Under the microscope: How dangerous is plastic packaging really?

28/11/2023 | 10 min read
Charlotte Enzelsberger

Unnecessary, hazardous to health, harmful to the climate, exploitative – when it comes to the topic of plastics and plastic packaging, the most negative terms quickly arise in discussions. Images are drawn of landfills and polluted oceans, overloaded supermarket shelves and greedy industry. However, in the heat of the moment, arguments are often made with false truths and myths that do not stand up to close scrutiny. Therefore, in the following article we will provide you with independent figures and facts showing that plastic packaging is better than its reputation. Also that, contrary to popular belief, these can make a significant contribution to a sustainable way of life. 

Why do we actually need plastic and plastic packaging?

Plastics have only been manufactured industrially since 1907. The specific features that set them apart – light, break-proof, temperature-resistant, inexpensive, durable and adaptable – have since led to a triumphant advance around the world. Countless things are made from plastics, from children's toys to food packaging and hospital supplies. In 2021, around 391 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide1 - of which about 21 million tons in Germany.2 The advantages of plastic as a material are particularly clear when it comes to food packaging: Food such as vegetables, dairy products or meat when packaged in plastic last 10 to 25 days longer than unpackaged products. Safe, hygienic packaging prevents food from spoiling prematurely and thus reduces food waste. This is important because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than one-third of all food produced worldwide is wasted today. This waste contributes to eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If only a fraction of this is prevented, tons of CO2e can be saved and the climate protected.  

Wouldn't it also work without plastic packaging?

Despite all the criticism of plastic packaging, it should not be forgotten that a rough rule of thumb applies to food: Only between 3 and 3.5 percent of the packaged food impact on climate is due to its packaging.3 Whoever wants to protect the environment should pay particular attention to buying food that has been produced with low emissions: These are primarily regional and seasonal products. In many cases, it also makes sense to use reusable packaging solutions that can be refilled.  

Are paper and glass more sustainable packaging alternatives?

To say it briefly: Not necessarily, every material has its specific advantages and disadvantages. Glass and paper packaging enjoy a very positive image among the public. But paper is made from wood - extracting and processing wood pollutes the environment just as much as producing other materials. High demand for pulp also contributes significantly to global forest destruction. Because forests in particular bind CO2, they serve as a storage facility for harmful carbon dioxide. Furthermore, extracting fibers and producing pulp is an energy- and resource-intensive process. In addition, supposed paper packaging, such as the popular paper cup, is often covered on both sides with a polyolefin (i.e. plastic) layer. For such packaging, the different materials can hardly be separated from each other after use. Therefore, recycling the products in standard paper recycling plants is usually not possible. 


How sustainable glass packaging is depends largely on its use: Glass bottles usually use more energy to produce than plastic bottles. Due to its high energy consumption and heavier product weight, glass should therefore be used several times to reduce the environmental impact. Being heavier than plastic, glass has a negative impact on the environmental balance, especially over long transport routes. It is therefore important that glass bottles are not transported far. In general, reusable plastics can therefore have a significant CO2e advantage.4 Fun fact: More than 95 percent of all reusable plastic bottles in Europe are currently used in Germany. 

Surely plastic packaging is bad for the health?

Plasticizers, stabilizers and dyes are contained in many plastic products; one of the most discussed substances is bisphenol A (BPA). Plastics based on BPA are easy to process - but studies have shown that BPA is a substance with hormone-like effects. The substance is already banned for baby bottle production. Many responsible packaging producers switched to bisphenol-free production years ago anyway: their products are labeled “BPA-free.” Either way, plastics containing BPA do not play a role in food and beverage packaging.  

What about microplastics?

When health and environmental risks of plastic are discussed, microplastics are always mentioned. Microplastics are plastic parts smaller than five millimeters. Microplastics are created less from plastic packaging and more from car tire abrasion, washing clothes and use in cosmetics. The Federal Institute for Risk Research (BfR) assumes that microplastics in cosmetic products are unlikely to be harmful to health because the particles used in these products are larger than one micrometer. If parts are swallowed, most of them are excreted. From BfR's point of view, it is unlikely that health-relevant amounts of ethylene are released in the gastrointestinal tract. But even if microplastics do not harm the body, for the sake of the environment products that contain small plastic particles should be avoided.  

Isn’t packaging waste a big problem?

High plastic production inevitably brings with it a lot of plastic waste in Europe: In 2020, over 29 million tons of plastic waste were5 generated. In EU countries, an average of around 34 kilograms of plastic packaging waste is generated per inhabitant6 every year. In the EU, a good one-third of these are currently recycled, and by 2050 recycling rates for plastics in all EU member states are expected to rise to at least 55 percent.7 But the necessary disposal infrastructure does not exist in many countries around the world: An estimated 95 percent of plastic waste in the oceans comes from just ten river systems, primarily in densely populated areas of Africa and Asia. Plastic waste is certainly a problem that must be addressed by massively expanding disposal structures. 

Does plastic affect climate change?

Yes, but it is different than most people think! It is true: Plastic production, use and disposal naturally has an environmental impact. Part of this environmental impact is greenhouse gas emission, also expressed in CO2e. But: Every Austrian caused 8.3 tons of CO2e in 2020.8 The vast majority of emissions result from traffic, food production or energy provision.9  

If one looks at total oil consumption (a key driver of CO2 emissions), it can be seen that only four percent of oil consumption goes into plastic production.10 Plastics can therefore often represent a better alternative to other packaging, because their low weight and good product protection help avoid emissions.10  











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