"A Bratwurst is Much More Harmful to the Climate than its Packaging"
Waste is not a problem in Germany as long as it is disposed of properly, says Rainer Bunge, Professor of Environmental and Process Engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Eastern Switzerland. In an interview with FACHPACK360°, the environmental engineer criticizes political goals to reduce plastic as a packaging material.
Professor Bunge, more and more companies are converting their packaging and doing without plastic. Is that sustainable?
Often it is not, because packaging has the purpose of protecting the product. Some might buy fresh food unpackaged at the weekly market every day, but the majority of the population doesn't do that. Therefore, we need plastic packaging that, among other things, will not allow food to spoil. Other packaging materials, such as glass, are not necessarily more ecological than plastic. And in Germany and Switzerland, plastic packaging is disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner through recycling and thermal recovery in waste incineration plants.
And what about paper? Sensitive foods and frozen foods are now also packaged in paper. Soon there will even be mozzarella packaging made of paper.
Paper is basically an environmentally friendly packaging material. But mozzarella in paper packaging – that’s silly. Either the mozzarella packaging fulfills its technical purpose, or it is made of paper – the two are mutually exclusive. Since plastic packaging in Central Europe is either recycled or thermally recovered, I see no reason to replace it per se or even to reduce it. Electricity and district heating are produced from plastic waste in modern waste incineration plants. This saves oil and gas.
But why do companies do this?
Everyone has mental images of littered seas and beaches. The packaging industry is under considerable media and political pressure. The paper trend comes out of this need. Speaking from a technological standpoint, there is no reason to replace plastic with paper. But I have nothing against alternative packaging materials and nothing against unpackaged goods. I just object to the blanket statement that plastic packaging is fundamentally harmful. Switzerland and Germany are doing it right – they have a regulated waste disposal system. The situation is different in some EU countries. The EU requirements, whether the introduction of reusable packaging or plastic reduction, are mainly to accommodate countries that have poor disposal systems.
The EU has already banned some single-use plastic products. You don't think this makes sense?
Member states of the EU are in completely different positions when it comes to waste disposal, and therefore completely different measures are required. In northern countries, as I said, the combination of recycling and incineration works almost perfectly. In many Southern EU countries, on the other hand, the situation is catastrophic. There, the waste is left to rot in open landfills. Imposing the same measures on all member states makes about as much sense as an optician prescribing the same glasses to all their customers.
But if uniformity must be enforced at all costs, then the EU should also require member states with problematic waste disposal systems to recycle their waste – for example, glass, aluminum, paper – and incinerate the non-recyclable remainder. Recycling and incineration rates must increase, and landfilling must stop. However, this is expensive and difficult to implement for these countries. But regulating countries like Germany, where waste causes virtually no problems, more and more instead makes little sense.
In your view, is there really no need for more sustainability?
Yes, there is. Absolutely. There’s a fire and it's burning like a torch. But on the consumption side. If we consume in a more environmentally conscious way, we save far more resources and energy than would be possible by reducing packaging. We need to look at the entire ecological footprint we leave behind in our everyday lives. Eating bratwurst and flying to vacation destinations is much worse ecologically than doing without vegetable foil. By comparison, producing a bratwurst is about 300 times more environmentally damaging than producing and disposing of its packaging. Abolishing plastic packaging would destroy some of the packaged products and thus massively exacerbate the food waste problem, for example. That would be an ecological boomerang.
You're making a lot of noise with your theses. How free is an internationally renowned scientist like you to express this opinion?
We have freedom of expression and I also respect other opinions. But I have already received a fair number of shitstorms from less tolerant fellow citizens. In a few years, I will retire and therefore no longer have to take into account the sensitivities of politicians and representatives of the authorities. The avoidance of plastic packaging is politically desirable at the moment. But it is aimed at solving a problem that does not even exist in Switzerland or Germany. And that is what I am addressing.
About the interviewee:
The environmental engineer Rainer Bunge has lived in Switzerland for 30 years – after studying in Germany and the USA. There, he teaches as a professor for environmental and process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Eastern Switzerland. The renowned expert for waste management was the winner of the Swiss Environmental Award in 2005.