Headline: Can a voluntary approach reduce packaging waste?

In keeping with the aims of the Waste Prevention Programme, many consumers already use reusable bags.
In keeping with the aims of the Waste Prevention Programme, many consumers already use reusable bags. Shutterstock/j.chizhe

Germany's first Waste Prevention Programme was adopted by the federal government in 2013. According to Section 33 (9) of the Circular Economy Act, programmes must be reviewed every six years and revised, if necessary. In early January 2021, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety published an updated Waste Prevention Programme titled “Treasure Not Trash” (an information brochure in English is available here).

The Waste Prevention Programme addresses different aspects of waste management and the waste industry. This blog post considers the relevance of the Waste Prevention Programme for packaging.

The Circular Economy Act prioritizes efforts to prevent waste within its waste hierarchy. The Packaging Act (VerpackG) is intended to "regulate the actions of affected parties in such a way that packaging waste is avoided as a matter of priority and, in addition, is prepared for reuse or recycled" (Section 1 (1), Packaging Act).  Waste prevention is also referred to in the Waste Prevention Programme as the "Leitmotif of German waste law".

However, it is important to note that the Waste Prevention Programme is not a law; rather, it is an instrument developed to heighten awareness of this issue among consumers. As Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulz writes in her foreword:  "[The programme] identifies the goals of the Federal Government's environmental policy on waste prevention and appeals to citizens' sense of responsibility. As a programme, it does not and cannot establish legally binding obligations, but it can help to heighten environmental awareness."

The programme is divided into numerous sections and recommends a variety of measures that can be implemented by the Federal Government, the Länder (the states) and cities, consumers, economic actors, and in trade and industry. This blog post focuses on those measures included in the programme that touch on issues around packaging waste.

Nudging

An entire section of the Waste Prevention Programme is dedicated to "nudging" effects. The term nudging is explained in the programme as referring to instruments which "... gently prepare[s] the ground for people to take alternative courses of action, using positive stimuli rather than rules or bans" and has its origins in the field of behavioural psychology.

  • Länder and local authorities could provide employees with access to glasses, carafes, and water dispensers at their facilities and in official canteens.
  • Restaurants and canteens are called on provide reusable solutions rather than disposable tableware, to use salt & pepper shakers rather than sachets, and to provide reusable packaging/containers for food to be eaten on the go.
  • Manufacturers and businesses should position "environmentally friendly products" where customers can easily access them and make unpackaged goods more affordable. Retailers are encouraged to ask customers whether they wish to use their own bag, backpack or box to transport their purchase.

In my opinion, some of the recommendations listed in an omnibus fashion in the section do not actually qualify as 'nudging' measures. One example is the recommendation to consumers to: "critically examine each product before buying it and scrutinize whether it is really required".

Online shopping

Sustainable online shopping figures prominently in the programme as an important opportunity for waste prevention. The use of oversized packaging, filler materials, and packaging waste from returns are some of the issues highlighted by the programme.

  • The measures proposed by the federal government do not specifically target packaging; rather, their focus is on improving the overall sustainability of online shopping. Some of these measures may also be relevant to packaging and include efforts to improve the availability of product-related environmental information on online retail platforms, raising consumer awareness of the effects of returns on waste volumes, and developing Blue Angel Award criteria for climate-neutral delivery services.
  • Consumers should be encouraged to use "virtual fitting rooms" (these allow consumers to upload an image to a platform and "preview" the fit of garments online before purchasing) or bricks-and-mortar retailers if they are uncertain of their clothing size. Where possible consumers should bundle multiple orders to save on packaging.
  • Business actors could avoid unnecessary waste by using reusable packaging or bundling orders and minimize additional waste by using stable shipping packaging such as cardboard boxes. In addition, retailers are encouraged to charge return fees in order to reduce the volume of (often flawless) returned products.

