Is packaging really such a major environmental issue? There's no simple way to answer this question. We must consider the entire life cycle of packaging, understand its purpose and look at what the packaging contains. Because what's inside the packaging matters more than the packaging itself.
gebana customers repeatedly confront us with the issue of packaging and and what gebana's views are on the subject. Another issue that's raised almost as frequently is that of reusable packaging or shipping boxes that can be returned.
We decided to address these concerns once more and conducted a short survey to determine whether reusable packaging makes sense for an online retail business. And the result, in a nutshell, is that we'll be carrying on as before. After all, the contents of the packaging and how they are produced have a far greater environmental impact than the packaging itself. We explain this in more detail below.
Packaging requires resources. For cardboard, this includes wood fibres and, depending on where the cardboard is produced, more than two-thirds recycled paper. For plastics, the primary resource is crude oil.
Today, every second tree that is felled is used to create paper fibre, even though recycled paper makes up a large percentage of the raw materials used in paper and cardboard production – in Germany, for example, the use of recycled paper increased from 49 to 79 per cent between 1990 and 2020. Every year, around 400 million tonnes of paper and cardboard are produced in this way.
Because trees are a renewable resource, paper still has a favourable image. But a significant percentage of paper fibres is derived from monocultures or rainforests which are clear-cut and then reforested. And even today, trees from old-growth forests in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia still end up being used in paper production.
Meanwhile, plastic packaging uses 10 per cent of the world's crude oil. And according to forecasts made by the industry, this figure is set to rise sharply as demand for petrol and diesel is expected to fall. As a result, major oil companies are already investing heavily in the expansion of the petrochemical sector, an industry that supplies the raw materials for plastics and, up until now, only accounted for a small part of oil production. This controversial trend is likely to lead to the creation of even more plastic waste.
At the end of its life cycle, packaging becomes waste and an environmental scourge. Most packaging is single use, meaning it is thrown away after use. As long as we recycle our waste – a far less viable solution for plastics than for paper or cardboard – or incinerate it in a modern waste incineration plant, we can limit the environmental impact.
But sadly this is not the case in many countries. Consequently, huge amounts of plastic end up in our environment, especially in the oceans, where they drift around for years without ever decomposing. Animals that eat these bits of plastic become infertile, suffer from deformities or die. In addition, these plastics slowly break down into tiny particles known as microplastics.
Projects to remove plastic waste from our oceans have so far only yielded moderate success. According to recent findings, these garbage patches not only pose a threat to marine life, but have also become a habitat for numerous marine animals. As a result, removing the plastic from the oceans could endanger these animals. This presents us with a real dilemma, one of our own making.
So it's hardly surprising that microplastics are cropping up virtually everywhere: in fish, in sea salt, in soil and in our drinking water. In other words, these plastics end up on our plates. We still don't fully understand the potential health risks, but there is strong evidence that microplastics contain hazardous substances such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals that affect our hormones.
Given the problems that packaging causes throughout its life cycle, it's best we do away with it altogether. But it's not quite that simple. Packaging makes it possible to transport products and protects them from contamination and damage. For example, if we at gebana were to transport our cashews in containers without any packaging, the risk of contamination would be high, and it would be virtually impossible to prevent an insect infestation. Entire containers could end up as food waste, which would be far worse than the resources required for the packaging.
Still, to ensure that we keep the resources required to a minimum, we package 73.6 per cent of our products just once, directly at the source. And it's in this packaging that our customers receive their products. Our cashews and dried fruits are packaged in plastic. And the reason for this is simple: we haven't yet found a viable alternative. More on this below.
If we're going to discuss packaging, we also have to consider what's inside the packaging. More specifically, the way in which the package contents are produced. Is the product grown organically or conventionally? Are mechanised tools used? Do the fields need to be irrigated? The list of factors that impact the environmental footprint of our food production is long. According to a comprehensive analysis of the Swiss market carried out by ESU-services, packaging accounts for just 1 per cent of our food's environmental impact.
It is important that we reduce unnecessary packaging. And it is the right thing to do. We also need to ensure that packaging waste doesn't pollute our ecosystems. However, we should not let ourselves be distracted by the emotionally-charged issue of packaging waste, because the biggest impact is created elsewhere. The best way to eat greener and protect the environment is to focus on a predominantly plant-based diet, opt for seasonal produce and avoid food waste.
Our bulk packages already minimise the amount of packaging relative to the products inside. For instance, the plastic foil for 1 kilo of cashew nuts weighs just 20 grams. We've also kept our packaging really simple.
For our boxes, we use materials with over 80 per cent recycled content and the virgin fibres are FSC or PEFC certified. While these labels can't provide an absolute guarantee of sustainable forest management, this is currently the best available option on the market.
