Plastics – Facts & Fiction

Myth 1:
Nobody needs plastic!

Plastics are suitable for a multitude of purposes. The most familiar of these are food and cosmetic product packaging, which we find in supermarkets and use on a daily basis. Plastics can also be found in cars, aircraft, hospitals and medical practices, and without plastic equipment current surgery would be unthinkable. In addition, plastics are employed in the construction industry, for textiles and as housings for electrical devices. This lightweight, low-cost and multifunctional material is utilized in all of these product areas and to a certain extent environment-friendlier alternatives are unavailable.

The advantages of plastics are particularly evident with regard to food packaging. Wrapped in plastic, foods such as vegetables, dairy goods, or meat have a life that is 10 to 25 days longer than loose items. Safe, hygienic packaging thus prevents the premature decay of food and this function is anything but worthless or superfluous. In fact, it is extremely important because according to the nutritional and agricultural organization of the United Nations over a third of all the food produced in the world is currently wasted. Furthermore, numerous studies show that the CO2 footprint emanating from destroyed or spoiled goods far outweighs that from packaging.

Our tip! Avoid food waste and thus save CO2.

„Plastics accompany us in every area of our lives, primarily as packaging, but also in the construction and transport sectors. Plastic packaging prolongs the shelf life of foods and plastic components reduce the weight of both vehicles and aircraft. Consequently, as opposed to most other materials, in all of these applications plastic serves to reduce the volume of CO2 emissions and thus contributes to climate protection!“

Axel Kühner
CEO, Greiner AG

Myth 2:
The biggest problem is our plastic waste!

World population growth and greater international prosperity have resulted in ever-larger volumes of refuse. Above all, waste is a problem in urban regions, but its volume is also increasing worldwide. At the same time, the disposal infrastructure needed to deal with the spiraling mountains of refuse has failed to expand at the same speed and this has led to a global garbage problem.

But what actually constitutes refuse? In Europe, statistics from Eurostat and the European Commission show that household waste represents less than 10 per cent of total refuse (by weight).  Of this figure, only a half is residual waste and consists largely of kitchen scraps and paper. Plastic waste in household refuse only occupies fourth place. Furthermore, in the 27 EU member states slightly more than half of the waste created is recycled.

In global terms, it is estimated that 95 per cent of the plastic waste in the oceans emanates from only ten river systems (primarily in Africa and Asia). This is due to the densely populated costal regions and the lack of disposal systems. Here, plastic waste really is an issue that must be countered through the massive expansion of disposal infrastructure.

Our tip! Waste prevention is the best form of environmental protection.

„We are working very hard to ensure that plastic waste is no longer regarded as worthless refuse. Instead, we want the used plastic to be collected, sorted and recycled, as only thus can it be employed as recyclate in new products. If we succeed, we will have created a resource-protective, circulatory system and in concrete terms, old packaging will be turned into new.“

Manfred Stanek
CEO, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 3:
A ban on plastics would protect the environment!

Less plastic does not automatically mean greater environmental protection. This is because among other aspects, plastic packaging ensures longer food shelf life. This is extremely important, as more than a third of the food produced worldwide is wasted. According to the food and agricultural organization of the United Nations this food waste then accounts for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If only a fraction of these amounts could be prevented, we would save tons of CO2 and thus safeguard the climate.

Amid all the criticism of plastics it should never be forgotten that a rough general rule applies to foods. Namely, that the CO2 emissions from the manufacture of an item of packaging constitute less than 10 per cent of the CO2 emitted during the production of the food itself. Therefore, those wishing to protect the environment should above all take care to purchase foods that have been produced with low levels of emissions. First and foremost, this means regional and seasonal produce.

It should also be noted that whether returnable or non-returnable plastic bottles are involved makes a very large difference for the environment and the environmental balance. Returnable plastic bottles, e.g. for mineral water, lemonade or fruit juice provide a reduction in CO2 emissions of over 50 per cent.

Our tip! When shopping, those seeking to safeguard the environment should bear short transport routes in mind and consume foods that have a limited environmental impact.

