Unfortunately almost indispensable: plastic packaging in trade

Unfortunately almost indispensable: plastic packaging in trade

Many consumers would like to be able to shop with less plastic. Researchers have investigated how this can be achieved and have found out a lot about obstacles that show that there is still a long way to go on the road to a plastic-reduced shopping world.

If you stand in front of the fruit and vegetable shelves in a conventional supermarket, what you see above all is plastic packaging. According to the Federal Statistical Office, a total of about 39 kilogrammes of plastic packaging is produced per capita and year in Germany. Whether bananas or pears, Italian courgettes or mini tomatoes from regional organic cultivation, almost everything is wrapped or packaged in portions in plastic.

The research project "Consumer reactions to plastic and its avoidance possibilities at the point of sale" (VerPlaPoS) has now investigated how and to what extent consumers can already reduce or avoid plastic packaging through their purchasing decisions at the point of sale. A team of scientists from various disciplines approached this question from different angles: they conducted sociological surveys, developed new packaging and analysed various avoidance and recycling strategies from a business management perspective. VerPlaPoS was not only about packaging in the supermarket, but also about textiles and how they are packaged on their way from production to the consumer (more on that another time). In this article, I will focus on the topic of plastic packaging in the supermarket as an example.

I find it particularly exciting how consumers (re)act when there are different options to choose from in the supermarket. The team investigated this in two field studies: In the first experimental set-up, customers were observed when buying vegetables and fruit and then asked why they use different plastic bags (e.g. made of biodegradable plastic) or not. And in the second study, consumers were asked to choose between different types of packaging (e.g. made of recycled plastics) for snack tomatoes.

The key question in the first study was: with or without bags? Per capita and year, about 40 of these so-called shirt pouches, which are readily available and also free of charge, are used in Germany. For the study, the researchers set up "packaging islands" in four supermarkets, where they found classic shirt pouches as well as three packaging alternatives: shirt pouches that are produced in a more climate-friendly way but are not recyclable, compostable shirt pouches and paper bags. The conventional shirt pouches were free of charge, the others cost one or four cents each. Consumers were observed when buying fruit and vegetables and then interviewed. Most of them, more than 60 per cent, did not use the bags at all. They bought loose fruit and vegetables without packaging or used the bags they had brought themselves. A good half of the shoppers who chose disposable packaging opted for a free shirt bag. Only a small proportion (around 17%) of consumers were willing to pay extra for more environmentally friendly transport packaging.

According to the researchers, the high number of packaging-free purchases shows that the use of disposable bags could be reduced even further. This would be the best solution to reduce plastic consumption.

In the second field experiment (also conducted in the four supermarkets), the researchers investigated whether and how consumers choose alternative, more sustainable packaging solutions using the example of snack tomatoes. In this experiment, packaging solutions made of cardboard, R-PET (recycled PET), PLA (bioplastic) and conventional PET were available for selection. As a result, 53 percent of consumers chose sustainable packaging solutions despite the higher price - in the experiment it was 11 cents per pack.

In the case of the snack tomatoes, a large proportion of consumers were willing to make a sustainable contribution by making an active purchase decision in order to avoid conventional plastic packaging - even if this required a surcharge. In everyday life, however, the knowledge for such decisions is often lacking, and there are usually no sustainable packaging alternatives available, because conventional plastic is still often the first choice of packaging solutions for retailers and manufacturers due to its low price.

The authors' conclusion: It is difficult for consumers to choose more sustainable alternatives. On the one hand, packaging should be reduced to a minimum, or products should be bought in "environmentally friendly" packaging. So far, alternative packaging is scarce, also because industry and manufacturers are not sufficiently held accountable. On the other hand, packaging-free is also not always the best for the environment: for example, the environment can be polluted in other ways, for instance by food spoiling faster.

These results also match the results of another study of the VerPlaPoS project on the "disposal and avoidance behaviour of consumers". In a Germany-wide online survey, the scientists collected suggestions and wishes for changes in which concrete measures could facilitate the reduction of plastic packaging in their everyday processes.

The participants demanded that politicians introduce laws to oblige industry, manufacturers and trade to take measures to reduce packaging. Such laws could, for example, concern packaging design or create framework conditions so that retailers switch more to refill and deposit systems. Above all, disposable packaging, bottles and bags as well as multiple and outer packaging should be banned. Economic instruments such as taxes on plastic (packaging) are also seen as helpful. In general, there is a desire for a larger range of products in reusable packaging, for example for hygiene products, detergents and cleaning agents. In addition, the study participants would like to see a larger range of unpackaged products, such as fillable shampoos or cleaning products, which should also be offered in drugstores or discounters. However, this is linked to the expectation that loose alternatives should not be more expensive than packaged products. Price does play an important role in consumers' considerations to buy less packaging.

The results presented here and many other interesting findings can be found in the final report of VerPlaPoS. It is available online.

Written by Wiebke Peters

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