Packaging

The Waste Prevention Programme notes that shifts in consumer behaviour have driven an increase in packaging consumption and identifies factors such as service packaging for to-go products, pre-packaged food products, smaller households using smaller packaging sizes, and pre-portioned products as significant sources of packaging waste.
 

  • The federal government will develop measures to strengthen waste prevention within the framework of the Packaging Act, including a strengthening of the share of reusable packaging for beverages.
  • Länder and local authorities are encouraged to use public procurement to "support products that use less packaging or reusable systems". Local authorities could provide consumers with an overview of shops offering unpackaged goods in their areas.
  • Consumers can avoid single-use packaging, use cloth bags and reusable containers and nets, or buy unpackaged goods (for example, in zero waster food shops and supermarkets, switching to reusable beverage containers, drinking tap water, buying food in large packages, choosing refillable packaging, avoiding to-go foodstuffs with extra packaging).
  • Business actors are encouraged to prioritize the introduction of reusable systems and unpackaged products, the development of more sustainable and recyclable products, and so-called "smart labelling". Restaurants and cafés, the programme suggests, should offer tap water in glass carafes and reusable containers for on-the-go dining.
  • Waste prevention should also figure more prominently in education. On the one hand, school pupils and pre-schoolers should learn about the advantages of reusable packaging for food and beverages brought from home, and on the other hand, study programmes in fields such as design and logistics should explore waste prevention in connection with packaging design.

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The development and adoption of the Waste Prevention Programme is an important statutory duty. This latest revision serves to highlight the importance of waste prevention and reduction across a range of areas. However, there is little reason to believe that the programme will deliver new and innovative ideas or improve the enforcement of the proposed measures, for example.

The Waste Prevention Programme highlights the potentials of "low-waste products", "zero-waste shops", "packaging free shopping" and "environmentally-friendly packaging", but does not address the real question, which is whether consumers have adequate access to such goods and services.

The programme also shifts a large part of the responsibility for waste prevention to consumers and expects retailers to prioritize and promote unpackaged products and items with less packaging, without offering any incentives for them to do so.

The programme repeats itself in many places and includes references to measures that are already implemented in law. For example, legislation already foresees a ban on offering disposable cutlery as early as July 2021. In addition, the latest amendment to the Packaging Act includes provisions for new regulations to improve the uptake of reusables in the "to-go"/"takeaway" sector.

In my opinion, many of the measures put forward in the programme as suggestions or "nudges" fall within the scope of extended producer responsibility as defined in the Circular Economy Act and the Packaging Act. Reducing measures included in the programme to the status of voluntary actions threatens to dilute the standards of extended producer responsibility.

The Waste Prevention Programme plainly reveals the deficits in waste management in Germany: on the one hand, the Packaging Act focuses on recycling, and goes so far as to include statutory quotas; on the other hand, it takes a relatively weak approach to waste prevention and reuse, both of which rank higher in the waste hierarchy. Instead, suggestions for promoting the prevention of waste and, to a large extent, on promoting reuse systems are only set in the Waste Prevention Programme, an instrument of a non-binding nature. At present, the Packaging Act includes statutory quotas for recycling ((Section 16(2), Packaging Act), a non-binding target of 70 % for reusable beverage packaging ((Section 1(3), Packaging Act) and no fixed target or mandatory quotas for waste prevention.

Nevertheless, the programme plays a significant role in stimulating debate on waste prevention, which could help to raise awareness and lead to more concrete binding measures in the months and years ahead.

Comments

Helmut Schmidt am 08.02.2021 - 17:11

Die Mehrwegquote bei Getränkeverpackungen ist von 72% in 1990 auf 42 % in 2020 gefallen, obwohl als Ziel >70% angegeben ist! Das zeigt doch: Mit unverbindlichen Zielvorgaben und freiwilligen Selbstverpflichtungen sind Abfallvermeidungsziele nicht zu erreichen. Wo bleibt der Mut bei der Politik, wirklich nachhaltige Wege zu beschreiten?

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