Science Gazette

Reducing plastic trash will need a cultural shift

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Plastic trash is regarded as one of the most serious environmental issues of our day. Consumers in Germany were polled by IASS researchers regarding their usage of plastic packaging. To make zero-waste shopping the norm, their study suggests that fundamental changes in infrastructures and lifestyles, as well as cultural and economic transformation processes, are required.

96 percent of Germans believe that reducing packaging waste is vital. Nonetheless, since 2009, Germany’s private end usage of packaging has been steadily increasing. The quantity of plastic packaging garbage created by end customers in Germany has more than quadrupled since 1997, reaching 3.2 million tons in 2018. Packaging consumption in Germany was much greater than the European average of 174 kilograms per capita, at 228 kilograms per capita.

“Recycling simply addresses the symptoms of the plastic epidemic, not the underlying cause, garbage creation. We wanted to understand more about the difficulties that people in Germany face when it comes to lowering their daily usage of plastic food and beverage packaging. A total of 40 people participated in four focus groups as part of our research effort “explains Jasmin Wiefek, the study’s principal author.

The researchers identified twelve hurdles to lowering plastic packaging usage based on their study of the discussions:

Habits: Rather than markets or zero-waste stores, the focus group members prefer to buy at supermarkets or discounters. The majority of participants did not bring their own bags or containers to the grocery store, according to the debate. Foods that have been processed or packed are popular.

Participants were often unsure whether forms of packaging are more sustainable than others, according to the study.

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Hygiene: Participants expressed concerns about the sanitary qualities of openly accessible displays of unpacked items, the usage of self-brought packing, and long-term reusable packaging choices in general throughout discussions.

Plastic packaging was often selected by participants owing to its material qualities (e.g., lightweight, shatterproof, tear-resistant).

Responsibilities: Several participants mentioned how their attempts to use less plastic packaging conflicted with their everyday priorities. One example offered was that parents do not want their children to carry heavy backpacks, thus they prefer to use plastic bottles instead of glass bottles.

Price: Plastic-wrapped foods are often less expensive than non-wrapped groceries.

Availability: Most supermarket and discounter foods are only accessible in plastic packaging by default, giving participants the impression that they have little option.

Diffusion of responsibility: Participants agreed that both people and industry share responsibility for resolving the “plastic problem”: On the one hand, industry must provide answers since it is responsible for so many things being packed in plastic. They did emphasize, however, that people should buy more carefully and avoid items packaged in plastic.

Reachability and infrastructure: Participants indicated that zero-waste stores and weekly markets were difficult to find and took more time and effort than local supermarkets or discounters to get there.

Time and time structures: Another major impediment to plastic-free shopping is time. Accessing zero-waste businesses and marketplaces would take extra time for most individuals due to the travel distances required. Participants noted that shopping would take longer if they filled their own containers with food, and that the containers would then need to be cleaned. They also said that unprocessed meals take longer to prepare.

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Convenience: Participants said that taking their own containers to the store is cumbersome since it forces them to either carry the containers to work and return or go out again.

Consumer Culture: When it came to buying, the participants reported that they did not place a high value on the availability of a “broad selection of items.” Many people, however, emphasized the significance of being able to discover certain goods in stores with confidence. This results in an indirect demand for a broad variety of items, which is difficult to provide for zero-waste/low-plastic businesses. Focus group discussions also revealed that our lifestyle of spontaneous and on-the-go consuming makes reducing packing challenging. Many of the participants were unaware that non-regional and non-seasonal goods, which we eat on a daily basis, must be packed to maintain their freshness throughout long distance transportation.

“Our findings demonstrate that avoiding plastic packaging now requires a significant amount of effort and expertise on the part of consumers. We will need to adjust necessary infrastructures, economic incentives, and political framework circumstances if we want to make low-waste items and commodities without single-use plastic packaging the cheapest and most convenient choice “Katharina Beyerl, project leader and co-author, says. Simply encouraging people to buy solely at zero-waste retailers would not accomplish the aim of decreasing the usage of plastic packaging. Rather, it requires fundamental socioeconomic and behavioral adjustments, as well as a cultural revolution.

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