but it extends its shelf life and enables it to be handled hygienically,” he says. This is the only way to ensure that it can be transported more safely and have a longer shelf life than is the case for products that are not packaged. “The world’s population is growing rapidly and life expectancy is increasing, so the correct use of packaging can help significantly with the distribution and storage of foodstuffs,” he explains.

Is the plastic bag irreplaceable?

But are there no other forms of packaging that can perform this function without ending up on our plates again in the form of microplastics? Lökös puts it like this: “Plastic packaging has the best cost-benefit ratio. Cost pressures in the lower price segment are so great that the use of different packaging materials would lead to cost increases that often cannot be passed on to retailers and end consumers.” And what remains of a packaged cucumber after it has been consumed? According to experts, the answer is: less environmental pollution than is caused by an unpackaged cucumber that has, sadly, gone off before it could be eaten.

The manufacturing process for food packaging generates much less CO2 than the production and transport of foodstuffs themselves. In terms of the resulting life cycle assessment, using a small amount of CO2 can avoid food going off and thus prevents much greater CO2 emissions. Therefore, it seems more sensible to package foodstuffs than to risk them going off before they can be eaten. As it is, around one-third of our food ends up in our waste bins instead of on our plates. “Alongside efforts to educate people and raise awareness in society, we need technologies and materials that perform the necessary function in limiting this food waste,” Lökös says. For many products, and for feeding people in poorer countries, that material is likely to remain plastic for some time to come. However, there are grounds for hope: in our local organic shops or delicatessens, customers can increasingly often find products with alternative types of packaging – some of it from ROVEMA packaging machines.

Ready for paper bags

These machines can be converted without much effort from handling plastic packaging to processing paper bags. This does not make sense for all products – far from it – but it is certainly possible for pasta, for example, as there is already one producer in the German retail sector that has abandoned the use of plastic packaging. Others have yet to follow suit. The only reason for this is that they want customers to be able to see the pasta through the plastic window and, on glimpsing the bright yellow, perfectly formed pasta, develop such a burning hunger that they simply cannot resist buying it.

However, more and more supermarket customers also have to see dead poultry and fish. According to a survey by the PricewaterhouseCoopers management consultancy, three-quarters take care, when shopping, to buy products with as little packaging as possible. Almost one in three say they would even go without a product if it had too much – or non-sustainable – packaging. Surely this is a good basis for manufacturers to try out something new? “Now that one pasta maker has switched to completely non-transparent paper packaging, all the others have started to worry about missing this particular boat,” Lökös says. The very plausible assumption that consumers might consider the environmental aspect more important than the chance to see the pasta before buying it is putting pressure on manufacturers. With ROVEMA, they can test whether end consumers will keep their promise.

“Customers that package their goods using our machinery do not normally need to buy any expensive new equipment to switch from film to paper,” Lökös says. ROVEMA adjusts the machinery to enable it to handle paper instead of film. “In this way, we give our customers the opportunity to perform acceptance tests in selected markets without taking any financial risks. Several of our customers will soon be using paper packaging in the marketplace,” he adds. If it turns out that consumers still go for pasta in plastic packaging, he explains, it will be easy to switch the packaging machinery back. However, ROVEMA often also sees scope for improvement for foodstuffs where plastic packaging is necessary for technical reasons.

For example, ROVEMA’s machinery can be adjusted to make thinner film. “However, we often have to work hard to persuade people in this area,” Lökös explains. “Our customers fear that it will impair the protective function. We then try to prove, by means of extensive tests, that the product is also safe in the thin film. Ultimately, the producer saves money, as they do not have to buy so much material.”

Customers can offer their products just as cheaply as before, and the more sustainable packaging gives them an advantage over their rivals, Lökös adds. This could also be positive for ROVEMA, because processing thin film is a challenge for the machinery. “We have learned to handle this, and it is one area where our competitors have yet to follow our lead,” he says.

The issue of plastic waste is too complex to be solved by packaging-machinery manufacturers, such as ROVEMA, alone. Nevertheless, the company is doing something to make our environment a little cleaner, using a lot of persuasion and innovative technologies. The packaging expert Matthias Mahr also thinks ROVEMA is at the cutting edge. Back in 1975, the company presented a machine for making paper bags, which was far ahead of its time. It looks as though its time has now come.

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