Packaging4Future: reducing packaging in the retail sector

Packaging waste is flooding our world and is also causing major problems in Europe. The European states are combating this flood of packaging with the EU Packaging Directive (EUPD), which has been in force since 4 July 2018. The amended law places the onus on manufacturers and retailers in particular, as they are responsible for packaging waste. Consumers, with their partly unecological demands on sales packaging, should not be allowed to shirk their responsibility either. Here are some figures and approaches on how retailers – thanks to their position as an intermediary between manufacturers and consumers – can become breakwaters that slow down this flood of waste. 

Facts and figures on the flood of waste

On average, 502 kg of household waste (so-called municipal waste) was generated per inhabitant of the European Union in 2019. While Denmark tops the list of EU states with 844 kg of household waste per capita and Germany is well above the European average with 609 kg of household waste per capita, Romania brings up the rear in this ranking with just 280 kg of household waste per capita, according to Eurostat.¹ 

Packaging waste accounted for a significant proportion of these household waste quantities: according to Destatis, for example, 72 kg of packaging waste was collected per capita in Germany in 2019 – 4 kg more than in the previous year². Packaging waste includes packaging such as sales packaging, outer packaging, transport packaging and reusable packaging. At 32 kg per capita, so-called light packaging made of plastic, light metals such as aluminium or tinplate, and composite materials accounted for the largest share of packaging waste collected from German private households in 2019. This was followed by glass packaging (23 kg per capita) and packaging made of paper, cardboard and carton (17 kg per capita). 

Disposable and non-recyclable packaging is the problem

Let's stay with Germany as an example for the rest of Europe: of the total 5.9 million tons of packaging waste collected from private consumers in Germany in 2019, 5.6 million tons were handed over to waste treatment plants and recyclers after being sorted. Almost three quarters of this (74% or 4.2 million tons) were recycled. Just 16% of the packaging waste (0.9 million tons) was used to generate energy, i.e. incinerated. Destatis provides a closer look at the whereabouts of packaging waste: for example, of the almost 1.3 million tons of plastic sales packaging – including composite packaging with plastic as the main component – a good 200,000 tons were sent abroad in 2019, 683,200 tons were recycled, and 578,500 tons were incinerated. According to the European Environment Agency³, the pandemic is increasing the amount of plastic packaging waste. And the problem of plastic packaging is more than clear: almost half of it is simply burnt without any additional use because a lot of the packaging is not recyclable. 

These waves of waste can be broken and attenuated

Packaging is largely put on the market by manufacturers and retailers. Already the development and production of unecological packaging unnecessarily costs resources, which are also available to us in limited quantities only. The amended EU Packaging Directive and the national packaging laws adapted to it thus place both manufacturers and retailers under an obligation. The goal is to reduce the amount of packaging waste in Europe so that we move away from a linear throwaway economy towards a circular economy (cradle-to-cradle). 

  • Manufacturers can think again about how they can reduce product packaging – what kind of packaging is absolutely indispensable for maintaining the value of the product and how can the obligation to inform consumers about the product be met? If it is not possible to make the packaging reusable, it would at least help if they could find single-use packaging that can be 100 per cent recycled easily.
  • Retailers can check whether the necessary packaging with which the manufacturers deliver their products for placing on the market is already sufficient for resale purposes. What is more, in consultation with the manufacturers, retailers can design the points of sale in such a way that, for example, packaging becomes unnecessary as a carrier of advertising and/or information on ingredients, use, etc.
  • Consumers can also help reduce packaging waste. On the one hand, they could prefer to buy products with useful, value-preserving packaging. On the other, they could reduce their demands on decorative packaging and buy the economically packaged product whenever they can.

And if retailers become aware of their position as an intermediary between manufacturers and consumers, they can then communicate the usefulness of circular economy-compliant packaging in both directions.

Tips for retailers: how to actively reduce packaging waste


  • Vis-à-vis manufacturers: demand a rethink from manufacturers towards sustainable packaging. Communicate to them the ecological demands of your customers.
  • Vis-à-vis consumers: explain to consumers, i.e. to your customers, why you do not sell unnecessarily or non-ecologically packaged products. Inform them of the characteristics of ecological packaging or even unpackaged products provided by manufacturers who already package their goods in a way that complies with the concept of a circular economy or who no longer package them at all. Tell your customers in detail about the product; this creates customer proximity and trust.

About the author

Freelance journalist Doreen Brumme, a #motherof4 whose work focuses on organic issues, shares her thoughts on how to enjoy a green lifestyle at work, in school and at home via her blog

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