Products made from plastic are indispensable in our current society. Chairs, smartphones, pens - everything consists to a certain part of this cheap and easy to process material. But these polymers are not just used in the products we use. A non-negligible proportion (about 35%) is used exclusively for their packaging. On average a European citizen produces an average of 31 kg just on packaging. No question, that this enormous amount must be reduced.
Here at KoRo, we want do our part towards a sustainable use of the world‘s resources. Therefore, we have had to put some thought into the nature of our packaging materials.
You probably already noticed that we sell most of our products in clear plastic films and bags. These are intrinsically non-sustainable and have often been a focal point customers in the past. The following article will take a closer look at how we came to this decision and why (at least for the moment) we are holding on to plastic packaging.
WHAT IS PLASTIC?
Composition and production
Plastic is just a collective term for a variety of polymers. Polymers are - as the name implies - made of many ( poly) equal chemical parts ( -mer ), which chain up to form a long string, that can be utilised for a variety of products. While polymers can be found ubiquitously in natural materials such as silk, wool or wood, what most people associate with artificial polymers in everyday life is plastic. Plastic is generated almost exclusively from fossil feedstocks, such as crude oil and natural gas. During its purification process this crude material is separated into pure components. These hydrocarbons can be chemically combined to make the polymers we know, for example polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE) or polyethylenetherephtalate (PET). All of which are an indispensable part of our lives.
Plastic in our daily life
In addition to very obvious things like water bottles, car tires, food packaging and toothbrushes, there are also more subtle things which contain certain polymers to improve their quality. Some of these are glasses, textile fibres, kitchen appliances, glue or cosmetics. Take a moment and consciously walk through your apartment and you’ll see; polymers are everywhere.
However, these are just the products that have a direct impact on our lives. The packaging which protects the product during shipping and in the shop needs to be considered as well. Usually it is removed instantly and thrown in the bin. Especially in the food and beverage sector, the trend goes towards fast food and convenient products. Each individual portion is packaged exclusively, which further increases the proportion of waste per product. These food and beverage packages account for around 60% of the packaging volume. In addition, the growth of online shopping with its packaged shipping, leads to more plastic.
CONSEQUENCES OF PLASTIC CONSUMPTION
Pollution by plastic
Plastics are sturdy and durable and we use them mainly for things we only need for a minute, sometimes even seconds. A bit ironic, isn’t it? And this longevity bites us in the back. Improperly disposed of plastic products can survive decades or even centuries without damage. The result is a planet drowning in garbage. On the Pacific floats a plastic island which is three times the size of Texas and what used to be paradise beaches are becoming the landfills 2.0.
As hard as it sounds, but only human kind can be blamed for this situation. Plastic waste in the ocean is the second biggest environmental problem of our time. Every year about 32 million tons of plastic are released into the environment. Eight million tons of these end up in the oceans. Every second 700 kg of new plastic waste pollutes the oceans. The garbage is especially dangerous for seabirds and fish. Birds confuse plastic parts in the sea with food, eat them and die from the debris in their bodies. And fish also confuse micro plastics with plankton and eat it. It can not be excreted or digested by them. So it stays in their body and ends up on our plates. Well, enjoy your meal!
There are 200 species every year that are victims of plastic waste. Anyone who believes, this might just be a problem of the big oceans on the other side of the world, can’t be more wrong. Studies from the North Sea and Baltic Sea show that plastic residues were found in the digestive tract of 5% of all fish and it is estimated that 90% of North Sea birds have plastic in their bodies.
For those who are not as worried about pieces of plastic floating around in the ocean: These materials also contain additives such as plasticisers. These can be absorbed by the body via skin contact and have a negative effect on the hormone balance, which can result in infertility and changes to the genetic material.
IS RECYCLING THE SOLUTION?
The recycling bin: the key to happiness
Everyone knows the recycling bin. We are all called upon to separate our garbage properly. But what belongs in there? That depends on the city, country or even street you live in. This confusion makes it really hard to be a citizen, who is concerned about sustainability. But if your are putting recycling into the right bin, 99% of it will actually be recycled. This balance looks exemplary at first glance. Unfortunately taking a closer look, you’ll see that we don’t have ourself sorted out yet. Because like everything in life, even recycling isn’t always what it seems. Turns out only 40% of the plastic waste is actually repurposed into new materials. The rest is being "energetically recycled" and that sounds nicer than it is. The only thing that is recycled is the chemical energy of the plastic in the combustion to CO2 and H2O to generate electricity and heat. It's a bit like cheating and definitely not what you've come to think of recycling.