„Even if it may initially sound contradictory, plastics protect the environment. They help to save CO2 and as compared to alternative materials such as paper and glass generally demonstrate a superior environmental balance. However, this only applies subject to the premise that the plastics are collected and disposed of correctly.“

Marina Kunaeva
Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility Management, Greiner AG

Myth 4:
Paper packaging is better!

This idea appears to suggest itself, but is not necessarily correct. Forests play a key role in the battle against climate change because trees bind in CO2 and thus act as silos for harmful carbon dioxide. Fewer forests mean less CO2 storage capacity and in addition items such as “paper cups”, which purport to be paper packaging are frequently covered with a polyolefin coating, or in other words a plastic layer. Furthermore, even if it looks like paper, paper packaging often consists of a diverse mixture of differing materials, which following use can barely be separated and generally renders recycling impossible.

For example, in order that paper bags can withstand the weight of purchases weighing several kilograms and not tear, they must be far thicker than standard paper.  Accordingly, they require large amounts of raw material, which in addition has to be chemically treated. Furthermore, the production of a paper bag demands larger volumes of energy and water than its plastic equivalent and this downgrades the environmental balance of the paper. According to the Environmental Action Germany organization, a paper bag must be used at least three times in order to demonstrate the same environmental balance as a plastic bag.

Our tip! Irrespective of whether they are made of paper or plastic, utilize bags repeatedly and do not throw them away after just one use.

„Plastics must compete with other packaging materials such as glass, paper or aluminum. In fact, all of these materials should be employed where they contribute to the most environment-friendly protection of the product. The guideline is this regard must be formed by the so-called environmental balance, which represents a systematic analysis of the environmental impact of products during their entire life cycle. When such analyses are carried out, it is frequently the case that plastics demonstrate a clear advantage.“

Andreas Auinger
International Project Manager, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 5:
Glass packaging is better!

Whether of not this widely held theory is correct depends upon the type of glass bottle employed. During their production, glass bottles consume more energy than their plastic counterparts. Therefore, in order to achieve superior environmental compatibility, repeated use is essential. A returnable glass bottle can be refilled up to 50 times, but is heavier than a plastic bottle and when combined with lengthy transport distances, this extra weight has a negative effect upon the overall environmental balance. Consequently, it is important that glass bottles are not subjected to long-distance forwarding. The closer that the filling and sales locations are, the better the environmental balance of the glass bottle. Indeed, it is only really better for the environment than the plastic version when transportation routes are short.

In addition, it should be noted that new glass is obtainable solely from homogeneous sorted glass, which also applies to all other materials such as plastics, paper or metal. Accordingly, sorting is a prerequisite for recycling and when one views this from an overall perspective, those that do not separate their waste hinder the conservation of the Earth’s resources.

Our tip! When purchasing beverages, consumers should opt for non-returnable, plastic bottles. In the case of returnable bottles, the rule applies that the overall ecological balance is dependent upon the transport distance. Therefore, the closer that the source and the bottler are located, the better the rating of the glass bottle is.

„Today, short transport routes are a rarity. Therefore, glass packaging is seldom more environment-friendly. In general, plastic packaging can point to a superior CO2 balance and in addition to the comprehensive environmental balance, this should serve as the key criterion for environmentally friendly packaging.“

Stefan Ebli
Chief Product Designer, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 6:
Bio-plastics are better!

The term bio-plastics is often employed as a synonym for bio-based, biologically degradable and compostable materials. Therefore, it pays dividends to adopt a differentiated view of this designation and define its diverse facets.

Bio-based plastics differ from conventional plastics, as they are not manufactured from oil or gas, but instead plant material such as maize or sugar cane. However, these agriculturally produced raw materials are not necessarily more environment-friendly. This is owing to the use of water, which is a resource in short supply and pesticides, as this downgrades the environmental balance of bio-based plastics. Equally, the production of agricultural materials like those required for bio-plastics can lead to deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats. This is a major consideration, as agricultural and land use are amongst the most important sources of the greenhouse gases generated by human activity. The Federal German Environment Agency sums up the situation as follows, “Bio-based plastics are far from being more environment-friendly than standard plastics.

