Fruits roll loosely over the conveyor belt at the grocery checkout. Fresh bread lies in the cotton bag. A darkened milk bottle jingles against yoghurt glasses. Silke Bröhl gets astonished glances at her shopping regularly. A Tupperware container she brought with her is back in her bag. No luck for her at the fresh food counter. “I ask consistently, until now I am not allowed to pack cheese with my own containers. I’m getting more and more pushy”, she says and laughs.

Since the first plastic product came onto the global market in 1950, production has risen from 1.5 million tons per year to 300 million tons. According to ‘The New Plastics Economy’, a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more of this is incinerated or not reused at all than recycled and therefore more and more is produced. Between 2000 and 2016 the number of plastic packaging increased by 74 percent in Germany. A German produces 37kg of plastic per year from packaging waste only by now. Plastic waste is produced in almost all areas of life. Above all in the packaging of food, due to the flexibility, sterility and inexpensive production of plastic. Nevertheless, the practical aspect takes a backseat thinking about the exploitation of a plastic bottle. According to the Federal Environment Agency, plastic bottles that are not disposed of properly and end up in nearby waters remain there for up to 450 years.

Silke has been reducing plastic in her daily routine since May 2018. A friend simply told her about planning to buy soap instead of plastic shower gel from now on. This was the cause for thought for Silke, to do something about the abundance of plastic in her everyday life. From there it was like a domino effect: From now on Silke takes a closer look at consumption goods, that she had not questioned before. Whether in other areas of cosmetics, food or in household – she comes across something new everywhere, sees alternatives and realizes there is a lot she can do without plastic at all or she can easily create things by herself. “You just have to look right through: My homemade agent with three ingredients cleans a lot better than the bought one with the double amount of ingredients and superfluous chemicals.

For Silke it is an overall concept which insists of the conscious handling of the environment, the analysis of products and their producers, the active demand and communication between company and consumer and not only to live without plastic, but to try ending up at zero-waste. ”Through new contacts to like-minded people, you always get new perspectives – you get motivated. At the same time our environment and everything that is happening lately to it makes us aware of how much earlier this direction should have broken out”, she reports. It is a lot possible in the reduction of plastic in the consumer position, shows Silke Bröhl. But the companies still form a barrier, they do not communicate and do not create transparency for the customers. As a result, resources continue to be wasted, so the consumer society is maintained.

Power lies in the trade

The focus is no longer on the consumer alone: “The power lies in the trade, without political pressure change is very slow”, says Lukas Sattlegger. The sociologist is part of the junior research group PlastX, headed by ISOE and investigating the role in society of plastic and the associated environmental impacts. The team of social and natural scientists is working on how to make plastics more sustainable. The junior research group “PlastX – Plastics as Systemic Risk for Social-Ecological Supply Systems” is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) under the program “Research for Sustainable Development (FONA)”. PlastX is part of the funding measure “SÖF – Socio-Ecological Research” in the funding area “Junior Research Groups in Social-Ecological Research”.

Sattlegger is responsible for the use of plastic in Germany and the possibilities of avoiding it. He analyses the role plastic plays in the food chain, the functions of the various types of packaging and questions the normality of them. He pays a lot attention to the work behind the scenes, the logistics and works with companies locally.

It becomes obvious how complex the system is and how difficult it is to implement a change: In addition to consumers and companies, there are external service providers for packaging the products, who are independent of the companies. Companies often have no influence on the packaging of their products and only limited knowledge about it at all. If a company produces ecologically, it is not certain that the packers do the same and this can lead to inconsistencies. Even if a cucumber is grown and processed ecologically and regionally, the packaging can be newly produced plastic. According to Foodwatch, organic cucumbers for example are packaged in plastic at the supermarket to distinguish them from conventionally produced cucumbers. The core problems here are a lack of communication and strong competition.

Unpacked-Store: The plastic-free alternative

Furthermore, Sattlegger takes a close look at the alternatives, such as Unpacked-Stores – supermarkets that offer food and usually a selection of household products unpacked filled into containers you have brought yourself –, and the difficulties you encounter here as well. Bettina Roth opened one of these Unpacked-Stores on the first of September 2017 in her home town Lohmar-Wahlscheid. The 20-square-meter-large ‘Fräulein Jule’ is a small but significant hint at the packaging mania and is intended to stimulate the conscious use of plastic and packaging in general, even in a small town.

