Lukas Sattlegger and Luca Raschewski

Translation from the German version originally published in Blog Postwachstum.

Pictures of beaches full of plastic waste and reports on micro plastic particles in sea fish show effect. More and more people question modern throwaway culture and look for alternatives. In blogs, conscious consumers are exchanging views on ways of avoiding waste. Some of them became known to a wider public – Bea Johnson published bestsellers on zero waste and plastic-free living. Her five R’s of waste avoidance (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot) became the slogan of the zero waste movement.

As the interest and the desire for alternative offers grew, stores specialized in plastic and packaging-free shopping began to emerge. In addition, the range of consumer goods that are made for packaging-free shopping is expanding: from reusable bags and refillable boxes in various shapes and sizes to do-it-yourself sets for cosmetics. A transformation seems to be in the offing that fundamentally questions society’s handling of resources, especially plastics. This blog post classifies the transformative potential of the zero waste movement and illustrates the challenges of waste avoidance on a societal level.

Sustainable consumption as a solution to the waste problem?

The central mechanism of the Zero Waste movement is sustainable consumption. For consumers, sustainable consumption practices like packaging-free shopping lead to a clear conscience. This is often associated with a feeling of moral superiority over those who do not consume sustainable. For businesses, sustainable consumption leads to a new market segment and above all to a better image compared to less sustainable competitors. In both cases there is a gap between mindful pioneers of waste avoidance and ignorant actors of throwaway culture. Responsibility is individualized and each market player has the opportunity – indeed the obligation – to do the “right thing”. This individualization of responsibility harbors the danger of trivializing structural barriers (e.g. the growth paradigm) for a sustainable society. It is left to the market to initiate sustainability transformation.

However, with regard to plastic waste avoidance, we see four central contradictions that stand against a society free of packaging waste within a market-based growth economy:

System based social inequalities make sustainable consumption to an upper-class problem

The different distribution of income, wealth and knowledge, creates a disparity in the freedom for action. Sustainable consumption depends on resources, but also on priorities. Various consumer studies show that many consumers cannot consume consciously because they lack money, knowledge or time to do so. The challenges of coping with challenges of everyday life leave no room for dealing with sustainable consumption. Thus, consumers are by no means always free in their consumer actions. They are subject to financial constraints and/or must rely on the information provided to them by manufacturers and the state for their consumer decisions. Michael Kopatz discusses such limits of individual responsibility in the blog “oekoroutine”. In addition, the range of packaging-free options is also unequally distributed, both between urban and rural areas and between urban quarters.

Sustainable consumption is reserved for a small privileged and highly educated group of consumers. This inequality of opportunities is also found globally. In many countries, there are neither the financial nor the practical options for consumers to make conscious purchases for avoiding packaging or plastic.

Individualisation and flexibilisation of consumption prevents the avoidance of packaging

The development of everyday consumer habits in the course of individualisation and flexibilisation of everyday life is another trend that stands in the way of a food system that avoids waste. The trend towards packaging-free shopping gets undermined by an even stronger trend towards “to-go culture”, convenience and online shopping. However, while packaging-free shopping and zero waste lifestyle only reach a certain highly educated and urban group, trends such as coffee to go and food delivery services are widespread throughout society. These developments go hand in hand with the dissolution of traditional gender and family relationships (one-person households, division of household work) and a flexibilisation of everyday working life.

Under existing conditions, packaging-free shopping is often a performative act of sustainable consumption. And it is combined with other unsustainable forms of consumption (taking the SUV to the organic supermarket). In order to make resource-saving consumption linkable to the everyday life of more people, there is need for new forms of communal catering with fresh, sustainable, affordable and unpacked food, e.g. in canteens or communal kitchens.

The globalisation and standardisation of food markets requires (disposable) packaging

Looking from the demand side to the supply side, another contradiction becomes clear. The increasing complexity and differentiation of supply chains leads to a multiplication and extension of the processes and practices between primary resource extraction and final consumption. As the natural properties of food limit the globalisation of food supply chains, they create a need for precautions that ensure freshness, standardisation and quality of products. Packaging as freshness preservation allows overcoming natural limitations such as regionality and seasonality of food. In addition, packaging meets the requirements of transport and storage and facilitates the efficient exchange of goods and information. In this sense, packaging technologies are one of the essential conditions of the globalization of food systems.

Differentiated supply chains usually depend on different forms of packaging: A distinction is made between primary packaging, which is directly exposed to the product (e.g. paper wrapping of sweets), secondary packaging, which defines the sales unit (e.g. plastic bag with 25 sweets), tertiary packaging (e.g. folding box with 100 bags) and loading units (e.g. pallet with 20 cartons). Considering packaging-free shops, avoidance of packaging refers primarily to primary or customer packaging. They are often exposed to similar supply chains as regular shops and are often served by wholesalers and logistics companies that neither work without packaging nor without plastic.

Growth and avoidance as fundamental contradiction in capitalism

In addition to the social, cultural and socio-technical contradictions discussed above, there are also macroeconomic reasons that limit waste avoidance strategies. In an economic system, whose functioning is based on constantly opening up new markets and generating growth through increased demand, sufficient practices are counterproductive and endanger the systems functioning. Packaging-free purchasing and avoidance of surplus and waste can only be a niche solution in such a system and by no means the basis of a growth-based economy.

This contradiction makes it so difficult to pursue avoidance strategies politically. For example, there is broad political consensus on the EU waste hierarchy. This consists of the following aspects:

  1. waste prevention
  2. preparation for reuse
  3. recycling
  4. recovery
  5. disposal

Waste prevention is regarded as the most important goal of sustainable management. However, when looking at the actual policy, it becomes clear that the political realities of waste hierarchy are different. Here it is primarily technical solutions for waste treatment and recycling and in particular recycling strategies that are specifically promoted and demanded (EU circular economy strategy). Avoidance as an abstract political wish often remains in the stage of ideas.

A sustainable, garbage-free society therefore has no choice but to abandon the growth-based economic model. This contradiction should be considered from in the development of sustainable alternatives and should also be articulated politically.

Conclusion: No zero waste without criticism of growth

Although the throw-away society is increasingly being criticized, it is hardly possible to renounce packaging. We are not free in our consumer actions. Rather, our income and access to knowledge determine how much we are able to consume sustainably. Packaging and waste are firmly anchored in the capitalist logic of our society. And even under the most advantageous conditions, we are coming up against the walls of our economic system, which is fundamentally geared towards opening up new markets and unfortunately not towards sustainability.

Capitalist constraints and logics not only prevent the possibility of participating in waste avoidance through packaging-free consumption, but market logic also forces food supply chains to use packaging. Critical consumption in this process must become more than just the normality of a niche. It should trigger transformations as a state of emergency, disruption or intervention in existing, unsustainable structures and practices. In order to promote a sustainable use of plastics at the level of society as a whole, the zero waste movement should become more politicized and be made accessible to a broader number of consumers. It also must take structural contradictions more into account. In order to have a transformative effect, the spread of package- and rubbish-free consumption practices and must go hand in hand with cultural, social and economic changes:

– a fairer distribution of resources (e.g. elimination of social inequality)

– a change in eating cultures and everyday habits (e.g. slow food)

– a change in social supply systems (e.g. regionalisation of supply)

– a long-term political and economic transformation towards a postal growth society.