Our tip! Be critical and cautious with regard to bio-based bags or other products, which are manufactured from biomass.

„At present, bio-based plastics are not more sustainable, which is a fact demonstrated by the environmental balances of bio-based materials. However, this need not necessarily always remain the case. For example, it will alter once bio-based plastics are manufactured from biological waste. Nevertheless, environmental impact must remain the benchmark and in this respect, for the moment bio-based plastics only offer limited sustainability.“

Bettina Carow
Group Category Manager Plastics, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 7:
Waste sorting does not pay off because everything is incinerated!

No, it is incorrect to say that in general all waste is incinerated. However, it is true that collection, sorting and disposal systems differ according to conurbation and country. Nonetheless, it can be stated that waste separation is always worthwhile and the golden rule applies that only materials, which have been sorted can be subsequently recycled.

According to the Federal German Environment Agency roughly 70 per cent of the nation’s packaging waste is recycled. This sounds like a large amount, but depending upon the material in question, the quota actually varies greatly. Some 90 per cent of paper and cardboard, aluminum and glass are reused, but only around half of the plastic. The most prominent example of success with regard to packaging is provided by PET beverage bottles, which are collected and recycled. The resultant material is then reutilized.

Following sorting, collected plastic packing is employed largely as a material for the manufacture of new products, e.g. plants pots, tubing, canisters, etc. As a rule, non-reusable material is used as an energy source and thus replaces fossil fuels. Plastics that land in the residual waste bins are incinerated and thus lost.

Our tip! Sort to the greatest extent possible. The better our waste separation is, the better is the recycling!

„Waste separation is extremely important. Indeed, the recycling of plastic packaging is largely dependent upon the degree to which we as consumers sort it at home and dispose of it correctly. Separated waste represents a collector’s item of value in the truest sense, both for the environment and everyone of us.“

Lucia Kroiß
Product Group Manager, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 8:
Plastics are a health hazard!

Plastic products contain plasticizers, stabilizers and dyes and one can frequently read about the related health risks. Greiner Packaging products create no risks to humans. Plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA), which for example were utilized in the past for the manufacture of baby bottles, are now no longer employed. In fact, in the meantime they have been banned. Accordingly, baby bottles made of polypropylene are free of plasticizers and therefore do not represent a health hazard. Greiner Packaging actually switched to bisphenol-free production in 2009 and was thus one of the industry’s pioneers.

When the health risks relating to plastics are discussed, microplastics are often the main topic. Plastic fragments measuring less than five millimeters are designated as microplastics and they are found in cleaning and cosmetic products such as toothpastes, shower gels and peelings, etc.  As a manufacturer of rigid packaging, we do not bring any microplastics into circulation.

Our tip! Avoid any products that contain microplastics in liquid or solid form.

„The range of regulations to which we as a packaging manufacturer are subject is enormous, but also most important as it guarantees the safety of plastics. Greiner does not use any dangerous plasticizers and no one need worry that our food packaging constitutes a health hazard.“

Stephan Laske
R&D Director, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 9:
Our entire plastic waste is exported and lands in Asia!

Like waste aluminum, glass and paper, plastic refuse can be traded legally. Plastics are classified as non-hazardous waste and in line with EU statutes can be freely bought and sold. Melted plastic waste flows into new products and therefore trading involving plastic waste is at least not disreputable per se.

Of the total plastic waste produced in Germany, a sixth, or around a million tonnes, is exported abroad.  According to the Federal Ministry for Agriculture, Regions and Tourism, in 2016 Austria generated roughly 60 million tonnes of waste of which 934,900 t were exported. However, 806,200 t of waste were imported. The main destinations for the exported material were neighboring countries with 44 per cent going to Germany, 19 per cent to Slovakia and 14 per cent to the Czech Republic. Germany was the main source of waste imports.

A problem does arise when exported plastic is neither presorted nor cleaned. It is then often the case that recipients in threshold countries merely pick out certain fractions, the reuse of which appears to be lucrative. The remainder is then incinerated under questionable circumstances, dumped on a landfill, or simply tossed into rivers via which it ends up in the sea.

