Stacked cucumbers wrapped in plastic

Sustainable packaging

When is plastic sensible?

Cardboard is not always the most environmentally friendly packaging, and plastic often makes sense as a packaging material. Seven examples from everyday life.

Sabina Galbiati and Nina Huber
What we do

Packaging is a must - almost always - because it makes products transportable and in the case of food, the right packaging can prevent food waste. This is hugely important because spoiled food has a much greater impact on the environment than packaging that protects vegetables, cereals or meat. To put things into perspective: according to the life cycle assessment company ESU-Services, the necessary packaging in the food sector accounts for only two percent of the environmental impact. The production, processing or transport of food has a much greater impact on the environment. It is therefore important to protect food from spoilage.

And which packaging is best for the environment?

Consumers can follow a simple rule of thumb: the lighter the packaging or the more often it can be used or recycled, the more environmentally friendly it is. This is not only true for food.

Fruits and vegetables

Washable reusable fruit bags are a great way to avoid packaging altogether for vegetables and fruits. Nevertheless, they are not always the best choice. Because the plastic packaging protects fruits such as berries from getting squashed or vegetables from going bad too quickly.

The higher the water content of a vegetable, the more the right plastic packaging extends its shelf life. For example, depending on the transport distance from the field to the store alone, unpackaged cucumbers generate up to eight times more food waste than packaged cucumbers, because they become rubbery and are therefore no longer saleable - although the plastic packaging adds just 1.5 to 2 grams.

Crisps and snacks

To stay crispy and fresh, crisps require a so-called protective atmosphere: often, nitrogen gassing ensures that the chips do not become soft. Oxygen would quickly make the fat in the crisps go rancid. Therefore, a common process is to remove the oxygen from the pack after filling and to add nitrogen.

The plastic packaging with a super-thin layer of aluminium (0.1 percent of the film thickness) ensures that nitrogen, frying fat and aroma stay in the bag, while at the same time allowing as little oxygen and water vapour as possible to penetrate.

The layer of air also serves as a buffer during transport and ensures that the thin crisps don’t crumble on their way from production to the store and from there to the customer’s home. In recent years, the packaging has been made lighter and thinner to reduce waste.

Meat products

Meat and sausage products packaged in plastic can be stored four to six times longer than unpackaged meat, namely up to twelve days. In the case of meat, packaging accounts for only two percent of the environmental impact of the entire product. Precisely because meat already generates many emissions during production, it is all the more important to protect the end product well and to avoid food waste with the help of packaging.

Wherever possible, part of the packaging is made from renewable raw materials. This proportion has been greatly increased in Migros’ meat packaging in recent years.

Cereals and muesli

Plastic packaging is significantly lighter and requires less material than cardboard packaging. In the case of rice in a plastic bag, the difference is particularly significant: the plastic bag weighs seven grams for one kilo of rice. The carton, on the other hand, weighs in at a hefty 45 to 50 grams of material. This means the carton consumes around six to seven times more packaging.

Paper would of course also be a light and recyclable material, but rice, pulses and muesli are much coarser than flour, for example. This means that there is a greater risk that the paper will be damaged, which in turn results in more food waste.

Shower gel and laundry detergent

There are practical refill bags for numerous detergents and cleaning agents, as well as for soap, shampoo and shower gel. Depending on their size, they replace one or two plastic bottles.

The refill bag for the Handy washing-up liquid weighs 24 grams and holds 1.5 litres. This is equivalent to two bottles of 40 grams of material and 0.75 litres of content. The bag saves 70 percent packaging. By the way: shower gel, shampoo and soap are also available from Migros in solid form and entirely without plastic packaging.

Sun cream

Sun cream is applied directly to the skin and all over the body and is usually used for a long time. It is therefore extremely important for health reasons that it is not contaminated and that it is packaged in a sealed container. To protect the contents even once the packaging has been opened and, conversely, to prevent it from leaking unintentionally, it needs a reclosable cap that is easy to use, in the case of Sun Look solved with a hinged lid.

The bottle must be light, compact and stable as it is often carried in the swimming bag or in a hiking backpack. Plastic fulfils all these requirements for packaging best. By the way: the bottle of Sun-Look sun cream is made of 96 percent recycled plastic.

Carbonated drinks

There are various packaging options for beverages with different properties:

Drinks cartons, for instance, mostly consist of renewable raw materials, which makes ecological sense. However, it is not possible to store fizzy drinks in them: the internal pressure from the carbon dioxide would be too great and would inflate the package.

A PET bottle, in contrast, preserves carbon dioxide well, and its environmental footprint is comparable to that of a beverage carton - even though it is usually made of petroleum-based PET. The PET cycle works extremely well in Switzerland: the quality of the recyclate is so high that new bottles can be produced from up to 100 percent recycled PET.

Glass can also be recycled well. So would glass be a better option than PET? No! For one thing, a glass bottle is many times heavier than a PET bottle. This high material consumption is a burden on the environment. Moreover, it takes a lot of energy to melt down a glass bottle for recycling.

And finally, there’s the aluminium can: It also preserves the sparkling air bubbles well - at least as long as it remains closed. Unlike the can, the PET bottle can be resealed. This way, the drink will keep longer.