Plastic waste is considered one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. IASS researchers surveyed consumers in Germany about their use of plastic packaging. Their research reveals that fundamental changes in infrastructure and lifestyles, as well as in cultural and economic transformation processes, are needed to make zero waste shopping the norm.
96% of the German population consider it important to reduce packaging waste. Nonetheless, private final consumption of packaging in Germany has steadily increased since 2009. With 3.2 million tonnes in 2018, the amount of plastic packaging waste generated by final consumers in Germany has more than doubled. since 1997. At 228 kilograms per capita, packaging consumption in Germany was significantly higher than the European average of 174 kilograms per capita.
“Recycling only addresses the symptoms of the plastic crisis and does not address the root cause, the production of waste itself. We wanted to learn more about the barriers that prevent individuals in Germany from reducing their daily consumption of plastic packaging for food and drink. For our research project, a total of 40 participants contributed to the discussions in four focus groups, ”explains Jasmin Wiefek, lead author of the study.
In their analysis of the discussions, the researchers identified twelve obstacles to reducing the consumption of plastic packaging:
- Habits: Focus group participants buy primarily from supermarkets or discounters rather than markets or zero waste stores. The discussion also revealed that most participants do not take their own bags or containers when shopping. Processed and packaged foods are popular.
- Lack of knowledge: Researchers observed that participants often did not know which types of packaging are more durable than others.
- Hygiene: Discussions revealed that participants had reservations about the hygienic properties of freely accessible displays of unpackaged products, the use of self-brought packaging, and long-term reusable packaging options in general.
- Material properties: Participants often preferred plastic packaging because of its material properties (eg, light weight, shatterproof, tear resistant).
- Priorities: Several participants described how their efforts to use less plastic packaging collided with other priorities in their daily lives. An example given is that parents do not want to carry heavy backpacks for their children and therefore prefer to use plastic rather than glass bottles.
- Price: In general, plastic-wrapped groceries are more affordable than non-plastic groceries.
- Availability: By default, most groceries offered in supermarkets and discounters are only available in plastic packaging, so participants felt they had little choice.
- Diffusion of responsibilities: According to participants, both individuals and industry have a responsibility to solve the “plastic problem”: On the one hand, because industry is responsible for the fact that so many products are packaged in plastic , it must propose solutions. However, they also stressed that consumers should buy more consciously and avoid products in plastic packaging.
- Accessibility and infrastructure: Participants noted that places such as zero waste stores or weekly markets were difficult to reach and required more time and effort to access than local supermarkets or discounters.
- Time and Time Frameworks: Time is another critical barrier to plastic-free shopping. Because of the distances involved, accessing zero waste stores and markets would take longer for most people. Participants noted that shopping would also take longer if they filled food into their own containers and that the containers would need to be cleaned afterwards. They also noted that preparing unprocessed foods takes longer.
- Convenience: Participants reported that they found it inconvenient to bring their own containers to stores, as it required them either to carry the containers to work and back, or to go out twice.
- Consumer Culture: Participants said they don’t attach much importance to having a “wide range of products” available when shopping. However, many stressed the importance of reliably finding specific products in stores. This translates into an indirect demand for a wide range of products, which is difficult to implement for zero waste / low plastic retailers. Discussions in focus groups also showed that our culture of spontaneous and nomadic consumption makes it difficult to reduce packaging. Many participants were unaware that non-regional and non-seasonal foods, which we routinely consume every day, need to be packaged to keep their freshness during long-distance transport.
“Our results show that at present, a lot of effort and knowledge is needed for consumers to avoid plastic packaging. If we are to make products with low waste and products without single-use plastic packaging. the cheapest and most practical option, we will have to change the relevant infrastructure, economic incentives and political framework conditions, “says project manager and co-author Katharina Beyerl. The goal of reducing the use of Plastic packaging will not be achieved by simply asking consumers to shop exclusively at zero waste stores, instead it requires fundamental changes in societal structures and lifestyles as well as a cultural shift.
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Materials provided by Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies eV (IASS). Note: Content can be changed for style and length.