Everything you need to know about plastic waste - from waste incineration to bioplastics and recycling quotas
In an interview with Martin Hinteregger, founder of Waste Reduction
Author: House of Eden
The issue of waste is multifaceted and, contrary to what many people believe, tends to be a problem of the global South. The start-up WasteReduction therefore wants to tackle the problem directly in the affected developing countries. The company addresses the so-called plastic pain, a situation that consumers often encounter in the retail sector, and a feeling that describes the powerlessness in the face of plastic waste and global environmental pollution. The founders had experienced exactly this feeling on their travels, when they had to witness how families live among rubbish and how rivers resemble rubbish dumps.
To counter the plastic crisis, Ruth Kranenberg and Martin Hinteregger now enable companies to offer their products and packaging in a plastic-neutral way. Co-founder Martin Hinteregger tells us how this works. He also explains why, in his opinion, plastic avoidance alone is not the solution, why recycled waste is often incinerated, what is behind bioplastics and why the use of plastic in the textile industry is particularly dangerous.
Founder WasteReduction, Ruth Kranenberg and Martin Hinteregger
Waste is a problem, but where exactly is the plastic problem?
You have to look at the problem from two sides: First of all, the problem is primarily in those countries that do not have a functioning waste management system. For example, Southeast Asia is strongly affected by this, which leads to the fact that the largest part of plastic waste worldwide ends up in the sea there. Especially in the monsoon season, the heavy rain carries the light plastic waste into the rivers. This means that in such countries it makes a lot of sense to avoid plastic.
The problem in the DACH region is quite different because we have a very well-functioning waste management here. In Germany, we have a collection rate of 98%. So Germany is not directly responsible for plastic ending up in the oceans. Recently, however, there was the problem that European countries exported a lot of waste. Other countries have discovered this as a lucrative economic sector. Since last year, there are much stricter waste export laws that curb the problem.
WasteReduction helps nature with plastic-neutral products, what exactly do you do?
With plastic compensation, we enable companies and consumers to do something about the plastic crisis. Namely, by protecting nature from the same amount of plastic waste with every plastic neutral product. So our definition of plastic neutral is: participating companies provide WasteReduction with a payment for an offset amount of plastic and we ensure that we offset this amount of other plastic waste for nature. Offsetting happens through a variety of projects - from clean-ups on Philippine beaches to new waste infrastructure in Indonesia, Nepal or Albania.
Source & Copyright by WasteReduction
In order to bring about an improvement in the waste situation in Germany as well, something must change in the awareness and behaviour of many people. That's why we also use WasteReduction to educate and inform children about plastic and nature conservation. For a better material in the future, we finance research and innovation projects. In return for offsetting, companies get our plastic neutral+ label for their offset products. The + describes that we do much more than just compensate. We are about tackling the problem properly here and in developing countries.
Why don't we just use glass or paper?
Because plastic often scores better in the life cycle assessment than alternatives such as glass or paper. Plastic has the potential to save a lot of CO2e. Many people are not aware that a paper or cotton bag has a much worse life cycle assessment than a plastic bag. A paper bag has to be used 4 times to achieve the CO2 footprint of a plastic bag. For a cotton bag it is 70 times without washing it.
The reason for the poorer eco-balance of paper lies in its production. For the production of paper, cellulose fibres have to be softened and then the moisture has to be removed. This is largely done thermally and consumes a lot of energy. This means that there must actually be half a power plant next to every paper mill. It doesn't matter whether the paper is new or recycled. In addition, paper and glass are much heavier than plastic, which makes transport more difficult.
And that's why in many applications it makes no sense at all to do without plastic. Using plastic is usually more environmentally friendly as soon as longer transport distances are involved. Especially in regions with a good waste management system. It often makes more ecological sense to use recycled and above all recyclable plastics for disposable packaging and to compensate for them.
Source & Copyright by WasteReduction
Why are bioplastics not an alternative to petroleum-based plastic?
First of all, you have to be careful not to look only at the raw material, but at the entire life cycle of a product. For many plastic alternatives, renewable raw materials from nature are used, but usually much more energy is needed for processing or transport. Electricity comes from an energy mix and this currently includes fossil fuels. In Germany, this share is around 50%. This means that coal, gas and oil are burned or nuclear energy is used to produce, recycle or transport glass or paper. We can therefore only ban plastic once we have achieved the energy turnaround.
Bioplastics are often a big deception for consumers. On the one hand, there are biobased plastics and on the other hand biodegradable plastics. A very small proportion of bio-based material is sufficient to allow a plastic to be advertised as "bioplastic". Instead of petroleum, starch is often used here, which is often obtained from potatoes or maize. This means that in order to avoid petroleum-based plastics, we need agricultural land, which, however, we need for food production and which is already far too scarce.
In addition, the decomposition times of biodegradable plastics are too long for industrial composting. Therefore, they end up in incineration. Contrary to popular belief, plastic does not require that much petroleum. In Europe, only 1,5% of the petroleum demand is for plastic production in the packaging sector. Around 31% is used for transport, including passenger transport. These proportions are totally absurd.
Source & Copyright by WasteReduction
Is it true that most of our recycling waste ends up in the incinerator?
Yes, that's true. This is mainly because of the large number of different plastics. Many plastics may look similar, but due to many invisible additives, the formulation is very different. This means that when you melt down different plastic parts, you cannot achieve the same properties again. However, these additives are very useful in the application and cause, for example, the antistatic property of a mobile phone cover. The challenge in plastic recycling therefore lies in the diversity of the material. In addition, food residues are interfering materials when they are melted down, which makes the recycling process more complex and thus expensive.
All this means that recycling costs more than using new plastic. In addition, there is the aspect of deterioration in quality, which makes recycled plastic unattractive for further processing. In Germany, about 50% of plastic waste is incinerated. However, there will be stricter recycling regulations in the EU in the future. We can all help to increase the recycling rate by pre-sorting the packaging. This means taking the aluminium lid off the yoghurt completely or unscrewing the lid from the drinks carton.
In which areas is plastic indispensable and where should it be avoided at all costs?
Plastic is sterile and elastic, which is why it is difficult to replace in the medical field. For example, in medical masks, gloves or protective suits. On the other hand, plastic offers certain barrier properties that protect products particularly well. This is very important for medicines and food. It makes products last longer and leads to less food waste. Around 40% of plastics in Europe are actually used for packaging. This is the largest sector. About 20% is used in the construction industry. It is often used to insulate buildings, which in turn is climate-friendly.
Just under 12% is consumed by the textile industry. I personally take a very critical view of this. First of all, microfibres are released during processing and wearing, which can be inhaled and are probably very harmful to health. The extent of this is not yet fully known, but it has been proven to lead to a greatly increased rate of cancer among seamstresses. Secondly, plastic fibres dissolve during washing and this leads to a huge microplastic input into the environment, as sewage treatment plants cannot filter them out. In Germany alone, around 9000 tonnes of microfibres per year end up on German fields via wastewater or sewage sludge. This is very alarming.
If you are interested in testing your knowledge about waste or learning more about the compensation projects, you can expand your knowledge here.