The Corona crisis revealed what had been a problem for a long time. Take-away food is becoming an integral part of our everyday lives. Meanwhile the city’s rubbish bins are constantly overflowing. More than ever, We are currently consuming more food than ever on the go, generating packaging waste that pollutes our environment.
Styrofoam boxes, plastic trays, coated cardboard boxes – the consumption of packaging materials in Germany is continuously increasing. By comparison: in the middle of the 20th century, only about 1.7 million tons of plastics were produced annually worldwide. Today, the figure is over 335 million tons. A large part of our packaging is made of plastic or contains plastic coatings and is not biodegradable. Even supposedly organic packaging is often not as environmentally friendly as one might initially think.
But how much waste do we actually generate and how much of it is caused by our to-go habits? What is happening to our environment and is plant-based packaging really the superior alternative? Questions upon questions – we give you an overview:
How much take-away packaging waste do we really produce in Germany?
Germany is one of the world’s largest producers of packaging waste. In 2017, 18.7 million tonnes of packaging waste were generated throughout Germany, according to a survey by the Federal Environment Agency. This means an annual consumption of around 227 kilograms per person. According to this, around 107 kilogrammes are accounted for by us private end consumers.
Above all, the waste caused by immediate consumption in restaurants, snack bars or bakeries is growing continuously. Between 2000 and 2017, this increased by 47%. According to a study by the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, 350,000 tons of waste were generated by disposable products in Germany in 2017. If we look at this figure more closely, we see that 81% of this packaging waste is generated by take-away packaging. The largest share is made up of containers for food, such as boxes, bowls or cups. The remaining 19% of the waste is generated by disposable tableware in the party or picnic sector.
Figure: Society for Packaging Market Research (2018) – Source
Although the material group paper, cardboard and carton, also known as PPK, still accounts for the lion’s share of to-go packaging waste, the drastic developments in the area of plastic packaging are particularly striking. Between 1994 and 2017, the amount of plastic waste increased by 72%. The increase is even more serious in terms of plastic demand for lunch- and snack boxes, which amounts to a staggering 1350% percent. This trend shows that plastic products are increasingly replacing paper and cardboard packaging.
Why is the amount of waste increasing so much and what part does our lifestyle play in it?
Why is it that so many more people nowadays resort to food to-go and thus generate more and more waste? To find out, we need to take a look at the development of our society over the past three decades. An interplay of various factors contributes to our increasing use of take-away food, fast food and delivery services. The acceleration of our everyday lives, increasing prosperity and digitalization are reflected in changing eating habits. German households are spending less and less time cooking at home. As a result, the consumption of to-go food and beverages has increased massively. Convenience has established itself as a lifestyle; quick availability and convenient usability are increasingly becoming the focus of our consumption. The same applies to the supplier side, because disposable packaging also offers numerous advantages for restaurant, café and snack bar operators, especially of a financial nature.
What makes To Go packaging so problematic?
Once sold, the packaging of take-away meals usually only has a lifetime of a few minutes. However, valuable raw materials and a lot of energy are consumed in their production. Plastic in particular – used only once and not disposed of properly – is becoming an ever-greater problem for our environment and health. Take-away packaging is not only used on the road, but also thrown away along the way. As a rule, the packaging waste ends up in municipal rubbish bins, but this waste is not recycled but incinerated.
In the worst case, the packaging is not even disposed of, but simply left behind at the place of consumption. Plastics do not degrade in nature, but break down into smaller and smaller individual parts, so-called microplastics, usually over centuries. These penetrate our ecosystem and thus find their way back into our bodies. A study by the WWF has shown that we humans ingest an average of 21 grams of tiny plastic parts every month. What this means for our health cannot yet be estimated.
Are alternative take-away products a solution to the problem?
In recent years, more and more alternative packaging options have entered the market. Plant-based materials, such as wood or bamboo, and supposedly compostable plastics are marketed as particularly sustainable. But in terms of their short lifespan and high energy consumption in production, they hardly differ from common plastic packaging. Moreover, these products are usually not recycled either, but incinerated. Even the label “compostable” is often misleading; such products take a long time to decompose and are usually sorted out of organic waste as interfering materials. The situation is similar with take-away packaging made of paper and cardboard – plastic coatings or contamination by food leftovers make it impossible to recycle the paper.
But something is changing in the fight against the plastic flood: In December 2018, the EU decided to ban plastic products for which there is already a better alternative in all EU member states from 2021. In addition to plastic tableware, cutlery and straws, this ban also includes food containers made of polystyrene. This is a big step in the right direction, but it still requires each and every one of us to reflect on our behavior and reduce unnecessary packaging waste as much as possible.