Our tip! Oppose the (largely illegal) export of unsorted plastic waste.

„The export of unsorted plastic waste should be banned. Illegal exports must also be combated more energetically. We are obliged to dispose of and recycle our waste ourselves. Turning poorer countries into our landfill sites is neither acceptable from a moral nor an environmental policy standpoint.“

Alisa Schröer
Project Manager Circular Economy, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 10:
Plastic packaging is to blame for microplastics!

The pollution of the environment and above all the seas is unfortunately not limited to visible littering. Microplastics, which consist of plastic fragments or particles that are smaller than five millimeters, also represent a problem. However, as opposed to the generally held public perception, microplastics derive less from plastic packaging than from car tire abrasion, the washing of clothing and the use of cosmetics.

In 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute confirmed that plastic packaging plays a negligible role as a source of microplastics. Furthermore, the Federal German Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) assumes that the microplastics in cosmetic products do not necessarily constitute a health risk, as the particles employed in these products are larger than a micrometer.  Should such particles be ingested they will be largely excreted via the stool. In the opinion of the BfR, it is also improbable that health-relevant quantities of ethylene emanating from polyethylene microplastic particles (e.g. from peelings) are released into the gastrointestinal tract. Furthermore, the World Health Organization does not regard the microplastic in drinking water as a danger.

Our tip! Avoid products such as cosmetics or cleaning agents that contain microplastics in liquid or solid form. These may not damage the body, but they can harm the environment.

„As consumers, we should refrain from using any products that contain microplastics.“

Dieter Pölz
International Quality System Manager, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 11:
Plastics fuel global warming!

It is correct to say that the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics naturally have an effect upon the environment. CO2 emissions constitute part of this impact and every Austrian causes approximately 8 t of this gas annually. However, markedly less than 1 per cent of this amount can be traced to plastic packaging, as the bulk of such emissions derive from traffic, food production and energy generation. Moreover, if one considers total oil consumption, which is one of the main drivers of CO2 emissions, it again becomes apparent that only a minimal amount is employed for the manufacture of plastics. In fact, plastics account for a mere 4 per cent of oil consumption.

Owing to their lightness and the functional product protection that they provide, plastics help to prevent emissions. If one were to replace plastics with alternative materials such as glass, aluminum and paper, this would lead a 2.7-fold increase in CO2 emissions. Therefore, plastics do not raise emission levels, but instead reduce them through CO2 savings.

Our tip!  Make a start where you can quickly make a difference. Above all, simple measures with respect to heating and transport can lead to a rapid cut in numerous emissions.

„Like virtually all products, the use of plastics generates emissions. However, first and foremost the employment of plastics reduces the discharge of CO2. The protection afforded by packaging prevents food waste and is thus the best example of how plastics can avert agricultural emissions.“

Konrad Wasserbauer
Circular Economy Director, Greiner Packaging International

Myth 12:
Industry is doing nothing!

Together with more than 400 other companies, in 2018 Greiner undertook to complete a dramatic change of course within the framework of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that seeks to accelerate the transition to a cyclical economy. In concrete terms, this initiative, which was founded in 2018, is endeavoring to prevent unnecessary packaging and ensure that by 2025 all plastic packaging will be reused, recycled or composted. Every member company is obliged to establish individual targets and regularly inform the Ellen MacArthur Foundation of the progress achieved.

Greiner Packaging has not only formed its own team that deals with the topic of the cyclical economy, but also the management has placed this issue at the center of the division’s strategic orientation. On every level, the colleagues at Greiner Packaging are working towards the realization of the stated objectives. Products have been so redesigned as to ensure that the company portfolio is recyclable and that recyclate covers a considerable percentage of material consumption.

Our tip! Look closely! A wealth of innovations and measures exist, which lead to more sustainable consumption and above all a higher degree of sustainability with regard to the handling of plastics.

„Our response to the challenges relating to plastic packaging is economic cyclicity. We must and will ensure that our products are recyclable because this is the key to a circular economy. Only that which is recycled can be subsequently reused as a raw material.“

Stefan Grafenhorst
Head of Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility, Greiner AG