Unfortunately, plastic packaging remains virtually indispensable in retail.

Unfortunately, plastic packaging remains virtually indispensable in retail.

Many consumers would like to see the amount of plastic involved in their shopping decrease. Researchers have investigated how this can be achieved and have discovered many obstacles that demonstrate that the road to a plastic-reduced shopping world is still a long one. Standing in front of the fruit and vegetable shelves in a conventional supermarket, the first thing you see is the 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 every product 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 didn´t focus exclusively on supermarket packaging, but also on textiles and the way they are packaged on their journey from production to the consumer - a topic which will be discussed in further detail in a future article.  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 they are presented with different options to choose from at the supermarket. The team investigated this behaviour in two field studies: In the first experimental set-up, customers were observed when buying vegetables and fruit and then questioned as to their reasons for using or not using different types of plastic bags (e.g. made of biodegradable plastic). For 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: do you use bags or not? Per capita and year, about 40 of these so-called single use produce bags ("Hemdchenbeutel”), which are readily available as well as free of charge, are used in Germany. For the study, the researchers set up "packaging islands" in four supermarkets, where they found classic single use produce bags as well as three packaging alternatives: produce bags produced in a more climate-friendly way but not recyclable, compostable produce bags and paper bags. The conventional produce bags were free of charge, the others cost one or four cents each. Consumers were observed when buying fruit and vegetables and then interviewed. The majority, 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 per cent) 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 to avoid conventional plastic packaging - even if this required a surcharge. However, the knowledge required to make such decisions is often lacking in everyday life, and sustainable packaging alternatives are rarely available, as conventional plastic is generally still 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. To date, alternative packaging is scarce – not least because industry and manufacturers are not being held accountable to a sufficient degree. On the other hand, packaging-free shopping is not always the best option for the environment: the environment can be polluted in other ways, for instance by an increase in food waste due to food spoiling faster.

These findings 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 to encourage retailers to switch 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 considered beneficial. In general, there is a desire for a larger range of products offered 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 refillable shampoos and cleaning products. These should also be offered at drugstores and discounters. This, however, is tied to the expectation that unpackaged alternatives should not be more expensive than packaged products. Price does play an important role in consumers' decisions regarding the purchase of products with reduced packaging.

The results presented here, along with many other interesting findings, can be accessed in the final report of VerPlaPoS, which is available online.

Written by Wiebke Peters

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