The process of developing awareness began with Bettina during her parental leave when she started working in a small farm shop in the neighbouring village, where she came into contact with sustainable shopping for the first time: “Customers brought their empty egg cartons with them and bought their vegetables loose”.

She developed a passion, trying to replace plastic with cardboard and glass until she avoided plastic and garbage completely. Since there was no possibility to buy fully unpacked in her environment, she created a concept for her own shop.

Since then Bettina offers even in a small district an alternative to family sizes and unnecessary packaging. She observes that, surprisingly, older ladies and gentlemen make up a large part of her clientele because they are happy to determine the quantity of a product on their own. “They are familiar with this from the past, are living alone or just as a couple and simply don’t need a 1kg pasta bag from the discounters,” the Unpacked-Store-Owner says, grinning. For Bettina it was not sufficient anymore to just act as consumer. She wants to actively inspire her fellows to think and let them back-paddle, back to regionality and less mass. “With more than 80 million inhabitants in Germany, it makes a bigger difference if everyone quits one plastic product every day than if a person completely avoids consuming plastic.”

But also in this case the future-oriented idea cannot be missed out and it must be examined how economical the alternative concepts are in the long term, says Lukas Sattlegger. Can the function of a role model and opening alternative ways be the only solution to sharpen society’s awareness and influence large companies?

Making plastic use transparent

Sattlegger sees the additional political control for a change in the system as fundamental. It is important to develop long-term efficient production. Logistics in particular have to be transparent for society and controlled by politicians. An interplay between manufacturers, trade and consumption, between science and society is therefore inevitable.

Some progress can already be registered at the political level: Since 2017 the Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management Act has been in force, the aim of which it is to conserve natural resources and manage environmentally compatible waste. It is intended to create a five-stage waste hierarchy which includes, among other things, avoidance, reuse and energy recovery, and to sharpen the separate collection of waste. In addition, the Packaging Act came into force on 01.01.2019, which requires all manufacturers to take responsibility for their waste management. These manufacturers will now bear the costs for the disposal and recycling of their products, thus unnecessary packaging is avoided or replaced and the recycling rate will increase from 36 percent to 58.5 percent.

Bettina and Silke are at one that, despite the new laws, well-stocked supermarkets are better suited for conscious purchasing than discounters. “Of course there is a price difference, even an increase of around 30 percent,” estimates Silke, “but that will change as the demand grows.” But even the discounters do not do the small amount in avoiding packaging as assumed at first glance and welcome the newly passed laws: “We have set ourselves the ambitious goal of reducing the packaging of our own brands by 30 percent by 2025,” says Philipp Skorning, Group Buying Director at ALDI SÜD in the press release of December 20, 2018.

ALDI NORD and ALDI SÜD are investigating the ‘ALDI packaging emission’, which is intended to reduce waste production of all kinds. Disposable plastic articles would be removed from the range in the future, converted to more environmentally friendly materials or replaced by a reusable solution. In the fruit and vegetable sector, too, the reduction in plastics has been announced, as well as the increased use of recycled material to save on new plastics. In the course of this, the companies want to promote cooperation with environmentally conscious and innovative start-ups through partnerships.

With the change in legislation and companies starting to act sustainably, the relevance of plastics issues and packaging waste is now being brought to the mass. For personal reduction and developing consciousness there is, apart from larger projects mostly dealing with the removal of plastic in the seas, already regional assistance. Cologne: global – sustainable‘ is an example for this. It is a project of the Allerweltshaus Köln e.V., which promotes the local implementation of Agenda 2030. The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 pursues 17 global goals for sustainable development. Cologne: global – sustainable’ offers a point of contact for information and entry into a sustainable lifestyle and political activity.

The beginning at regional level has also according to Lukas Sattlegger the greater chance: The first big step here, is to compress the supply in the supermarket next door. “Overconsumption should not be taken for granted – just like the use of plastic,” says Sattlegger. For companies this means establishing and maintaining a regular exchange with the distributors in order to understand their practices. This will make it easier for society to avoid plastic or packaging and increase understanding and awareness. “I would like to see a subject that deals with sustainability or teaches about raw materials,” Silke adds. Another impulse to create awareness as early as possible. To free the environment, the animals, us humans and our future from the plastic flood.