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Why organic cucumbers are often wrapped in plastic – Let’s talk about packaging!

It seems like a paradox. You stand in front of the vegetable shelf in the supermarket and want to choose the organic version, but it is wrapped in plastic. The best example of this is the cucumber comparison: conventional cucumbers are usually unpackaged, while organic cucumbers are wrapped in plastic film. As a consumer, you often find yourself at a loss in the vegetable aisle, trying to decide which is the more environmentally friendly option. And at the same time, you feel like you’re being taken for a ride, because you actually want to consume in an environmentally conscious way, but you can’t even buy organic with a clear conscience because of the plastic packaging. Right?

In reality, the world of packaging is often much more complex than we consumers generally think. The widespread assumption is as follows: Plastic is bad, paper is good and glass is great. Unfortunately, this cannot be said across the board.

The infamous plastic packaging

The widespread attitude towards plastic packaging is: we don’t want it, get rid of it! Plastic is known to be a polluter and should be avoided in the name of climate-friendly virtue. However, plastic packaging often performs better in life cycle assessments than its supposedly environmentally friendly alternatives.

Let’s stick with the example of the cucumber. An Austrian study by denkstatt found that unpackaged cucumbers spoil much faster than cucumbers wrapped in plastic. In view of the high waste rates of cucumbers in retail, the benefit of avoiding waste is many times greater than the environmental damage caused by the packaging.
This is because product protection can make a significant contribution to reducing our ecological footprint, especially when it comes to food. Plastics protect food from spoilage and damage and, given that a third of all food produced is wasted, choosing the right packaging is essential. This is because food production requires enormous resources and the environmental impact of packaging that protects a product from spoilage is much lower than if the product is thrown away and the resources used for production were for nothing.

Various vegetables in plastic packaging

In view of its surprising results, another denkstatt study criticizes the heated debate about plastic bags: The consumption of plastic bags by an Austrian consumer is equivalent to the environmental impact of 13 kilometers driven by car. Surprisingly little, isn’t it?
This is not to relativize the impact of packaging waste and its criticism, but it must also be questioned whether the debates we are focusing on in the context of climate change are really of such great relevance. We must inevitably ensure that plastic is returned to the recycling cycle so that it does not end up in the environment, and more efficient packaging systems must be developed and promoted. But in view of the results of the study, the question arises as to whether we should be discussing driving and heating rather than plastic bags in the supermarket.

Glass vs. plastic: which is more environmentally friendly?

Glass packaging enjoys a green image: those who choose glass packaging are supposedly choosing the environmentally friendly alternative. But unfortunately this is not always true.

Various glass containers

The fact is that glass production is very energy-intensive and uses finite raw materials such as quartz sand. At the same time, fossil raw materials such as crude oil are also used in a chemical process to produce plastics.

Despite its good recyclability, glass has a very poor ecological balance when used only once (disposable glass). Only through reusable use (up to 50 times) does glass become climate-friendly packaging. A reusable PET bottle requires less energy to produce, but can only be refilled 25 times compared to a reusable glass bottle. However, because they are lighter than glass bottles, their energy consumption during transportation is significantly lower, which is why reusable PET systems are more environmentally friendly than reusable glass systems. A single-use PET bottle has the worst eco-balance, as 100% of it can be returned to the recycling plant, but only a small proportion can be used to produce new bottles due to the loss of quality of the resulting plastic granulate. Only 25% of the recycled material can be used for the production of new PET bottles, with new plastic being used for the rest.

PET- bottles

Reusable glass bottles are considerably heavier than plastic bottles, which leads to higher CO2 emissions during transportation. The further away the sales and bottling locations are, the worse the environmental footprint of glass bottles. For products such as milk, where there are only a few filling points, beverage cartons are therefore often the best choice from an environmental point of view. Overall, the closer the beverage is produced to its point of sale, the more environmentally friendly the use of reusable glass bottles is.

When buying glass bottles, consumers should make sure to choose regional suppliers or widely available bottle shapes, so-called pool bottles. Pool bottles are used by various bottlers and their regional distribution can reduce transportation routes and CO2 emissions.

Bottom line

The debate around packaging is often the focus of climate issues, but it is important to remember that packaging is responsible for only 1% of our total footprint. In contrast, our consumption (~25%), heating (~18%), food (~15%), and driving (~14%) are the main contributors to our environmental footprint. Of course, the debate about packaging and in particular the question of the most environmentally friendly packaging continues to be highly relevant. However, it must be noted that packaging has many functions to perform and that packaging that is perceived as environmentally friendly is often more harmful to the environment in reality than its good reputation suggests. As a consumer, it is difficult to recognize which packaging is the most environmentally friendly choice in which case, which is why companies in particular have a duty to design packaging in an environmentally friendly way and to inform and educate consumers about it. This also applies to organic cucumbers packaged in plastic.

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