But who is to blame for the recycling debacle? Well, it is not easy to point the finger on only one individual. Recycling is difficult and pricy, because the separation and sorting of the various types of plastic is extremely expensive and sometimes not even feasible. Many materials consist of a combination of different elements. The best example ist a classic juice box. Paper, aluminum and polyethylene are combined in layers to form a so-called composite material. In order to separate individual components after use, gigantic recycling machines are required. And those are expensive and only few communities can afford such a facility. In fact, only 36% of Tetra Paks are actually recycled. And even when their recycling is done properly, plastic is burnt for energy production. Ultimately, most mixed plastic packages end up in incinerators, although they would be reusable.
Not all is lost, though. There is a silver lining: for example, PET bottles. Here in Germany we introduced the Pfand-System. Every time a PET bottle is bought, a deposit of 25 cents is paid which you will get back when you return the bottle. With this measure Germany was able to increase the recycling rate of PET bottles to 98%. Proper recycling. 34% are turned into new PET bottles, 27% are processed into films, 23% become textile fibres, and 16% become other products such as adhesive tape or toothbrushes. PET bottles are the prime example of how effective recycling of plastics can be.
Here at KoRo
Until we find other ways, waste prevention needs to be the prime measure. And this is were KoRo is important. We thought about how we can contribute to waste prevention. The answer for us: bulk packs. The following table shows how we try to use as little plastic as possible for our packaging. The comparison with retail packaging clearly shows that we need comparatively less plastic waste for our products.
We also thought about the type of packaging. The primary consideration here is the emission of CO 2 for the production of packaging materials. There are major differences in the consumption of CO 2 for the production of various polymers. KoRo we uses PP bags for the majority of products. In the diagram below you can see that the production of those bags are with 2 kg of CO 2 per kg of polymer produces, comparatively small. The same applies to classic packaging materials such as PET and PE. While there are already plastics from renewable raw materials (nylon, cellophane), these usually require many refining steps, which in turn contribute to their CO 2 balance, making them worse for the environment than their fossil equivalents. The silver lining in this debate are materials such as PLA (poly lactic acid) and paper. These are both made from renewable raw materials while consuming an equal amount or even less CO 2 .
Also the water requirement for the production of plastics is an increasingly important factor. While water in Germany is not a limited resource, in countries with drier climatic conditions this can be significantly different. Especially in times of global warming and the associated radicalisation of weather conditions, water consumption is becoming an increasingly important topic. To a large extent, water is used for cooling the production facilities or the actual process management. It can be seen in the diagram below that, PP performs comparatively well by only requiring just over 50 Lof water per kg of polymer. It can also be clearly seen that the renewable raw materials (with the exception of PLA / paper) have a significantly higher demand compared to traditional plastics.
So, if you look at the hard facts, you should use either PLA, paper or PP. However at KoRo, we must also consider factors such as handling (food safety, permeability to grease, product shelf life), supply and marketing. After long consideration PP has emerged as the clear winner. It is easy to get, lightweight, cheap, can be welded airtight and allows you to catch a good few on the product.
And since we are already talking about it; we also investigated the CO 2 footprint of a standard KoRo order. Let’s imagine someone’s buying four KoRo products and the order is being shipped to some place in Germany. By clicking on "Buy", the PP packaged product (46 g CO 2) is taken, put in the shipping carton (214 g CO 2 ) and safely stowed with filling material (35 g CO 2 ). Then it is shut, glued and the shipping label is attached (15 g CO 2 ) and off it goes by mail to the front door (277 g CO 2 ). Makes 587 g CO 2 . Compared to the total costs, the packaging of the item is less than 10%. After all, everything has to be seen in relation to the whole.
Are we doomed?
Of course not. We are constantly working to improve the sustainability of KoRo and our products. In places where no better option can be found short term, there are still options. For example there are projects for voluntary CO2 compensation. In most cases, trees will be planted with these funds, which in the long term bind the produced CO 2 and thus counteract global warming.