The new German Packaging Law is keeping exporters busy and this was clearly visible at IPM. Many growers were showing environmentally-friendly alternatives for plastic packaging at the recent international plant fair in Essen. However, it seems like the ultimate replacement hasn’t been found yet.
By Hans Neefjes and Arie-Frans Middelburg
The demand for sustainable alternatives for sleeves, trays and other packaging materials has surged. The worldwide discussion about plastic soup in the oceans is a clear signal; we must change the way we go about packaging.
Another driver behind the increased attention for sustainability is the new German ‘Verpackungsgesetz’, which came into force on 1 January 2019. Germany is a large importer of plants and flowers. Under the new law, the party that brings packaged products across the German border is obliged to pay for the waste processing. It applies to all packaging that will be thrown away by the consumer, including sleeves, garden-plant pots, labels and plant supports. It doesn’t apply to products that the consumer will use for as long as the plant lives, like with indoor plants.
It initially seems like the new packaging law won’t have too much of an effect on growers, as they are often not the ones who ship their products across the border. Except for the few growers who use their own lorries to supply their German customers, as well as the foreign growers who supply to the Veiling Rhein-Maas auction.
Some people at IPM pointed out that the German call for greener packaging isn’t completely new. They mentioned, for example, Grüne Punkt. A system that was founded in 1990 and grew into a leading provider of take-back systems. What exactly has been the impact of Grüne Punkt on our sector, wondered some of the fair attendants in Essen.
The new Packaging Law will affect traders the most, as they are usually the party that brings the plants and flowers across the border. Growers and traders who transport plants and/or flowers across the German border must register with the Zentrale Stelle, the central governmental organisation that brings together all recycling companies. In addition, they must register with one of the nine recycling companies in Germany. They are the ones responsible for collecting the packaging from the consumer and for recycling it. At the time of the registration, companies must estimate how many kilograms of waste they’ll bring on the market.
Agreement with customer
Coming up with a good estimate can be tricky, says Marcel van der Mark. He is an account manager with Bloom and supplies to retailers. “Some customers have more than one supplier, which means that their purchases from us can be quite irregular.” So, the company can only give an estimate in the beginning of the year and they must report the actual number of kilograms by the end of that year. Not registering with the Zentrale Stelle and a recycling company can lead to high fines.
Some of Bloom’s customers collect the trade in the Netherlands themselves. In those cases, nothing changes. “But if we deliver, we are the ones who bring the flowers across the border. In that case, we must register with the relevant authorities and pay for waste processing”, says Van der Mark. However, he continued, it is also possible to sign an agreement with the customer, stating that the customer will register on behalf of Bloom.
Van der Mark feels it might be hard for the authorities to check that everyone complies with the new packaging law. Trading company Opex is more concerned about potential overlapping; they fear that both themselves, the customers and the brokers will all end up paying for the processing of the same consumer waste. Opex would prefer European-wide approach, for example by imposing a fee on the packaging industry.
Growers have been looking for environmentally-friendly packaging for a while. Inspired by the German Packaging Law or not. This was visible at IPM too. Companies from the Netherlands like Aardse Orchids, Stolk Flora, Air so Pure, Roma nova and GreenBalanZ all exhibited sustainable plant packaging and accessories, such as trays made of pulp, labels made of paper, clips of PLA and sleeves made of paper and PLA.
There are some drawbacks to the use of some of these packaging materials, though. If you use a sleeve that’s entirely made of paper, you can’t see the plant. A paper sleeve with an opening might be a solution. Or a small, plastic window, like some bread bags have. In accordance with the Packaging Law, 5% of the weight of your packaging can be plastic.
An important requirement for any alternative packaging material is that it still prevents damage to the product. It should also be easy to apply. PLA covers, which are made using corn, have already been banned by some retailers, because they consider corn a food product that should be used to feed people.
Furthermore, biodegradable plastic still looks like plastic. That’s very confusing for consumers when it comes to separating their waste and understanding what’s sustainable and what isn’t. Many people also questioned to what extent paper is an environmentally-friendly material. Think for example about how it’s produced and what’s involved in the recycling process?
Trays made of pulp or cardboard are hot, according to manufacturers like Modiform. More and more growers and traders have switched to these. They’re almost as strong as plastic. Perhaps a bit tricky when it comes to watering, but if it’s just for transport, those sustainable trays are an excellent alternative. The disadvantage of using pulp and cardboard pots during cultivation is that it increases chances of fungal growth. Which, in turn, reduces the ornamental value of the plants.
Erik Willemse of flower-bulb nursery Roma Nova exhibited bulb flowers in biodegradable pots. “We’re only using this for 3% of our turnover so far, but our German customers are very enthusiastic.”
Another obstacle for using environmentally-friendly alternatives is that they can be up to 40% more expensive than the plastic variants. Who’s going to pay the additional costs?
However, both suppliers and growers feel that the additional costs play hardly any role for a concept that’s going to generate extra turnover on the shop floor. But selling the added value will still take some time and effort.