In addition, we continually evaluate our environmental footprint, paying particular attention to issues related to sustainability. For example, we recently compared our single-use cardboard boxes with reusable cardboard boxes and returnable plastic containers. The result: returning cardboard boxes is not worthwhile from an environmental point of view. The moment our customers reuse their single-use cardboard box at home, it already outperforms a reusable box that is transported back and forth by lorry and used twice. Plastic containers on which a deposit is paid fare a little better, but only once they've been used more than 100 times.
The best way for you to create a positive impact on the environment is to eat greener. This means reducing your consumption of meat and dairy products, eating produce that's in season and avoiding food waste.
As for gebana's cardboard boxes, just re-purpose them a few times. You could use them to tidy up your storage space, package a gift, or for crafting. And once the box has reached the end of its usefulness, recycle it.
The industry likes to sell bioplastics as a viable solution since they are meant to be biodegradable. But these plastics made from renewable raw materials are problematic:
For all these reasons, we've chosen to keep using polyethylene (PE) for our packaging foils. We believe this is the best solution available at this time.
Greenpeace Zero Waste, https://www.greenpeace.ch/de/erkunden/zero-waste/ (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
https://www.ipsos.com/de-de/konsumenten-erwarten-nachhaltige-verpackungen (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Global Paper industry, https://www.statista.com/topics/1701/paper-industry/#dossierKeyfigures (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Aus Wäldern wird Papier, https://www.wwf.de/themen-projekte/waelder/papierverbrauch/zahlen-und-fakten (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Wo unser Papier wächst, https://www.robinwood.de/sites/default/files/Wo%20unser%20Papier%20w%C3%A4chst_Nov-2018_digital.pdf (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Kahlschlag im Urwald für unser WC-Papier, https://www.srf.ch/sendungen/kassensturz-espresso/kahlschlag-im-urwald-fuer-unser-wc-papier (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Lieber Plastik als Zapfsäule, https://www.handelsblatt.com/unternehmen/energie/oelkonzerne-lieber-plastik-als-zapfsaeule-die-oelmultis-aendern-ihr-geschaeftsmodell/22700236.html (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Kunststoffrecycling – die Lösung für das Plastikproblem? https://www.umweltberatung.at/kunststoffrecycling-und-plastikproblem (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Wie viel Müll schwimmt in den Meeren? https://www.wwf.de/themen-projekte/plastik/unsere-ozeane-versinken-im-plastikmuell/plastikmuell-im-meer-die-wichtigsten-antworten#:~:text=Wie%20viel%20M%C3%BCll%20schwimmt%20in,entspricht%20einer%20Lastwagenladung%20pro%20Minute. (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Mikroplastik, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikroplastik (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Je mehr Abfall, desto mehr Leben, https://www.spektrum.de/news/muellstrudel-je-mehr-abfall-desto-mehr-leben/2016706 (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Plastik in Fisch und Meeresfrüchten, https://www.greenpeace.de/publikationen/20191229-greenpeace-report-plastik-fisch-meeresfruechte.pdf (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Mikroplastik in Fleur de Sel und Meersalz, https://www.schwarzerpfeffer.de/belastung-mit-plastik-fleur-de-sel-und-meersalz/ (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Plastik im Boden – eine unbekannte Gefahr, https://www.umweltnetz-schweiz.ch/themen/umweltschutz/3305-plastik-im-boden-eine-unbekannte-gefahr.html (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Mikroplastik – ein Problem für unsere Gewässer? https://www.sg.ch/umwelt-natur/wasser/eingetaucht--wasserwissen/mikroplastik---ein-problem-fuer-unsere-gewaesser-.html (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Bioplastik, https://www.wwf.de/themen-projekte/landwirtschaft/bioenergie/bioplastik (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Mehr Bioplastik führt nicht zwingend zu mehr Klimaschutz, https://www.uni-bonn.de/de/universitaet/presse-kommunikation/presseservice/archiv-pressemitteilungen/2018/329-2018 (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Mikroplastik zieht Schadstoffe an, https://www.eu-umweltbuero.at/inhalt/mikroplastik-zieht-schadstoffe-an (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Mikroplastik: Eine Gefahr für die Gesundheit – ein Blick in die menschliche Zelle, https://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/343/mikroplastik-eine-gefahr-fuer-die-gesundheit-ein-blick-in-die-menschliche-zelle.pdf (abgerufen am 18.05.2022)
Nachhaltiger Konsum und Reduktionspotenziale für Umweltbelastungen, ESU-services GmbH, 21.5.2019, Auftraggeber: Greenpeace
Screening LCA Einweg- und Mehrwegkarton vs. Mehrweggebinde, Carbotech AG, Juli 2021, Auftraggeber: gebana AG
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Smallholders and local producers harvest and refine products of extraordinary quality worldwide. But for many of these producers there is no adequate or stable market. You can buy directly from these producers via the Access to Market Platform and help them to participate in the market. The principle behind this is crowd ordering – a new trade model whereby a number of consumers order a product together so as to achieve a minimum order quantity. We at gebana support the producers with our know-how, and organise the logistics.
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