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The packaging iceberg

  • 2014-12-03
  • By Janny Ramakers

RIGA - The average Baltic citizen produces 300 to 400 kilos of garbage per year, amounting to 2.5 million tonnes of waste per year for the three Baltic States combined.  One-third of this municipal waste consists of packaging materials: cardboard boxes, plastic bags, disposable cups, Styrofoam protectors, wooden pallets and cellophane wraps that temporarily cover the products we buy.

Packaging has a very short useful life. Plastic carrier bags, for instance, have an average lifespan of 10 to 30 minutes - the time it takes to walk home from the store. After this, they take several centuries to break down. And we use about 100 billion of them per year in the EU.

Food Packaging Waste
Enough reason for the Latvian environmental NGO “homo ecos:” to launch the campaign “Uzmanibu! #Maisbergs!”  - a pun on the Latvian words maisins  (plastic bag) and aisbergs (iceberg). The campaign encourages consumers to reduce the amount of packaging they buy and to recycle as much as possible.

“We first started thinking about this problem last year, when we were campaigning against food waste,” homo ecos: campaign manager Agita Pusvilka recalls. “We found that consumers can easily make an effort to reduce the amount of food they waste, but they cannot influence the amount of packaging they take home from the supermarket.”
In Latvia alone, (food) packaging accounts for 210 thousand tonnes of garbage per year - 90% of which is not recycled, but simply dumped in landfills. One of the goals of the Maisbergs campaign is therefore to educate consumers about waste separation. In most Baltic cities, it is possible to separate paper, plastic, PET bottles, aluminum cans and glass. But many consumers are uninformed about recycling rules and the locations of recycling bins.

“During our research we realized how many problems there still are when it comes to recycling,” Pusvilka says. Many packages are made from a combination of materials, such as foil-lined plastic candy wrappers. These are impossible to recycle, and inevitably end up in landfills.  “No wonder that we received so many questions from consumers. We are working with several waste management companies to provide answers. But the situation is different in every municipality.”

At the moment, Latvia recycles only 9% of its waste, Lithuania is even worse at 5%, while Estonia is making a reasonable effort at 20%. Experts believe that up to 90% of our municipal waste could potentially be recycled, if properly collected and processed.

The European Commission is committed to getting the percentage of waste recycled up from a EU-wide average of 42% in 2012 to 50% in 2020. With their campaign “Generation Awake”, launched in 2011, they hope to improve resource efficiency in all member states. This year they are calling attention to garbage, with the slogan “Turn waste into a resource”. Projects and events are being organized all over Europe, educating consumers about the three R’s of waste reduction: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.

Although household waste is perhaps the most visible part of the problem, most packaging waste is actually produced outside the home. Before reaching the consumer, products have already journeyed around the globe, and they have been covered in packaging at every step.  

Packaging experts distinguish between sales packaging (the box the consumer finds in the supermarket), secondary packaging (keeping multiple products together) and transit packaging (pallets and crates used during transport). Unfortunately, there is no data for the Baltics, but a study from the USA shows that American industry produces 150 million tonnes of packaging waste annually, dwarfing the US household output of 3 million tonnes.

Of course, packaging does have its merits. It makes transport easier, keeps food fresh, whole and hygienic, and allows the producer to promote their product and list ingredients. But the sheer tonnage of waste ending up in landfills and incinerators, combined with the scarcity of source materials make it crucial for producers to start taking responsibility.
Fortunately, environmentally friendly alternatives such as recycled cardboard and bioplastics are slowly gaining momentum in the Baltics. And some retailers are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. Dace Valnere, spokesperson for Rimi, Latvia’s biggest supermarket chain, declares: “Rimi collects all primary packaging (paper, cardboard, wood, plastic, metal) for recycling, and we are working on reducing the volumes of logistical packaging: for instance by replacing single-use carton or film packaging with standard, reusable plastic boxes.”

Homo ecos:’s Agita Pusvilka: “We are happy with the changes we are seeing, but we would like producers and supermarkets to do much more. They should offer the shopper the chance to choose paper or plastic, for instance, or to buy bulk products with no packaging at all.”

Dutch journalist Janny Ramakers lives in Riga and works for the Latvian NGO ‘homo ecos:’ which educates people about sustainability and promotes a greener lifestyle.